A running list of the books I’m reading, most recent titles at the top:
- The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy – Wow. Where to start? This much-awaited novel by a living legend is a trip. Literally at times, with recurring characters that are hallucinations. Mix in high-level math and physics, McCarthy’s trademark ability to go deep into the logistics of men doing work, in this case salvage diving, and there are plenty of points in the book where I didn’t know what was going on. Re-reading passages sometimes helped. What grounds the book are some of the funniest scenes I’ve read by McCarthy, a lot of quick and witty banter, the type of conversations you wish you could have but which only happen in a book. Which is the main complaint I have with The Passenger: it feels made-up and not real, and McCarthy’s fiction has always felt real to me. All the same, I’ll be reading the companion book, Stella Maris, as soon as it comes out.
- The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter – This novel is historical fiction, set in Spokane, Washington in 1909, during a turbulent time when the labor unions were clashing with local authorities and wealthy industrialists. Some of the characters were real people, and Walter does an amazing job rounding them out and making them feel real. I’m pretty much committed to reading every book Walter puts out from now on (and I just saw that he has a new short story collection). One thing I liked about this book was how timely it is; labor unions are still under attack in this country. I belong to a teacher’s union, and I am constantly getting mailings trying to convince me to leave it. No thanks. I stand with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn!
- Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah – I read this memoir to see if it might be a good fit for our curriculum at South Eugene H.S., and I think it would be. Noah is the host of the Daily Show, and this is the story of his upbringing in South Africa, where his existence was literally illegal since people of different races weren’t allowed to have sex under apartheid. Much of the material is heavy, obviously, but given that Noah is a comedian, he balances the trauma out with plenty of humor and self-deprecation. The heart of the book is his relationship with his mother, who was tough as nails and full of love. He wouldn’t be where he is today without her, and that’s the kind of uplifting stuff we all could use more of.
- Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr – I loved Doerr’s last novel, All the Light We Cannot See, so that was all I needed to pick this one up. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a hard book to get into, and I might have quit if not for my trust based on that last book. There are three main storylines, spanning centuries and continents, which is where the challenge comes in. But as you get farther into it, you get to know the characters and their different worlds better and begin to anticipate how their storylines will merge. And that doesn’t disappoint. One thing I enjoyed was the science fiction aspect, since one of the storylines is set far in the future on a starship to another planet, and I’m always psyched to see science fiction merge with literary fiction.
- To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey – I wanted to read Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, when it came out, but I never got to it. I’ll be getting to it for sure, because this second novel is sweet. Both are set in Alaska and tap into supernatural elements. In this one, an army officer explores uncharted territory while his wife must stay back at the barracks in Vancouver, WA. This novel has a lot of similarities to another I read recently, Cold Mountain. Both feature alternating narratives between a soldier on an epic quest, navigating both nature and the locals, and his wife, forced to stay home and find her own way. While Cold Mountain was a straight back-and-forth narrative the whole time, Ivey introduces other characters and elements. It’s a thick book that I read surprisingly fast, which is always a good sign.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston – I figure every summer I need to read at least one serious work of literature that requires a little effort and isn’t just pure pleasure reading. (If I don’t get to her this summer, next summer’s pick will be Jane Austen, who I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read.) Zora Neale Hurston was a badass. I teach her short story “Sweat,” which is just awesome, and this novel, her most widely read work, has the same feminist vibe: a Black woman trying to realize her potential and take a stand for herself in a society in which the domestic status quo would have her husband control everything about her. Hurston writes with serious Black dialect, which is where the effort comes in, but as with any good literature employing dialect, it gets more doable the farther you get into it. The next Hurston book I’d like to read is her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, about her rise from the small Southern town of Eatonville, Florida (the first incorporated all-Black town in America) to the artistic heights of the Harlem Renaissance. Sadly, Hurston would later die in obscurity and poverty in Fort Pierce, Florida. Coincidentally, I just visited Fort Pierce this summer, and if I had realized she was buried there I would have made the trip. There’s an interesting story there: her grave wasn’t even identified until years after her death, when the author Alice Walker did research to find it and bring Hurston’s work back into prominence. (Dang, I just looked on Google Maps and I was just blocks away from the cemetery!)
- Summer of ’76, by Kirk Kneeland – Kirk is a friend and teaching mentor, so I was psyched to read this memoir of the cross-country bike trip he took in 1976, part of a nationwide “Bikecentennial” that happened that year. I didn’t even know Kirk did that until I heard about this book! That’s the kind of humble guy he is. The memoir takes advantage of the journals Kirk kept on the trip to give detailed accounts of the riding partners he was thrown together with and the small towns and people he experienced and met along the way. Perhaps the most potent part of the book comes in a kind of epilogue where Kirk recounts revisiting the route some 40 years later from the confines of a car and how much has changed, both in regards to small town America and himself.
- The New Wilderness, by Diane Cook – I was excited to see this on the shelf because I enjoyed Cook’s first book, the short story collection Man V. Nature (below, 2016). This novel is set in a bleak future in which everyone lives in an environmentally degraded City. A mother and her sick daughter join a study in which 20 people get to live and survive as nomadic hunters and gatherers in the last remaining wilderness. Cook leaves most of the big picture stuff fuzzy, which can be frustrating, and there is some uneven pacing with time occasionally flying by, but she’s dialed in on the day to day lives of the Community, with a focus on the strained relationship between mother and daughter. It’s definitely the kind of book I’d like to write.
