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Best Books of 2008, Part Two

In part two of the NewWest.Net/Books Best Books of 2008 list, I’ll discuss my favorite books set in Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, and other Western states.


One of my favorite books set in Oregon actually was published late last year, but I didn’t get to mention it in last year’s best books list. Benjamin Percy’s short story collection Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 249 pages, $15) makes the landscape of central Oregon come alive, enhancing the mystery and brutality of the characters. The title story (which won the Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review and earned a spot in the Best American Short Stories 2006) conveys searing authenticity, brutal energy, and a pitch-perfect dramatization of the impact of the Iraq war on communities that are losing their parents to combat. This year, Percy won a $50,000 Whiting Award for his work. (Check out my interview with Percy from earlier this year.)

Oregon’s Floyd Skloot reconstructs his early life in spite of a virus that left him with memory impairment in his latest memoir, the poignant The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (University of Nebraska Press, 231 pages, $24.95). Skloot did extensive detective work to piece together his childhood, listening to old songs, watching old movies, rereading books, and re-experiencing everything he could that might spark a memory. Through these essays, which are honest, funny, self-deprecating, and deeply introspective without being egocentric, he emerges as an endearing character.

A selection of Oregon artist Michael Brophy’s haunting recent oil paintings are collected in Here There Nowhere: Paintings by Michael Brophy (Oregon State University Press, 49 pages, $25). Brophy has a reputation for depicting the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest after humans have altered it, though as Jonathan Raban notes in his introduction, Brophy usually doesn’t including humans in his paintings. Although Brophy’s paintings can be interpreted as bearing an environmental message, they can just as easily be appreciated simply for their use of color and light.


For some reason last year, I didn’t come across any books set in Utah. This year made up for that with plenty of good reads from the Beehive State. The Mormon religion is the common theme that binds the first three of my four picks for Utah.

Effigy (St. Martin’s Press, 342 pages, $25.95), Alissa York’s fascinating, accomplished novel set largely in Utah territory in 1867, transports the reader to Mormon ranch where the four wives of Erastus Hammer pursue their separate destinies within the strictures placed on them by their marriages and their society. Taxidermy, silkworms, and traveling circuses all play important roles in this surprising story.

Those looking for a more contemporary Utah story should try Jana Richman’s novel The Last Cowgirl (William Morrow, 294 pages, $24.95). The narrator, Dickie Sinfield, is forced against her will to become a cowgirl at age eight, when her father moves the family from the fictional Ganoa to an isolated ranch. The move has lifelong implications for Dickie, who we join again in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The Last Cowgirl is an engaging and good-humored read that shows how profoundly a person can be shaped by the landscape in which they grow up, whether they want to be or not. I interviewed Richman about her book earlier this year.

For nonfiction set in Utah this year, I recommend Amy Irvine’s Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land (North Point Press, 361 pages, $25), an unusual hybrid that combines memoir, natural history, Western history, anthropology, and an examination of the Mormon religion. Irvine’s personal tale begins during a time of turmoil, after her estranged, alcoholic father has committed suicide, she has ended her first marriage, and decides to move from Salt Lake City to San Juan County in southern Utah be near her lover, Herb, and to live amid the red-rock desert that she loves. Although the natural landscape proves to be as inspiring as she had expected, the inhabitants of the area are less than hospitable to newcomers.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Erin Hogan’s romp through the land art of the American West, The Sprial Jetta (University of Chicago Press, 180 pages, $20), in which she details her quest to visit such artworks as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Utah and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico. I recently interviewed Hogan about her journey.


Three books that each illustrate how rough it can be to scratch out a living in Wyoming make my list as the best of the year from the Cowboy State.

First, Annie Proulx returned this fall with her third book of Wyoming short stories, Fine Just the Way it Is (Scribner, 240 pages, $25). She says it will be her last, which is unfortunate, because the book includes several tales that are masterpieces on par with her best-known tale, “Brokeback Mountain,” and one, “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” that has to be in early contention for status as a classic of America’s Iraq war period. Proulx’s prose has never been better, infused with a specificity of landscape and emotion and marked by distinctive yet clear diction, such as in one story when a cowhand who was being unusually chatty and helpful realized it and “grouched up.”

Next, I want to mention Wyoming-based, Zimbabwe-born writer Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (The Penguin Press, 202 pages, $23.95), a moving, poetic portrait of a charismatic Evanston, Wyoming man who died in February 2006 when he fell off the oil rig where he was working. Through her affectionate portrayal, Fuller makes readers fall in love with Bryant, carries us through his short life, which leads inevitably to a dangerous job on an oil rig, and makes us stand as witnesses to his end, however much we wish we could turn away. I interviewed Fuller about the process of writing the book.

Finally, for a slightly more upbeat, yet still hardscrabble story from Wyoming, try Margot Kahn’s Horses That Buck (University of Oklahoma Press, 194 pages, $24.95), a biography of Bill Smith, who grew up in Bearcreek, Montana in 1941, moved to Cody, Wyoming as a teenager, and after many years of failure, broken bones, and living out of his car, rose to become a three-time World Champion Saddle Bronc rider.

