The Best Coast’s Best Books

In the Pacific Northwest, long stretches of sunless, soggy days can induce varying degrees of cabin fever and winter blues. But the rainy season can also be an opportunity. I imagine the more bookish, writerly types breathing a communal sigh of relief when that first fall raindrop splashes against the windshield. Without the distraction of sunshine, progress can finally be made on writing that novel. And what better time to curl up next to the fireplace with a good book? Sure the weather can be gloomy, but this rainy region is also home to some of the very best authors. Is it that the Northwest just attracts the smart, creative types? Or does the endless drizzle keep authors cooped up inside long enough to produce good material? Either way, the Northwest churns out an impressive number of top-notch books.

I often find that selecting the right book at the right time will enrich my reading experience. For example, I never finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow because I was touring a tropical country at the time. But slogging through the political and philosophic mire of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace during the heart of winter while I lived in the High Sierra proved successful. So, once the leaves start turning in my current city of Portland, Oregon, I crave waterlogged stories of flannel-clad women and bearded men braving the wilds of the mossy, salty West. Luckily, I’ve got plenty to choose from.

As a tribute to our rich rainy-day book culture, here’s a list (in no particular order) of praiseworthy books set in the Pacific Northwest, written by local authors.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Maria Semple

Bernadette, mother of fifteen-year-old Bee, has disappeared. Between report cards, e-mails, and FBI documents, readers begin to piece together the mystery of the missing mom. With laugh-out-loud wit, Semple draws on Seattle stereotypes like Microsoft husbands and private-school moms to craft a social satire that highlights the perils of hyperactive parenting.

 

The Final Forest

William Dietrich

Before Forks, Washington, was a tourist destination for Twilight fans it was the self-proclaimed “Logging Capital of the World.” Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist William Dietrich explores the complex conflict over the fate of the Olympic Peninsula’s old-growth forests. Dietrich’s seasoned objective skill will elicit conflicted loyalties and leave you wondering whom to root for. The environmentalists or the loggers? The economy of Forks or the northern spotted owl?

 

Mink River

Brian Doyle

Weaving Irish and Native American storytelling into the fabric of his narrative, Doyle introduces us to the residents of the fictional Oregon coast town Neawanaka. Doyle’s unique, lyrical style blends magic realism and oral traditions. Readers will fall in love with unforgettable characters whose ordinary lives highlight the painful, quirky, and at times hilarious twists and turns of being human.

 

Sometimes a Great Notion

Ken Kesey

This has been called the “quintessential Oregon novel,” and it deserves to be ranked as one of the great American classics. It’s both a portrait of the Northwest and of the Stampers, a stubborn family of loggers. A tale of mythic proportions, Sometimes a Great Notion calls attention to the complexities of relationships, the struggle for morality, and the reasons we call a place home.

 

The Brothers K

David James Duncan

An epic coming-of-age novel about six children growing up in Camas, Washington; their religious-fanatic mother; and their down-on-his-luck father, whose pro-baseball dreams are cut short by a mill accident. This is an ambitious and breathtaking story about eight disparate lives tangled together by the indestructible bonds of family.

 

The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin

From science fiction master Ursula K. Le Guin comes a prescient story set in a future version of Portland, Oregon. One morning, George Orr wakes up and realizes that his dreams can alter reality. His new ability magnifies the dark side of power and humanity’s self-destructive tendencies.

 

Ten Little Indians

Sherman Alexie

Like most of Alexie’s work, this collection of short stories is layered with humor and is rich in cultural insight about being a modern Native American living in the Northwest. One of my favorite stories of all time, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” is included, and can also be read on the New Yorker’s website here. I guarantee that this tragicomic vignette about a Seattle homeless man and his poetic self-sabotage will stick with you.

 

The Good Rain

Timothy Egan

A thoroughly enjoyable and well-researched romp through Northwest history, politics, and anthropology. In addition to his own personal reflections about the region, New York Times reporter Egan covers all the essentials: salmon, the Columbia River, Northwest Native American culture, the logging industry, and apples.

 

Geek Love

Katherine Dunn

This imaginative, whirling yarn about the Binewskis, a carny family, examines our perceptions of what is normal and what is freakish. Though the whole novel doesn’t take place in the Northwest, it contains enough of the “weird” that Portlanders love to make the material feel close to home.

 

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed

John Vaillant

A three-hundred-year-old golden Sitka spruce—a unique biological miracle and sacred Haida icon—is cut down in an act of eco-vandalism. This remarkable true story traces the life of Grant Hadwin, a logger-turned-activist, his time spent in Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands, and his curious disappearance. Pairing history with mystery, this beautifully written book takes readers on a journey through passion and madness.

 

Another Roadside Attraction

Tom Robbins

A zany tale about an eccentric couple who run “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve”—part hot dog stand, part zoo—next to a highway in Skagit Valley, Washington. Dubbed a cultural icon for children of the sixties, Another Roadside Attraction is packed with all the unique bawdy humor and philosophical ramblings that Robbins followers love.

 

Glaciers

Alexis Smith

This novella follows twentysomething Isabel through a routine day in Portland, Oregon. Though the book is slim and the prose simple, Glaciers is wide in scope, addressing love and loss on both an intimate and grand scale.

 

The Orchardist

Amanda Coplin

Coplin’s debut novel, The Orchardist, is a gorgeous accomplishment. With vivid storytelling, Coplin captures the essence of the iconic American West frontier. Set in early-twentieth-century Washington State, this is a gritty, haunting story about a solitary orchardist who shelters two teenage runaways and the consequences of his decision.

 

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon

Chuck Palahniuk

This guidebook to Portland probably shouldn’t be on Grandma’s reading list—unless she’s been searching for a nude mannequin to sequester in her kitchen cabinet or wants to attend the I-Tit-a-Rod Race. Palahniuk’s Portland is even weirder than Portland’s standard weird, and it’s a unique tour through the lesser-known haunts of the city. This is also the closest thing Palahniuk has written to an autobiography.

 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford

During the height of war in the 1940s, twelve-year-old Chinese American Henry Lee is caught up in a whirlwind of politics and prejudices. At Rainier Elementary in Seattle, he falls in love with a Japanese American student, but she and her family are sent to an internment camp. Forty years later, Henry is confronted with a chance to revisit his past. This bittersweet novel addresses one of the most unsettling chapters in American history.

 

West of Here

Jonathan Evison

Set along the Elwha River in the fictional town of Port Bonita, West of Here is a vibrant odyssey. Spanning more than a century, the story revolves around the damming of a river by the town’s founders. Decades later, their descendants want to demolish the dam, spurring a cross-century conflict that sheds light on the perils of progress. Complete with classic Northwest fixtures like bigfoot, whiskey, and wilderness, West of Here is a kaleidoscopic journey into the heart of the West.

 

The Highest Tide

Jim Lynch

Miles O’Malley is an intertidal naturalist, a speed-reading Rachel Carson enthusiast, and the nighttime explorer who discovers a rare giant squid in the Puget Sound. He also happens to be thirteen years old. Set in the mudflats of Skookumchuck Bay, this is a touching coming-of-age story about a boy who grapples with the effects of unsolicited fame, young love, his warring parents, and the declining ecosystem he calls home.