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.