- Open the Dark, by Marie Tozier – This is a book of poems that a friend gave me. Tozier is Inupiaq, from Nome, Alaska, and her poems address her tribal culture and its intersection with white culture in the arctic landscape of western Alaska. I like how these free verse poems are straightforward and spare, which reflect those arctic landscapes. She recounts family history and her people’s close connections with the plants and animals of the region. In the midst of such a cold and seemingly barren landscape, there is a fire burning inside Tozier’s poems, a defiance that she and her people not be defined by outside (white) elements.
- Legends of the North Cascades, by Jonathon Evison – This novel was recommended by a friend when I was talking about wanting to write a novel featuring early humans. The narrative alternates between a modern day family and a family from the end of the last ice age. The modern protagonist, Dave Cartwright, is an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who takes his daughter to live in a cave in the mountains of Washington state, the same cave that the family from the ice age occupied. The actual writing was a considerable drop from the high level of my last read, Cold Mountain, but I enjoyed the story, which had a lot of suspense and interesting things happening with the two storylines. It was cool to see early humans fictionalized in an original way – shades of Clan of the Cave Bear. I think the early humans I’d like to write about would be from even farther back in prehistory.
- Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier – I’d say this is the best novel I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See in 2020. It did win the National Book Award in 1997. Just amazing writing with alternating 3rd person POV of a Confederate deserter and the woman he is trying to walk home to. Frazier is a North Carolinian who captures the voices of North Carolinians from 150 years ago. The story has an Odyssean vibe to it, with all the little side encounters Inman has on his journey home from the war. It also connects to another Cold Mountain, the Buddhist hermit who wrote poems on the rocks of his mountain retreat (see below).
- The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi – I read these poems while also reading the novel, Cold Mountain (see above) once I realized there were connections between them. I’m a sucker for some hermit literature, and I especially enjoyed the Introduction that talks about the life of the poet, who this scholar believes was actually three hermit poets spread out over several hundred years. The poems are often short, haiku-ish, and it often felt like I was reading them too fast. My plan is to come back to this book, maybe at the beginning of next school year, and read one per day. There are around 300 of them. They are deep and full of wisdom, and I look forward to diving into them more.
- Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – As so often happens, this sequel didn’t quite live up to the original. It’s an important, big-hearted book, following two Latino boys in 1980’s Texas who try to figure out how to be a gay couple in a time and place where that just isn’t a public possibility. But to use a term my students often use, it’s a bit cringey. The writing sometimes feels like it was done by a parent instead of a teen, and we are often “told” instead of “shown.” There are a lot of coincidences, and at over 500 pages, the book could have been shortened by 100. That said, kids struggling with their LGBTQ identities may find a lot to latch onto here, and this sequel, like the original, is ultimately uplifting, with a great ending that helped me forget some of my gripes.
- The Best American Short Stories 2021, edited by Jesmyn Ward – I really love Jesmyn Ward, so I was happy to see she was the editor this year. Here are some of my favorites. “Biology” by Kevin Wilson – he was one of my “honorable mentions” in last year’s edition, which makes me want to pick up one of his novels or story collections. This story is about a gay man remembering an influential and supportive 8th grade teacher. It is sweet, suspenseful, and heartfelt. “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog” by David Means – maybe the best fiction I’ve ever read from the POV of an animal, in this case a dog, and yes, I’m even putting it up there against Call of the Wild! “Paradise” by Yxta Maya Murray – this one is about the wildfires in California, and it is just taught with all that drama along with the racism in a relationship between a Native American woman and her white father-in-law. Other shoutouts: “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” by Jamil Jan Kochai, “The Last Days of Rodney” by Tracey Rose Peyton, and “Switzerland” by Nicole Krauss. (Surprisingly, a story by one of my favorite authors, George Saunders, didn’t make my list. Maybe because my expectations for him have risen so high?)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. I read this soon after it came out in 2003 and again this year when I taught it for the first time. My students and I enjoyed it for the most part. The narrator, a British teenager named Christopher, is most likely on the autism spectrum, though this is never explicitly stated in the novel. While investigating the murder of a neighbor’s dog, he unravels a lot of secrets within his family. The one gripe some of us had were the lengthy tangents Christopher goes on that seemingly have little to do with his investigation. They explain who he is, though, and most of us were ready to roll with that or maybe gloss over them, especially the ones that dive deep into Christopher’s main passion – maths (as they say in England).
- Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, by Bonnie Henderson. I’ve been waiting for this book for awhile, and Henderson, from my town of Eugene, knocks it out of the park. It is a really thorough guide to hiking the 400 mile OCT, which is a dream of mine. She does a nice job balancing geographic and cultural history with a practical mile-by-mile guide for doing the walk. There are good resources for lodging, grocery stores and restaurants, and shuttle boat operators. I’d love to do a little sample walk this summer.
