Today I continue my list of the 25 best books in the West for 2010 with books set in Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, and other western states, and books that roam throughout the region. Please add your favorite Western books of the year in the comments. If you leave a comment with your favorite book (or anything else you’d like to say) by Sunday, December 12, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a copy of one of the best books in the West this year, The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. Check back Wednesday I’ll announce my picks for the top six books of 2010 set in the West.
My two favorite books from Oregon this year are both by young writers raised in the high desert of central Oregon near Bend.
River House (Tin House Books, 272 pages, $16.95) is the searchingly honest memoir of a young woman struck with an unconventional dream: After college and years of world travel, Sarahlee Lawrence decides she wants to build her own log house on the high desert ranch in central Oregon where she was raised. This is nonfiction, but Lawrence’s life provided her the material of a classic, woman-vs.-nature drama that makes this a transfixing read. Even if the closest you’ve ever come to building a house involved the use of Lincoln Logs, you’ll be taken in by River House.
Benjamin Percy‘s first novel The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $23) tells the gripping story of a man, his father, and his son taking one last hunting trip into a wooded canyon near Bend that’s slated to be razed for development. I wrote for the Dallas Morning News, “Every scene in The Wilding is rife with tension, and before it ends, rumors of Bigfoot swirl, irate townsfolk menace, Karen faces temptation and danger, and a bear gives Jaws a run for his money. The story of a man going into the woods and coming out changed is a classic narrative that has persisted from the time of ancient myth through Faulkner’s “The Bear” and James Dickey’s Deliverance. The Wilding follows in this tradition and updates it with great skill.”
I didn’t come across many books written by Utah writers this year. (If you’ve read a good 2010 Utah book, please add it to the comments.) Luckily, there was one fantastic book set in Utah this year.
I adored The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (W.W. Norton & Company, 602 pages, $26.95), a big, funny novel that tells the story of Golden Richards, a stressed-out husband to four wives and father of 28 children, living in a polygamist community in Utah and commuting to Nevada to oversee the construction of a brothel, which he tells his wives is a senior center. Richards is struggling to make enough money to support his family, survive the political squabbles between his wives, and to resist succumbing to the temptations of his boss’s lovely wife. As I wrote for the Dallas Morning News, “The Lonely Polygamist is an absorbing, moving, entertaining novel that will transport the reader into Golden’s chaotic world, making most other lives seem calm by comparison.”
In her remarkable debut memoir, Claiming Ground (Knopf, 239 pages, $24.95), Cody’s Laura Bell offers up exquisite snapshots from her life spent working as a sheepherder, ranch hand, forest ranger, and masseuse. Bell writes with grace and flint, transmitting beauty and hard-won insights through her transfixing prose.
David Abrams wrote that C.J. Box’s Nowhere to Run (Putnam, 368 pages, $25.95), the latest in his Joe Pickett mystery series, includes “some of Box’s best writing to date… In this book, Joe Pickett finds that one of his hardest struggles is trying to see through the mist in his eyes. By the time the last page is turned, that conflict—kill or be killed—will have shaken him to the core and he will emerge from the wilderness a changed man.”
In the story collection Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press, 192 pages, $15), Alyson Hagy explores how in Wyoming, the past overlaps with the present. The rough frontier that she writes of in “The Sin Eaters,” set in 1889, seems to have plenty in common with the oil rig-riddled Wyoming of today, in which Hagy sets the story “Oil & Gas.” Throughout many of the stories, details about the Arapaho and other tribes that settled the area first set a somber tone underneath the main narrative. With the stories in “Ghosts of Wyoming,” Alyson Hagy makes a convincing case that restless and unquiet spirits haunt her home state. Or maybe it’s just the wind.
Brian Leung’s heartfelt second novel, Take Me Home (Harper, $24.99), is set in the rough mining town of Dire, Wyoming, where an improbable love affair develops between a white woman and a Chinese man. I wrote for the Dallas Morning News: “Leung’s writing is so clear and lovely and his characters are so well-realized that he convinces the reader that the improbable attraction between Wing and Addie wasn’t impossible, and the character of Wing speaks eloquently for thousands of Chinese miners whose voices are lost to history.”
Other Western States & Regional Books
David Bajo’s arresting second novel Panopticon (Unbridled Books, 384 pages, $29.95) set on the California-Mexico border, follows the journalist Aaron Klinsman as he chases three mysterious assignments during his last week on the job before the newspaper he works for is to print its final issue. With Panopticon, Bajo has constructed a story that addresses a range of thorny contemporary issues—such as the relentless killings of young women in Juárez, the increasing use of cameras to capture people’s public and private lives, with and without their consent, and young people who live their lives through their devices—without the book ever becoming a lecture on these topics. Panopticon converts the wonderful and horrible particulars of life near the border into a remarkable story and a true work of art.
The anthology New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 550 pages, $24), edited by Lowell Jaeger, is a rich compilation of poems set in our region, such as these excerpts from Idaho, Colorado, and Montana poets that New West featured earlier this year.
My favorite graphic novel this year is Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection, edited by Matt Dembicki (Fulcrum Books, $22.95, 232 pages). The book pairs trickster tales featuring coyotes, rabbits, wolves, and other creatures as told by Native American storytellers and illustrated by talented artists. Trickster appeals to people of all ages as it introduces Native American trickster tales to an audience who might not have otherwise encountered them.
Eric Jay Dolin’s Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (W.W. Norton & Company, 442 pages, $29.95) explores how American expansion into the West was fueled by the fur trade. Packed with intriguing anecdotes, Fur, Fortune and Empire serves as a fur-focused refresher course on American history that will have readers reconsidering the powerful role the fur trade played in swaying in our nation’s history.
My favorite book of Western photography this year is Doug Rhinehart’s gorgeous Desert Adagio (People’s Press, $25). Doug Rhinehart uses a large-format 4X5 view camera to create black-and-white prints the old-fashioned way, working in a darkroom whose ambiance he describes as “akin to being in a dimly lit cave.” Without the striking colors of the desert, Rhinehart’s images make the viewer focus on form and contrast, and take note of the astonishing shapes that rock, water, light, and sand produce.
Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West by Marcia Meredith Hensley (High Plains Press, 304 pages, $19.95), offers a radically different vision of the homesteader: a single woman, unmarried either due to lack of interest or opportunity, traveling by train out to the West in the early 1900’s, and taking up claims in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and other western states. The book is packed with vivid tales of single women homesteaders’ exhausting, satisfying experiences, as expressed through memoirs, letters, newspaper articles, and government data.
Sam Shepard’s Day Out of Days (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $24.95) is a refreshingly odd collection of stories centered around several recurrent characters who drift down the highway, most often fetching up in the American West in places such as Williams and Kingman, Arizona, Taos, New Mexico, Quanah and Seminole, Texas, and Livingston and Butte, Montana. Day out of Days is a road trip of the spirit through the American West, a book that should cure anyone’s mental rut with its quirky tales and unexpected observations. In this collection, Sam Shepard has proved himself an enormously inventive writer, working in territory that seems familiar, but that proves to be surprising and revelatory.
Check back tomorrow, when I’ll announce my picks for the best six books in the West of 2010.