The first list is LIVE!
Wooo, Libbie's List finally lives up to its name and posts an actual list! I mean... I kind of did a list very early on, when we first went into lockdown, with my favorite funny/light-hearted books, but my lists are supposed to be for literary fiction, not for Jessica Wakefield possibly dating a British werewolf.
Well, it will come as no surprise to those of you who read my own books that I am crazy about the American West as a setting. One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow and Calamity both had the distinction of getting finalist nods from the Willa Literary Award this year, and Blackbird also was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, a lovely honor which I was able to share with my grandmother before she passed away. I wrote another novel years ago--Baptism for the Dead--which also celebrates the landscapes and culture of the American West, and I've got a novel forthcoming from Lake Union Publishing in August 2021, The Rise of Light, which is yet again a story about the people of the West and how they relate to the land (among other themes.)
As enthusiastic as I am about West Lit, it seems only fitting that my first big list on Libbie's List should be dedicated to my favorite literary novels that celebrate (or at least explore) the particular and peculiar visions and cultures of the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions. I hope you find something to tantalize you among my favorites! Enjoy!
In Calamity's Wake by Natalee Caple. Miette was adopted as a baby by a kindly older man. When she is a teenager, he falls ill, and on his deathbed he asks Miette to seek out her biological mother... the infamous Calamity Jane. Although Miette has no desire to connect herself to the wild woman with a bad reputation, she honors her father's request and sets out to find her real mother. Miette's journey dissolves into a strange and dire fantasy, giving her a look into the real desperation and poverty that afflicted so many inhabitants of the West (and afflict them still) as well as the unique culture of the people. By the time she finds Calamity Jane, she has a new understanding of the woman who gave her birth.
I first read this short and beautifully written novel while I was researching Calamity Jane for my own novel. Caple is a poet (literally; she teaches poetry at universities in Canada) and her deft, rhythmic handling of the English language is on magnificent display here. In Calamity's Wake is dream-like, dark, and haunting. Highly recommended for readers who appreciate historical fiction but also crave luscious prose.
Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins. I've already written an entire in-depth review of this brilliant and memorable novel, so I won't re-hash everything here. Suffice to say, I've read quite a few fantastic books in 20202 but this one, the very first book I finished this year, is still my favorite out of all of them. I won't be surprised if it turns out to be among my favorites of the whole decade.
And right now, as conflicts continue between Blue and Red America--and as those conflicts become increasingly more dangerous--this novel feels like a true must-read for all Americans. As I noted in my longer review, Fall Back Down When I Die appears to be, on its surface, a story about a conflict between poachers and federal wildlife officials who are each trying to control the narrative surrounding a licensed wolf hunt. But you don't have to stretch your imagination very far to pick up the underlying theme of the endless friction between conservative and liberal factions in the United States... and now quickly those conflicts can become deadly. Not only a gorgeously written novel, but an important one, too.
Crooked Creek by Maximilian Werner. I first read this novel... oh, I guess it must have been around 2012 or 2013, and it has stayed with me ever since. What I remember most is the deliciously vivid prose, which played on all my senses to evoke the 19th-century West. I recall that it has more darkness than light, too. It's about two young brothers, Cider and Gil, who struggle to free themselves from the influence of their abusive father, and from a troubled family past that returns to haunt them.
I don't recall much else about the book, except for some singularly unique and startling imagery, which still has the power to make me gasp and shiver now, almost a decade later, when I recall those moments. I think I need to re-read this one soon and provide a longer, in-depth review. I certainly won't have to twist my own arm to get myself to revisit such a great book.
The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck. This is another novel published by Torrey House Press, the same publisher who did Crooked Creek. I must have read The Scholar of Moab around the same time, since back then I was scoping out Torrey House as a possible home for Baptism for the Dead. This one is a lighter read than Crooked Creek, with an unforgettable cast of characters one might describe as "quirky." (I really hate that word, though, and it gets used far too often in publishing.) The strange characters find themselves caught up in a small-town hysteria, which leads to a series of bizarre events and maybe the murder of a newborn baby. Or maybe not. Maybe the infant was abducted by aliens. Or maybe something else entirely happened to the missing infant. You'll have to decide for yourself when you read The Scholar of Moab, but don't start it until you've got plenty of free time on your hands, because this book is so strange, funny, intriguing, gorgeously written, and mysterious that you will not be able to stop reading.
Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found this book. I was killing time in a bookstore before a dermatology appointment on the East Side in 2013 (this was when I still lived in Seattle). From across the entire length of the shop, my eyes happened to land on this striking cover and those twin images slapped me hard across the face, yelling at me (as all good book covers yell to their target audience), "THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN FOR YOU." Even across a bookstore, my Mormon-raised eyeballs will recognize the distinctive portrait of Joseph Smith, and the bee and honeycomb-hexagons also said unmistakably, "Mormon fiction." I am not a Mormon anymore--and wasn't in 2013--but as the epic supply of preserved food in my garage will attest, you can take the girl out of the culture, but you can't take the culture out of the girl. I crossed the bookshop so quickly I think I actually teleported, grabbed this collection of short stories off the shelf, and bought it without even bothering to look inside (something I never do.) I knew already that I would love it, and I was right.
What is it about godforsaken Idaho that makes everyone who is from godforsaken Idaho refer to it as godforsaken Idaho and also makes us unable to escape godforsaken Idaho as completely as we would like? I've written about my raggedy-ass little hometown of Rexburg, Idaho twice now (Baptism for the Dead, Running Rabbit Press, 2013, and The Rise of Light, Lake Union Publishing, August 2021) and I am dead certain that I still have more to say about it, and will write about Rexburg--or Idaho more broadly--at least a few more times over the course of my career. There is something about Idaho which you can't fully appreciate or understand unless you've got roots there.
Shawn Vestal, who won the 2014 PEN/Bingham Prize for this collection, nails all the panoply of weird Idaho feelings with a handful of short pieces reflective of the unique and sometimes icky culture of Idaho. My favorite was "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death", but they're all fantastic. After reading this collection, I knew I would love everything else Vestal ever wrote, and indeed I have loved them all. I also had the chance to enjoy a cup of very unMormon coffee with Shawn this past December, when I was in Spokane to do some publicity work for Blackbird, and I can confirm that he is a truly stellar guy.
Daredevils by Shawn Vestal. Another Vestal book! This one is his debut novel, and it's so good and memorable, it makes me a little ticked off that Shawn hasn't written more novels already.
It's a much more literary reading experience than the cover would have you believe. Showcasing Vestal's prodigious talent for voice, it follows a couple of teenage protagonists who flee their home lives in a restrictive, fundamentalist (polygamist) Mormon community in an attempt to determine their own fates. They also happen to be on the hunt for Evel Knievel, a thread of the story which keeps returning and weaving itself into the rest of the narrative in unexpected ways.
This one is set in the 1970s in Arizona and Idaho, and serves up a tremendous amount of fun alongside its more sober moments.
Close Range by Annie Proulx. This magnificent collection of eleven short stories, all set in Wyoming, are about as good as American short fiction gets. Annie Proulx is a master of prose that's both spare and affecting. Although my style isn't much like hers, she's one of the authors I study most closely in trying to improve my own work.
The stories in this collection range in setting from frontier days to more modern times, but they all carry the same theme of how the human heart relates to the land, and how interpersonal relationships are tangled up in a relationship with place.
It will come as no surprise that Wyoming itself is almost a character in these stories. I wrote about Wyoming in Blackbird, and many readers have made similar remarks about that book. I don't think that comes down to me or to Annie Proulx--I think it's impossible to approach Wyoming as a setting without the place itself becoming a dominant force in your narrative. If you've spent any significant amount of time there, you know what I'm talking about.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. No doubt, The Collected Works isn't as well-known as The English Patient or Ondaatje's recent Warlight, but it's my favorite out of all his excellent books. Like In Calamity's Wake, this one traces a mythic figure--in this case, legendary outlaw Billy the Kid--across the Western landscape, drawing on true accounts and wild stories to re-create an image of Billy's final days of life that's both touching and bizarre.
Ondaatje is a master of prose, and all his great skill is on full display here. He is also one of my favorite poets--his collection The Cinnamon Peeler is my all-time favorite book of poetry--and a writer well worth studying if you have ambitions to establish yourself in the literary world. But even if you simply enjoy a gorgeously written, unforgettable novel, you can't go wrong with any Ondaatje work, but you'll go rightest of all by picking up this one.
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. This one is about the San Juan Islands (among other topics), so of course I had to include it on this list. I live in the San Juans, and now that I'm established here, I have no intention of ever living anywhere else, except perhaps the Gulf Islands, which are the same archipelago but on the other side of the US/Canada border.
There is a special magic to these islands, an ineffable mysterious quality. Time expands and contracts here in strange ways, which you can't fully appreciate unless you immerse yourself in this place.
Immersion by reading Holy the Firm is a nice substitution for being in the islands yourself. It's a short but scorchingly beautiful work, one you can read in an hour, though it's better savored over the course of several days. Dillard's prose is rich, and a little goes a long way (though if you like my writing, you'll surely like hers.) In addition to the landscape and its mysterious and enchanting qualities, this work is also a meditation on the cruelty of random happenstance and the reason (if there is one) for suffering. You can't spend any time in the San Juans without meditating on something or other.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf. It's easy to see why this beautiful little novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Set in a fictional Colorado town, Plainsong interweaves the stories of quite a few compelling characters, charting the interconnected nature of communities and the interdependence that defines human nature.
Haruf's prose is spare and tight, so this is a great choice for Western literary fiction if you lean more toward Hemingway and less toward Nabokov. Yet though I am a big fan of huge, fat, juicy prose, I still find Haruf's quiet, self-contained style both compelling and gorgeous.
Stupidly, I haven't read any of his other books yet, which is something I really ought to remedy soon. I absolutely loved this one.
Balsamroot by Mary Clearman Blew. Although this book is a memoir, not literary fiction, it still gets a place on this list due to the delicious prose and the exceptional "character" work, which any fan of the literary genre can appreciate.
The timeline trades back and forth between author Mary Clearman Blew's experiences caring for her aunt Imogene during Imogene's later years (and descent into dementia) and Imogene's younger times, re-created by Clearman Blew via the journals she discovered while living with her aunt.
It's a story of women's independence in the American west, and more to the point, the personal costs Imogene paid for living as an independent woman. A truly affecting story, told with sensitivity and honesty by a remarkably capable and talented writer.