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson. I read this as part of a book club with some colleagues at my school and it is just a gut punch. It is a history of how the white majority in America has pushed back against the advances made by Black people, from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to the Obama and Trump presidencies. I consider myself fairly well-versed in American history, but there was so much in this book that I didn’t know, so much that explains how we have gotten to where we are today. The author, a professor at Emory University, looks closely at how all three branches of our government – executive, legislative, and judicial – have been complicit at different times in perpetuating systemic racism. One modern example I found interesting was how after Obama’s large victory over John McCain in 2010, the Republican party realized that voters of color had tipped the scales against them dramatically and immediately set out to make voting harder under the guise of claiming nonexistent voter fraud. This book was published in 2017, well before we saw Trump’s bogus voter fraud claims rise to the surface in the ugly aftermath of the 2020 election.
- Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace. Well, here is the rare example of the movie being better than the book. Tim Burton’s film adaption absolutely crushes me every time I watch it. It is just so beautiful and touching. In comparison, the book feels kind of silly and long-winded. I almost put it down about 1/4 of the way through. Luckily, the novel is pretty short, which is weird considering I just called it long-winded. Maybe I would have liked it better if I wasn’t so enamored with the movie, which I’ve seen a bunch of times and which still gets me every time. One time was enough for the book.
- Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People, by Robert and Martha Manning. I got this book from the library and had a blast reading it. This older retired couple lay out a bunch of epic walks from across six continents, most of which they’ve done while retired. I think this is the book that transitioned me from vague notions of big walks I want to do some day to practical ways of looking at them. These two for me feel like the perfect tour guides. They lay out a lot of different options with different difficulty levels. I knew I needed to buy the book after I returned it to the library, so that’s what I did, also purchasing their book, Walks of a Lifetime: Extraordinary Walks from Around the World, which was more of the same and which I enjoyed just as much. They wrote a third book that I also purchased and look forward to reading: Walks of a Lifetime in America’s National Parks. A cool extra thing about all three books is that Robert Manning took all the photographs, which for the most part are really outstanding. These are as much for the coffee table as for reading.
- On Trails, by Robert Moor. Moor completed the Appalachian Trail and kept thinking about trails, so he researched them and wrote this book. He goes all the way back to the first fossil showing movement, some kind of sea urchin type critter. What was interesting there is that the critter had probably become dislodged and was just trying to get back to a permanent resting spot. Moor examines ant trails, elephant trails, and human trails, from early prehistory to the Internet. The overarching theme is how we earth critters have both shaped the earth through our movements while also being shaped by the earth in the process. He does a nice job weaving in cool quotes and anecdotes from people like Thoreau and Han Shan, the Chinese hermit who wrote poems on rocks, and I think that book Cold Mountain, will be soon up on my list.
- Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home, by Heather “Anish” Anderson. This woman is a bad ass. After hiking the triple crown of distance trails – Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail – she tried to have a regular life by getting married and getting a job. It didn’t work. Both of those things failed and she found herself back on the PCT, this time trying to do it faster than anyone ever had. That requires her to average about 40 miles a day for two months without taking a single day off, and that is just ridiculous. Her writing isn’t anything special. She just chronicles the hike and her highs and lows on it, but that is enough. I know I’ll never do the PCT, and doing a long hike at breakneck speed has absolutely no appeal to me, but I enjoyed living vicariously through Anish for 2600 miles.
- Walking Home, by Lynn Schooler. This memoir jumped out at me from the library shelf when I was browsing for books about hiking in Alaska, where my son and I went for a fishing trip. The book is about a man from Juneau, AK whose marriage is failing and he feels in a rut trying to build a house for a failing marriage, so he decides to go on an epic wilderness adventure that involves sailing and hiking. I thought the book was just OK. He weaves in a lot of history and geology of the area that I wasn’t really interested in, and I often skipped over it to get to the adventure. The writing was just so-so. However, the bigger takeaway for me was the realization I had when getting ready to read this book. I was REALLY looking forward to it, and started thinking of other books I’ve enjoyed that feature long walks – Wild, Girl in the Woods, A Walk in the Woods – and it re-emphasized my own desire to do some long walks. I’ve mentioned the Oregon Coast Trail in this blog, and I’ve recently discovered the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a 500 mile Christian pilgrimage. Then there are some cool inn to inn walks you can do in England where they transport your luggage for you. I’ve just been psyched to start thinking about all these big adventures I’m going to have in the next 10 years and then after I retire.
- Everyday People: The Color of Life – A Short Story Anthology, edited by Jennifer Baker. I read this collection for possible use as curriculum at South Eugene High School. I enjoyed it and definitely think it would make good teaching material. There is a lot of racial diversity among the characters and authors, who for the most part reflect the backgrounds and experiences of the stories’ protagonists. Three of the stories include LGBTQ themes. Here are a few of my favorite stories in the anthology. “Mine” by Alexander Chee – a gay Korean American man returns to his small hometown and wrestles with the ramifications of his sexual orientation and high school experiences. “If a Bird Can be a Ghost” by Allison Mills – in the wake of her mother’s death, a Native American girl learns how to communicate with ghosts from her grandmother. “Surrender” by Hasanthika Sirisena – a well-intentioned father returns to his home country of Sri Lanka and messes things up with comic effect.
- Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway – This novel, published nine years after Hemingway’s death, was recommended in an issue of Saltwater Sportsman because of its good fishing action. I have loved teaching The Old Man and the Sea these last five years, and I’m always up for some Hemingway, so I gave it a go. The fishing scene is epic, and very reminiscent of the battle in The Old Man and the Sea, but it’s a small part of the novel. There were times when I wanted to stop reading this book because of what seemed like self-indulgent tangents, and I did gloss over one long scene set in a bar, but there were other moments of profound and insightful writing. So the book for me was kind of a mixed bag, kind of like Hemingway himself, but I’m glad I read it.
- The Best American Short Stories 2020, edited by Curtis Sittenfeld – I try to read this every year, a great way to discover new authors. I’m not sure why I haven’t included it in previous years’ lists below. Here are my top picks from this edition. “The Hands of Dirty Children” by Alejandro Puyana – narrated by a street kid in Caracas, Venezuela, this story is powerful, poignant, and heartbreaking. “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek – narrated by an ancient Chinese demon who marries an American, this story has an epic scope but an intimate storyline. “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers – this one has a Black Mirror vibe, a future in which “synth” children are created. Other shoutouts: “Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson, “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser, and “Liberte” by Scott Nadelson.
- The Spark and the Drive, by Wayne Harrison – This novel faced a bit of a test from me. It’s about a car mechanic and features a lot of car engine stuff, which is something I have no knowledge or interest in. Would my interest be sustained? It was. The novel is based on a short story, which I read in a previous edition of The Best American Short Stories, and it was cool to see how that story was expanded here. The 1985 setting was right in my wheelhouse, with just enough Metallica references, and it’s cool how the characters in the shop find themselves caught between old school hot rods and newfangled computer-driven machines. I’ll also confess that I know the author, a great guy who lives in Eugene, and I was lucky enough to have a cider with him and talk about the book!
- The Risen, by Ron Rash – I just love Ron Rash, and I actually discovered him in an old edition of The Best American Short Stories (above). This novel is about an incident from the past that literally rises to the surface in the form of a dead body. The narrative alternates between the past and the present, and the details of the incident are slowly revealed as the storylines merge. Rash does a great job capturing the emotions associated with firsts – first love, first experiences with alcohol – and exploring how they play out for the protagonist and his complicated relationship with his brother and the girl who came between them.
- Looking for Alaska, by John Green – I’ve been promising my students I would read a John Green book, because they are always reading his novels and talking about them, and I finally got around to reading one. I’m glad I did. Like The Risen (above) Green does a great job exploring some of the same firsts – first love, first experiences with alcohol. I was a caught off guard by the intensity and graphic nature of some of the content, given this is a YA novel, but maybe that’s why kids like Green so much. He tells it like it is. I’d definitely be up for reading more of his work.
- Above the Waterfall, by Ron Rash – This novel alternates point of view between a rural sheriff on the cusp of retirement and his love interest, a park ranger haunted by a school shooting that she survived as a child. Connecting them in the present is a poaching case involving the owner of a resort and a disgruntled local. Like many of Rash’s works, this novel explores the impact of economic hard times on rural North Carolinians, including the scourge of drugs like meth. The more I read Ron Rash, the more I want to read Ron Rash.
- Casting Into the Light, by Janet Messineo – This title caught my eye in the library while looking for fishing books for my son. It’s a memoir about a woman who has spent most of her life fishing from the shore for striped bass on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. While the writing isn’t the best, with a lot of repetition and simplistic techniques, the author seems pretty badass, and the subject matter had me hooked (sorry, bad pun). I have come to love fishing from the surf in Oregon, and I enjoyed learning about how it is done on the other side of the country. I’d love to try it sometime. Unfortunately, much like our experience with salmon and steelhead out here, it sounds like there aren’t many stripers to catch over there anymore. Grrrr.
- In the Valley, by Ron Rash – This is a short story collection that includes a novella that continues Rash’s novel Serena. Every story here is killer, especially “Ransom,” which is one that I had to reread as soon as I finished it. Rash pursues familiar territory, rural North Carolinians in various states of being connected or disconnected from the land and each other, but his stories never get old for me. The character of Serena Pemberton in the title novella is one of his best protagonists, and it was great to see her back in action, just kicking ass and taking names in the old school Carolina logging camp that she owns and runs.
- A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, by Norman Maclean – Friends have been telling me to read this book for years, and it finally took a friend handing me a copy to make that happen. My friends were right; I really enjoyed it. I was familiar with the story having watched the movie back in 1993, and the writing is every bit as gorgeous as the film’s cinematography. I was surprised and impressed by Maclean’s sense of humor and self-deprecation. My son and I have been way into fishing lately, so this book also hit a sweet spot on that front. It’s a little beyond my son’s ten year old attention span, but I think I’ll show him the movie.
- Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King – Man, this was fun! I am a huge fan of The Shining, both King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s movie, and I was afraid of being disappointed by this sequel, but King didn’t leave me hanging. It was so great to follow Danny Torrance into adulthood and (like I also wrote about the novel below) watch him struggle with ghosts from his past, both literal and metaphorical. The opening pages gave me the goosebump creepies as much as any other Stephen King book ever has. Now I’m hoping the movie version starring Ewan McGregor doesn’t disappoint. Reading this and enjoying it so much led to me making a deal with myself – every summer I’m going to read at least one book purely for fun.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward – This book won the National Book Award about five years after Ward won it for Salvage the Bones, which is crazy, but somehow she still isn’t a household name. Both books are great, and this one couldn’t be timelier. Race is front and center, with a narrative alternating between the past and present to examine how systemic racism affects one African American family over three generations. There are ghosts, both literal and metaphorical.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo – This was a book club choice by two different groups I’m connected to – fellow writers and fellow teachers. What a timely and important book to read right now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd. DiAngelo is a white woman, and her main point is that we have to rethink racism and get away from thinking it is a moral failure of individuals. She argues that all white people are fundamentally racist because we have been raised and indoctrinated in a racist society. She lays this out in hopes that we can recognize this life-long conditioning and break through it to be an ally for people of color. I am committed to doing so!
- All the Light We Can Not See, by Anthony Doerr – I had been hearing about this book for years, and everyone who read it said it was great. I agree. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I’ve joined the chorus encouraging others to read it. Set during World War II, the narrative jumps back and forth between a French civilian and a German soldier, between the war years and their upbringings. Doerr writes these characters with great compassion and empathy, and the suspense built into their converging story lines is just awesome.
- Junk, by Tommy Pico – This is a 2018 book of poetry that a student of mine recommended. Pico is a gay Native American man living in New York City and the book is one long extended free verse poem structured in couplets. It felt a little like reading Allen Ginsberg, kicking off with some graphic gay stuff, almost like he’s challenging the reader to keep reading. I’m glad I did. The topics of the poem are wide-ranging: dating as a gay man, environmental degradation, ancestral genocide, modern racism. The “junk” of the title refers to male genitals, junk food, and all of our accumulated crap. My favorite line: “The only thing harder than writing is quitting candy.”
- West of Eden, by Harry Harrison – I had seen this book (and the trilogy it kicks off) around over the years. I picked it up as part of research for a new writing idea I have. I thought I might just read the beginning to get the general vibe, but I got sucked in and now it’s fun to be reading a big fat science fiction book just for fun. I’m about 3/4 of the way in, not sure if I’ll read the rest of the trilogy or not. I’m only able to be doing this now because it’s winter vacation!
- Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare – I hadn’t read this since college, and I’m getting ready to teach it for the first time. You know the story: star-crossed lovers meet, fall in love, and die tragically. I look forward to teaching this play and seeing where my discussions with my students go. Big things I plan to have them track are love, loyalty, impulsivity, and how Shakespeare uses foreshadowing.
- In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien – This book was highly recommended by several people in my writing program, and I finally got around to it. It lived up to the hype. I have huge respect for O’Brien, a Vietnam grunt who got an MFA and wrote about the war. This one deals with secrets from the war that end up haunting a candidate running for U.S. Senate. It’s fiction that is so realistic that I thought it wasn’t fiction.
- Walking the Trail, by Jerry Ellis – As you can see from the last few titles (except for Clive Barker) I’ve been dreaming of long hikes. This one is closer to my own dream of hiking the Oregon Coast Trail in that it combines walking through wild places and cities. The difference is that Ellis is a modern Cherokee man following the Trail of Tears. While he can be a little full of himself, and his views on women are way out of step with the current Me Too movement, his hike/story is a cool spiritual quest that ultimately affirms what is still good about America.
- One Man’s Wilderness, by Dick Proenneke, with Sam Keith – I’ve known about this guy for awhile, having seen the PBS documentaries about him featuring film that he shot by himself while living in a remote part of Alaska. It’s a kind of modern Walden – in 1968, Proenneke dropped his career, built a cabin by hand in the middle of nowhere, and wrote about his relationship with nature. It’s great, inspiring reading, and my 50th anniversary edition has a ton of great photos he took.
- Infernal Parade, by Clive Barker – Man, I used to love this guy. He was the pinnacle of creativity for me back in the 80’s and 90’s with epic books like Weaveworld and Imagica. So it’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around this little novella put out by what feels like a rinky-dink publisher. Oh well. It’s a fun little collection of linked stories with really messed up stuff going down. Clive is clever as ever, and his bad guys are brilliantly devious. I just miss the epic stuff.
- Wild, by Cheryl Strayed – I’m surprised this took me so long to read. I think I let one of my academic acquaintances talk me out of it. Sure, it’s no literary masterpiece, but it’s a good story and Staryed is a decent writer. And I’m a sucker for long trails. Hiking one has always been a dream of mine, but so far I’ve managed to live vicariously through others. Just realized tonight while talking about it that while Strayed was doing her hike I was on my own epic trip to Southeast Alaska. Someday I do hope to do the Oregon Coast Trail.
- Indian Creek Chronicles, by Pete Fromm – This memoir has been on my radar for awhile, going back to when I applied to (and got rejected by) the MFA program where Fromm taught. An esteemed colleague of mine teaches the book, and a blurb on my copy compares it to Walden, so I was all in. While Fromm isn’t exactly Thoreau, the story of his winter alone in the Montana wilderness was a page-turner. My biggest gripe is that he wasn’t exactly alone. Rangers, scientists, and hunters are always interrupting the flow. Of course, Thoreau wasn’t exactly a hermit either.
- American Primitive, by Mary Oliver – I stumbled upon this book of poetry while helping a student in my Creative Writing class. She had already settled on another book so I checked it out myself. Great read. The poems are accessible and down to earth, as the title implies. A lot of 1st person close observations of nature, with the narrator getting scratched up and muddy in blackberry brambles and creek beds. It’s the kind of poetry I’d aspire to write.
- Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, by Sophocles – I’ve been teaching Oedipus the King for several years now, but I had never read the two sequels that make up Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy. Good stuff! Blind old tragic Oedipus wanders around with his daughter Antigone and stumbles upon a holy site near Athens where he becomes the center of attention again. He’s learned from his past mistakes, and Antigone is a badass who defies the state in remaining loyal to him. Of course, tragedy ensues.
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas – This book first hit my radar when one of my students won the Oregon Letters About Literature contest by writing a letter to Thomas explaining how the book inspired him to take action on social justice issues. I’m really enjoying how the story puts a human face on the Black Lives Matter movement. Let’s face it: I am a privileged white male. Thank goodness we have literature (and other forms of art) to help put us in the skin of others.
- The River Why, by David James Duncan – Having been told to read this novel many times, and having started and stopped reading it many times, I’m glad I finally hung in there. The time was right, what with all the fishing I’ve been doing the past year. The book isn’t perfect by any means – there are digressions, coincidences, and general silliness – but there are some great sentences, revelations, and fishing stories. It’s been fun to share some of the more action-packed scenes with my son, who is almost as into fishing as Gus.
- The Sun and Her Flowers, by Rupi Kaur – I read this right after Milk and Honey and I enjoyed it just as much. Some of the content can start to feel repetitive, but just when I’m starting to think that, Kaur throws down a great line or swerves into new emotional territory. I read these books pretty fast, just taking it all in. I look forward to going back to the poems and sorting out my favorites. Many words to live by in these pages.
- Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur – A book of poetry! Man, I barely ever read poetry, which is my bad. Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg are about the only poets who ever really got me fired up. A lot of my students have read this one the last few years, so I figured it was about time I got on board. I’m glad I did. Kaur is straight up. She gets into some heavy and dark stuff, but her book is ultimately empowering and affirming. I’m going to read her second book now.
- Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, by Lisa Damour – This nonfiction book was a recommended read for our teaching staff. While a lot of it feels like common sense, confirming things I already intuitively knew, I’m glad I read it, both as a teacher and a father. I feel like I have some things I can look out for with my students and my daughter, and some tools to help me help them navigate this crazy world of ours.
- Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders – George Saunders is my favorite living writer. There, I said it. I was so blown away by his last book of short stories, Tenth of December, that I think I was scared to read this novel, thinking it couldn’t live up to my expectations. It did. Saunders consistently does things in his writing that have never been done, boldly experimenting with style and format, and all the while, with great humor and compassion, his stories pack an emotional punch. This one, about Abraham Lincoln grieving the loss of his son, really hit home for me.
- Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline – It’s been awhile since I can say I sat down to read a book purely for fun, and this book delivered. I turned 10 in 1980, so I was in the sweet spot for all the 80’s references. Things like Atari, Dungeons & Dragons, and Rush are all right in my wheelhouse. This was one of those books I found myself wishing I had come up with the idea for, and the book is way better than the movie, which is surprising given that Steven Spielberg directed it.
- 1984, by George Orwell – I was doubly excited this spring to get to teach Honors 9 again and also bring 1984 into the 9th grade curriculum. This book couldn’t be more timely, what with doublespeak and Big Brother and all. My students made great connections to our current political climate and the omnipresence of digital technology. Though some of the book’s shock value and suspense was missing for me with this being my third time reading it, I was more impressed than ever with the thoroughness of Orwell’s world-building.
- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath – This novel is based on Plath’s own experience with mental health struggles while in college, including a suicide attempt and time spent in a mental institution. The book is intense, obviously, but it also has humor. The narrator is like a female Holden Caulfield, cynical and pissed off at the phoniness all around her.
- The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez – I received a grant to teach this novel, along with Aristotle and Dante... (below) this year to my 9th graders. What a great and timely book about two families, one from Mexico and one from Panama, who have escaped hardship in their home countries and come to America in search of hope, only to encounter more hardship.
- Too Shattered for Mending, by Peter Brown Hoffmeister – the latest YA novel by my friend and teaching colleague. It’s been super cool to hear about the evolution of this book. As usual for Hoffmeister, the story is hard-hitting and gritty, a heavy dose of realism. It’s got a Winter’s Bone vibe and is written in an engaging vignette style similar to Hoffmeister’s previous book, This is the Part Where You Laugh. I’m way into it.
- Wrench, by Wayne Harrison – A great short story collection by an Oregon author and OSU professor (and acquaintance of mine). The title hints at the handful of stories that are set in mechanic garages where greasy characters get up to no good. The references to 80’s metal music were right up my alley, and I especially enjoyed the stories set in local places I’ve been fishing lately like Leaburg Dam and the Siuslaw River. These are the kinds of stories I strive to write.
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – This YA novel created a lot of buzz among the LGBTQ community at the school where I teach. The kids just love it, and it’s a solid book – understated, suspenseful, and emotionally true. I’m psyched to have received a grant to purchase a class set and teach it to my freshmen this coming year!
- The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers, by Terry McDonnel – A memoir by an editor who worked with some renegade authors like Edward Abbey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jim Harrison. McDonnell has a great sense of humor and a ton of inside stories to draw on for these vignettes. Really entertaining.
