A running list of the books I’m reading, most recent titles at the top:
- 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