From the creative hub of Portland to the remote pockets of the Palouse, the Pacific Northwest literary scene is in full bloom. Tapping into that scene, Inland 360 asked award-winning Moscow author Kim Barnes about the latest good reads from the region and anticipated works of 2016.
by Kim Barnes
Books to read from 2015:
“Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest,” by Blaine Wetzel and Joe Ray
Several years ago, I celebrated my 50th birthday at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Today, according to the publisher’s website, “a reservation at the award-winning restaurant is one of the most sought after in the world.” “Sea and Smoke” is part memoir, part cookbook, and the personal stories of travel, love and fate are as wonderful as the recipes.
I’ve been a fan of Spokane’s Shann Ray for years. “American Copper,” an epic that runs from the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 to the West’s ore and industry of the 1930s, is his first novel and contains the same lovely lyricism and mythic scope that characterizes his poems and short stories.
When her book came out last spring, I had the good fortune to join Megan Kruse at BookPeople for a reading from her wonderful novel and a conversation afterward. We talked about our Western heritage and how it informs our writing. Hawthorne Books describes “Call Me Home” as a novel that “braids the stories of a family in three distinct voices: Amy, who leaves her Texas home at 19 to start a new life with a man she barely knows, and her two children, Jackson and Lydia, who are rocked by their parents’ abusive relationship.” Jackson joins a construction crew, working in an Idaho mountain town. Local readers will find the narrative compelling and may have a solid sense of the real Idaho town in which Jackson’s story takes place.
The Spokane literary scene is on fire. In addition to Ray, our neighboring city to the north is teeming with fine writers, and Sharma Shields is one of them. Her fiction, as described by Amazon, is populated with “unicorns and lake monsters, ghosts and reincarnations, tricksters and hexes” and has been called quirky, magical, mythological, surreal, and bizarre — but always fascinating. Entertainment Weekly labeled “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” “the most wonderfully weird debuts of the year.” Some of the characters are fantastic, but, as the publisher’s summary notes, at its heart, the novel is “a devastatingly real portrait of the demons that we as human beings all face.”
Carrie Brownstein, who was raised in Redmond, Wash., and graduated from The Evergreen State College, is a singer-musician and actor who helped form the punk-indie trio, Sleater-Kinney. I might not have thought to read this engaging memoir if I hadn’t heard her recent interview on NPR with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. I was wowed by Brownstein’s intelligence, modesty, and insight — and, yes, I have to admit it, her vocabulary. I wasn’t surprised to discover that her emphasis at Evergreen was sociolinguistics. In 2006, Rolling Stone Magazine included Brownstein as the only woman to earn a spot in the readers’ list of the 25 Most Underrated Guitarists. This funny and fascinating book deserves not to be overlooked.
Moscow artist E.M. Sloan’s “When Songbirds Returned to Paris,” a combination of World War II history, documents and images is described in its summary as a book that “spins an international web of intrigue that captures the raw emotions of love and war.”
Books to look forward to in 2016
“Thunder Boy Jr.,” by Sherman Alexie
In 2014, Sherman Alexie’s young-adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was removed from Meridian High School’s supplemental reading list. What resulted was a GoFundMe.com campaign and a donation by Alexie’s publisher that resulted in 700 free copies of the book being distributed to Idaho students. In 2016, Alexie will have two new books out, and I can’t wait.
Alexie’s picture book for children, “Thunder Boy Jr.,” exuberantly illustrated by Yuyi Morales, will be released in May. It is the celebratory story of a boy named after his dad who wants a name that is all his own.
In fall 2016, Alexie’s memoir about his mother, told in a combination of verse and prose, will hit the bookstores, and it promises to be as complex, heart-rending, insightful and darkly beautiful as anything Alexie has written.
“Before the Wind,” by Jim Lynch
Author Jim Lynch, who lives in Olympia, has won a number of awards for his fiction and critics are saying “Before the Wind,” to be released in April, will be his “breakout” novel. The story is about a famed sailing family who reunite on an historic, family built vessel in a key race, which leads to startling conflict and revelations.
In April, Spokesman Review journalist Shawn Vestal follows up his award-winning story collection, “Godforsaken Idaho” with “Daredevils,” a delightful debut novel about Loretta, a Mormon teenager who illicitly meets her boyfriend each night until her parents catch her and, in an attempt to save her purity, marry her off as a sister-wife to an older man who moves his polygamist family to Idaho. Library Journal notes that the book “contemplates issues of faith, the meaning of masculinity, and the myths of the American West.” Reviewers call the book a “daring” yet “heartwarming” coming-of-age story. Don’t miss the surprise appearance of Evel Knievel — or maybe his doppelganger.
“A None’s Story,” by Corinna Nicolaou
“A None’s Story,” due out in April by Pullman’s Corinna Nicolaou, is a delightful and insightful journey to find contemporary meaning in some of the world’s oldest religions.
“Every Anxious Wave,” by Mo Daviau
“Every Anxious Wave,” due in February by Portland transplant Mo Daviau, is billed by its publisher as “a wild romp of a love story across time, interweaving astrophysics and indie rock.”
Kim Barnes is the author of “In the Kingdom of Men,” named a best book of 2012 by San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, and The Oregonian. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Award in nonfiction for her first memoir, “In the Wilderness,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a former Idaho Writer-in-Residence, a recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award, and a professor of English in the MFA program at the University of Idaho in Moscow.