Other Western States

One of my favorite novels this year, Dagoberto Gilb’s The Flowers (Grove Press, 250 pages, $24), takes place in an apartment building in urban California. Gilb’s winning narrator, a 15-year-old Mexican-American named Sonny Bravo, speaks in a distinctive patois that mixes in the lax English grammar of teenagers (“anyways”), Spanish (“Qué guapo es my little man!”), and even some French, which Sonny is studying as a lark. The result is an inventive language that sounds like that of today’s YouTubed American youth. Filled with humor and visceral and evocative descriptions of urban life, this could be Gilb’s best book yet. Earlier this year, I interviewed Gilb about how he came up with Sonny Bravo and other aspects of the book.

The last book I want to mention in this year’s list is True Grit (The Overlook Press, 224 pages, $14.95), Charles Portis’ 1968 Western classic that celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year. If you’ve never read it, there’s no time like the present to meet the irresistible narrator, Mattie Ross, who sets out to “avenge her father’s blood” with the outlaw tracker Rooster Cogburn.

About Jenny Shank

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  1. A great list, Jenny. I recently found Annie Proulx’ s novel “That Old Ace in the Hole” set in Oklahoma, and sat down with it for what turned into a four hour read a thon- it is a wonderful book, as is what I have read of “Fine the Way It Is” – “Tits Up in a Ditch” was in the New Yorker, and, although the New Yorker is probably America’s best magazine right now, the Proulx story seemed to almost burn up the pages – its clarity, the landscape, and the people in it, just made the measured, sophisticated rest of that issue of the magazine seem bleached out. It was like the Doolin Gang walking into an afternoon white glove tea-party literary discussion.

    I have not read ‘Colton H. Bryant,” but anybody who enjoys that one must go back to Fuller’s first two books – no one has written Africa wilder or better. Both books are a roller coaster ride through a wild life observed and written by an unflinching master with a harsh sense of humor.

    And anybody who thinks they know “True Grit” because they saw the movie and remember the rattlesnakes should grab the book-
    The movie is pretty good, but John Wayne overwhelmed the story (you can’t think of Rooster Cogburn without thinking of John Wayne, which is a shame, because the book’s Rooster character is not really like John Wayne) and everything moves too slowly, and worst of all, it’s filmed in Colorado or Canada, when the real story is the wild Oklahoma Territories, and the marshals that roamed them. Seems that when a movie maker can’t be bothered to be true to the landscape of a book (Cold Mountain was filmed in eastern Europe, when the whole book was about the Smokies, and the ruined its power, the latest Jesse James movie was filmed in frozen Canada, when the anarchic forests and edge of the plains Missouri was what those outlaws were all about)

    Charles Portis’ book is full of the unexpected, in every way, and it is howlingly funny. It is a shame that the movie eclipsed it so. His books “Norwaood” and “Dog of the South” are both hilarious classics, too.

  2. Jenny,
    Great to read your voice again. How’s the family? I hope all is well and sleep is sufficient if not abundant.
    I’m always a year or decade behind so, not good at year end recommendations. However, I have to agree whole heartedly and, I do mean heart, with your support of Alexander Fuller’s book. My God, what a beautiful, sad, important (yes, important on so many levels) and heartfelt story of Colton H. Bryant. Just stunning.
    Also, I haven’t read Why I Came West by Rick Bass yet, but I wanted to mention it so I could irritate Skinner.
    Also, wondering when we might get a review on Stephen Graham Jones? His Ledfeather was published in aught eight and he sure is an interesting young writer. Of course, while the novel looks great I haven’t read it yet. Like I said, I’m a little behind, still reading Sandoz and DeVoto. But following two cheap beers and a glass of good wine I did read the first few pages and then onto his website. Guy is funny and talented and unique. Looking forward to Ledfeather. Probably get it done by, oh mid-century or so.

  3. Another book that came out last year that blew me away was Barbara Richard’s “Dancing on his Grave.” It is the story of her family being raised in some of Montana’s hardest country, south of Wolf Point – her father was, as Ms. Richards decscribes him on her website (http://www.dancingonhisgrave.com/pages/maps.html)
    a “narcissistic sociopath.” And how. The book is absolutely harrowing – and in a super brutal way, a story of redemption, which saves it from being almost too rough to read.

    I’m a big fan of Evelyn Cameron’s photography, and have spent hours looking at the old landscapes of eastern Montana, and the faces of the settlers and transients – while I was reading Ms. Richard’s book, I realized that she was telling some of the stories you only glimpse the edge of in those photos- people fighting for survival on homesteads in a dry cold country, unspeakable cruelties and madness sometimes a part of that struggle. If you’ve ever driven that country in McCone County, you’ll see it with a completely different eye after reading Ms. Richard’s book, imagining what it would be like to be trapped there, in the 1950;s and early 60’s, so far from everything, living under the rule of a capricious and murderous abuser.

    It is a great story.

  4. Hi Michael & Hal,

    Thanks for your additions to the reading list. My family is doing well–my son was born on November 8, and we are enjoying him, though my 2-year-old daughter is still a little skeptical of him. I hope to be back reading and writing about books again regularly in January.

    Hal, your mention of Evelyn Cameron reminds me of another book I enjoyed this year–a collection of her photography that I reviewed way back in January:


    Thanks again for sharing your ideas, and happy reading.