- Fen, by Daisy Johnson – This is a short story collection by a debut author from England. It’s wild, literally, set in the fen country, which is a boggy kind of place. The stories often delve into magical realism, with lines blurring between human and animal. There is a mythic, primal quality about them. Work like this always makes me want to try my hand at magical realism one of these days.
- Drown, by Junot Diaz – A semi-autobiographical short story collection about a young man whose family immigrates to America from the Dominican Republic in the 1980’s. Gritty stuff, very realistic and hard-hitting. I think I’ll teach the story “Negocios” in my spring American Literature classes, in the broader context of The American Dream.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain – I first read this in college and I loved it. I seriously considered floating down the Mississippi. Now I read it as a teacher grappling with how to teach a book that many feel should not be taught because of issues related to race. It’s way more complicated than floating down a river.
- Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller – The downward spiral of your typical disillusioned American schmo. Though it was written over 50 years ago, this play still feels very relevant – chasing the American Dream and all its material baggage at the expense of an individual’s heart and soul.
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker – Thus begins my reading for the American Literature class I will begin teaching this fall. I’d seen the movie back in the day, but man, what an intense story. So much to explore in the classroom – dialect, point of view, themes of race, poverty, gender, abuse, sexual orientation. I hope my students are up for it!
- The Ocean in My Ears, by Meagan Macvie – Debut YA novel by a friend of mine from my MFA program. I got to be involved with this book through the early drafts, and now I’m reading an Advanced Reader Copy in anticipation of interviewing Meagan for Northwest Book Lovers. It’s a great coming of age novel about a girl from small town Alaska trying to figure out what her future holds.
- Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter – A rare nonfiction read for me, but a hugely important book. I work with many students addicted to their mobile devices, and now I’m struggling to enforce screen time limits with my own young children. Alter reveals how these addictions are no accident, how these devices are designed to be addictive, and he offers ways to keep them in check.
- Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter – The first book I’ve read in awhile that is not connected to my teaching and purely for entertainment, and it is entertaining. Walter has a great sense of humor and this is definitely a summer read, bouncing back and forth between the Mediterranean Sea and Los Angeles.
- The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver – This has been on my list for awhile. I read it along with my students and we all enjoyed it. Great feminist themes, along with the need to pull together and support each other.
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie – The short story collection that inspired the movie Smoke Signals. Comedy mixed with the daily tragedies of life on the reservation.
- The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow – After a family tragedy, a biracial girl moves to Portland and wrestles with her identity and society’s expectations in the 1980’s.
- Lord of the Flies, by William Golding – A bunch of British boys try to survive on an island. Echoes of our current political climate. Democracy vs. tyranny. Civilization vs. savagery.
- The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway – Santiago hasn’t caught anything in 54 days. Then he hooks a 1,500 pound marlin.
- Maus I/Maus II, by Art Spiegelman – Graphic memoir (graphic, as in comic book format) about surviving Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
- Night, by Elie Wiesel – Intense memoir about surviving Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
- Othello, by William Shakespeare – Tragedy triggered by jealousy.
- Oedipus the King, by Sophocles – Well, there went my attempt to read all female authors for a year. Since I am teaching high school for the first time, my reading will be focused on what my students are reading. This one is the classic Greek play about the downfall of Oedipus’s family, who try to avoid a fate determined by the gods, a fate as tragic as it gets: Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother.
- The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx – Winner of the National Book Award. Depressing subject matter – a loser-type struggling on the bleak New Foundland coast – but a light, humorous touch by Proulx gives the story good balance. (I didn’t finish this one, partly because I wasn’t that into it and partly because work took over my life!)
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls – A memoir about a woman’s unconventional upbringing with parents that were artistic and free-thinking, but alcoholic and unstable. This is on the reading list for the freshman I’ll be teaching next year.
- Close Range, by Annie Proulx – Short story collection set in Wyoming, gritty characters harshing it out against gritty backdrops, including “Brokeback Mountain.”
- This is the Part Where You Laugh, by Peter Brown Hoffmeister – Not a female author (see below) but Peter is a colleague and this book is set in our town, Eugene. It’s a great, hard-hitting YA novel about a kid fighting off his troubled past. Here is an interview I did with Peter for his previous novel, Graphic the Valley.
- Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward – The narrator is a poor, 15 year-old African American girl getting ready to face a hurricane in rural Mississippi with her brothers and their alcoholic father. Great writing. Winner of the National Book Award.
- Wild Life, by Molly Gloss – (Note: April 2016 – I’m starting a year-long exercise of only reading books by female authors!) This novel is set in Oregon around the turn of the century, about a feisty woman who has some kind of Sasquatch experience. It’s pretty darn witty so far.
- Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy – This has been on my list for awhile, a book I see on a lot of lists. It’s like reading an episode of Deadwood. Just raw and raunchy and brutal. I’m loving it.
- The Cove, by Ron Rash – A novel set in the Appalachian Mountains during WWI, and great writing as always from Ron Rash, who I am super excited to meet when he comes to speak at the Eugene Public Library on March 19!
