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Terrell's Suggested Reading List for the Western USA

When planning my driving trip from Seattle to Dallas in the spring of 2007, I set myself the goal of reading one book by an author who lived in each state I was passing through. I started reading before the drive and didn't finish until well after, but I enjoyed the literary connection to the country.

Washington

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson This novel set on a fictional island near Seattle (although the author's notes make it clear that he drew on the history of Bainbridge Island) describes the racial tensions after the Japanese internments of World War II in the context of a murder trial. The writing, particularly the descriptions of the land, the sea and the “look” of the people, is very good. And I really like the way he conveyed the postwar sense of us vs. them. Living in Seattle these days, you still see reminders of what was done to the Japanese community here. Our famous Pike Place Market used to have many Japanese vendors. They not only lost their places when they were interned during the war, they never regained them when they returned to Seattle. There are still no Japanese greengrocers in the Market. I did think the end of the novel was a little abrupt and pat but it sent a good message. If you’re looking for a book club book and you’ve never done this one, there’s a lot of material for discussion. Buy it here.

Oregon

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk Well, I'm going to break the first rule here and talk about Fight Club. What a great book.  The only thing it has to do with Oregon is show what a vibrant, scintillating literary scene is happening here. Chuck lives in Portland and shows up at a lot of the local book-related happenings. I met him a couple of years ago at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Convention. He is definitely odd but, man, can this guy write. The concept of the novel is original and brilliant (if you don't already know, I won't spoil it by telling you) but the best thing about this book is the way Chuck gets things on the page. And you got to love the way he can make you laugh at things that are really sick and twisted. I’d catch myself laughing out loud and then think, “wait, should that be funny?” Yeah, whatever, it was good. Buy it here.

Idaho

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson Robinson doesn't live in Idaho anymore but she did grow up near Sandpoint. I've got to admit that I appear to be one of the few readers in America who didn't really love this book. It was nominated for the Pulitzer when it came out in 1981 (a prize she won for her second novel, Gilead) and people started calling it an "instant classic" soon after publication. Maybe that's what put me off the book. I hate that term. Anyway, the writing is undeniably beautiful and I love a lot of the imagery but the characters are just a little too eccentric to suit my taste. Although given how much I liked the title I picked for Oregon, perhaps it's just that the eccentricity is too freaky female for me. I don't seem to mind weird guys. Buy it here.

Utah

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy A bookseller friend of mine from the Elliott Bay Book Co. recommended this book when she heard I would be traveling through Utah. Meloy was a Utah resident until her sudden  death in 2006. In Eating Stone, she details the events and thoughts of a year spent closely observing a band of bighorn sheep. As with many nature essay books, she has at least as many thoughts about people as she has about nature, but I think that the best writing in the book is when she describes the sheep and their habitat. One of the themes that she returns to throughout the book is that without the wild and, in particular, wild animals, humans lose an essential part of themselves. I was really struck by her observation that children instinctively connect with animals, even if it's only toys or pictures in books. There's some wonderful writing in this book but I must say that I would occasionally find Meloy's train of thought difficult to follow as her meditations skipped around the desert. Buy it here.

 

Colorado

Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston Pam seems to be  exactly the kind of woman that I am not. She's a serious outdoorswoman, loves dogs and horses, has done some extreme risk taking, and--judging from these stories--is attracted to guys that I would have no hesitation kicking out the door. I do like her writing, although I find it a little repetitive. I don't mean that as a harsh criticism. I just mean that by the time I got to the last of the stories in this collection, I was thrilled that the story was about a woman instead of a man. If I had been reading any of the stories by itself, I would have thought it was great, but twelve tales of dating yet another unavailable guy gets old. In fact, my two favorite stories were the one about going winter camping on skis with two dogs (something I wouldn't do if you paid me) and the one about the new age girlfriend dying of cancer (usually a flashing negative warning sign for me). I plan to read some more of her work if only to find out why this forty-something New Jersey native has chosen to live alone at 9000 feet in the Colorado mountains. Buy it here.

New Mexico

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya I've been meaning to read this classic of Chicano literature for about a hundred years, so this seemed the perfect opportunity. Anaya has lived in New Mexico all his life and was a professor at the University of New Mexico until he retired in 1993. This is a strong and beautiful book about the interplay of cultures in the Southwest played out in the life of an innocent little boy. I can certainly see why this book shows up in high school lit curriculums. The religious themes reminded me a little of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I really like the way he incorporates Spanish into the narrative. I always thought New Mexico was closer in touch with its Mexican heritage while Texas and Arizona were pretty much in denial. Buy it here.

Texas

 A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey OK, this one is cheating a little bit since I read this book when it first came out in the 70s. Hailey wrote the book about her grandmother who was a contemporary and, well--not exactly friend, of my grandmother. Many of Bess' experiences (she's the main character) parallel my grandmother's: growing up in a small town and then moving to Dallas, her marriage, the club memberships. Rereading it was a good way to remind myself of a lot of Dallas history and family history as well. The story is written as a series of letters which is a difficult style to do well but this is one case where it succeeds beautifully. Buy it here

 

Other Books for the Trip

The National Geographic Adventure Road Atlas My favorite atlas and the one I used for this trip was this classic from National Geographic. I like this particular atlas because I find the color scheme of the maps easy to read, I've found the cartography to be accurate, the spiral binding keeps the page open where I want it, and the sturdy plastic cover stands up to hard usage. Unfortunately, they only released it once and haven't updated in in several years so you'd be better off choosing a newer one. See my article about road trips for a discussion on choosing a road atlas. I think that the American Map Company 2010 Road Atlas is going to be my replacement atlas. It shares most of the qualities that I like about the National Geographic. Buy it here.

 

Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen I wouldn't think of making a major road trip without consulting Jamie's book. This guide to two-lane adventures through the USA has loads of essential information even if you're not planning to follow one of his itineraries. The author is a regular guest on Rick Steves' radio show, so you know that he's highly thought of in the world of travel experts. Buy it here.

 

Compass American Guides by Fodor's I'm not a big fan of Fodor's regular travel guides. I find them a little boring, frankly. But this series of color commentary site guides are wonderful. You get beautiful color photos, essays on history, geology, food and any thing else of interest. Generally they do one guide for each state but they'll occasionally do a specific region of a state as well. For example Washington has a state guide and a guide to the Washington Wine Country. To find the state you're interested in on the IndieBound database search, type in Compass and the name of the state.