- Girl in the Woods, by Aspen Matis – A memoir by a woman who was raped on her second night of college and dropped out that spring to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t read much memoir – where’s the suspense? – but the subject matter got my attention. I’m definitely an armchair thru-hiker!
- The Dark Lands, by Benjamin Percy – An American Mad Max with echoes of The Stand, a Lewis and Clark-like expedition 150 years from now across a Western wasteland. A guilty pleasure, and I’m into it.
- Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland – As civilization crumbles, two sisters living in a remote area of the California redwoods must fend for themselves. It’s a little soft so far, but maybe things just haven’t gotten bad enough yet.
- Caribou Island, by David Vann – Having read his first short story collection, Legend of a Suicide, I was expecting his first novel, about a dysfunctional couple and their family in remote Alaska, to be a little more gritty, though I have enjoyed the looming sense of inevitable disaster.
- Man V. Nature, by Diane Cook – The title caught my attention. It’s a collection of stories – mostly dark, futuristic, and surreal – that feature characters walking a fine line between life and death. Pretty cool.
- Clearcut, by Nina Shengold – Great setting and set-up – a trio of lovers in the Pacific Northwest wilderness – but a little forced and melodramatic in the delivery.
- Redeployment, by Phil Klay – National Book Award winning short story collection about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, written by a veteran. Intense but lightened with dark humor.
- A Series of Small Maneuvers, by Eliot Treichel – YA novel about a girl struggling through grief in a survival situation. Great writing by a local author.
- Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer – Third book in the Southern Reach trilogy, back into Area X now and I can tell I’m going to like this better than the second book.
- The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman – Nonfiction, and the title pretty much tells it. What would become of the earth if we weren’t here?
- Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer – Second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, focusing more on the administrative aspect of Area X, a little too long and slow in my opinion.
- Pastoralia, by George Saunders – Novella and short stories by one of the funniest, smartest, and most inventive writers alive.
- Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer – Well-written science fiction about four explorers investigating a mysterious region called Area X; first of a trilogy.
- The Other, by David Guterson – A novel about two friends, one of whom drops out of society to live in the wilderness. It feels a little wordy so far, like it’s trying too hard, but we’ll see.
- Close is Fine, by Eliot Treichel – This story collection reminds me of mine, the stories set in a similar region, largely rural, with characters struggling on the fringe.
- The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin – The debut novel by an Oregon author with obvious skills, a historical western set in Washington state.
- Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa – Linked short story collection full of dark deeds connecting from one story to the next. I don’t usually read translations, but the simplicity of this prose is working for me.
- Sherwood Nation, by Benjamin Parzybok – The first title on this list that I decided not to finish. I like the concept – a future Portland deprived of water – but the writing felt a little thin, more caricature than character-driven.
- The Martian, by Andy Weir – A survival story about an astronaut stranded on Mars. The story’s cool. The writing is so-so.
- Serena, by Ron Rash – Rash is one of my favorite writers. I’ve only read his short stories so I’m loving this novel. Apparently the reviews of the movie version aren’t so hot.
- Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – What’s not to like about a post-apocalyptic traveling Shakespeare troupe? Great book.
- California, by Edan Lepucki – Not the best writing, but the story is right up my alley – post-apocalyptic wilderness society.
- The Stand, by Stephen King – This will take me awhile! My post-MFA self-indulgent reading gift to myself.
- Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, by Ann Pancake – This story collection is AMAZING! Here’s an interview I did with Ann.
- World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler – a future in which humanity reverts to agrarian ways; an acoustic rendition of “Creeping Death” by Metallica!
- Good News, by Edward Abbey – Classic Abbey but set in a post-apocalyptic future; down to earth country folk vs. urban militarization.
- Endangered, by Eliot Schrefer – YA novel about a girl saving bonobos in war-torn Africa; some pretty intense scenes for young readers.
My Top 50
Just for the heck of it, I came up with a list of my Top 50 books. This is definitely a personal list, less concerned with critical analysis than gut emotion. These are books that hit me hard at different points in my life and have stuck with me, from the first real book I read all by myself, Charlotte’s Web, to the most recent, Tenth of December, which I read in my MFA program. I left the great religious texts of the world off, just because I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t use any source but my memory and my bookshelf. No titles were removed from the list once they were put on. As you’ll see, this is definitely not a politically correct list. By my count, 96% of them were written by white males. Awkward. But what can I say? I’m a white male. And yes, I know I’m leaving some great books off…
1. 1984, by George Orwell
2. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
3. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
4. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
5. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
6. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
7. Call of the Wild, by Jack London
8. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
9. Confessions of a Barbarian, by Edward Abbey
10. Contact, by Carl Sagan
11. Dune, by Frank Herbert
12. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
13. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
14. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
15. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg
16. Imagica, by Clive Barker
17. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
18. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
19. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
20. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
21. Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat
22. Night Shift, by Stephen King
23. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
24. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
25. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
26. Startide Rising, by David Brin
27. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
28. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
29. The Bachman Books, by Stephen King
30. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
31. The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
32. The Great and Secret Show, by Clive Barker
33. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
34. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
35. The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
36. The Light in the Forest, by Conrad Richter
37. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
38. The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey
39. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
40. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
41. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
42. The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
43. The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub
44. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
45. This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
46. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
47. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
48. Weaveworld, by Clive Barker
49. With, by Donald Harrington
50. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte