In November of 2013, I committed to reading three books set in each of the 50 United States, plus the District of Columbia, for a grand total of 153 works of fiction. I didn’t set a time limit for myself, and now, six years later, I have completed my literary tour of the US. As you can see from the title of this post, I read a few more than 153 books.Read more
I’ve never been to Washington, but I sure do want to go now. When I read the state, I immersed myself in a Seattle bakery, on a sailboat on Puget Sound, and in the humor of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I love fresh bread, being on boats on salt water, and laughing, so this was a pretty fantastic mix of books for me.
Novel: Bread Alone
Author: Judith Ryan Hendricks, worked in a Seattle bakery
Setting: Seattle, WA
I first read Bread Alone several years ago when I was really into baking bread. I was excited to get to Washington on my reading project so I could read it again. Filled with scenes of coffee on wet days in Seattle, wood for stoves, and the comforting smells of fresh bread baking, it sucked me in immediately and me want to give up everything and become a baker.
Outside, the rain hasn’t stopped so much as paused, and the air is cold and scoured clean.
Bread Alone is a novel about a woman, Wynter, who is going through an unexpected divorce and who finds her way back to herself through baking bread. It’s a comforting book, and this probably won’t be the last time I read it, especially since it has recipes. It’d be a great book for fall or winter.
Just rocky, conifer-covered mountains thrusting up from the cold, blue Pacific. Air so clean it sears your throat with a sweet ocean smell.
Novel: Before the Wind
Author: Jim Lynch, born Seattle, lives in Olympia
Setting: Puget Sound, Washington
As a novice sailor, I was excited to finally find a novel about modern, local sailing (vs. round-the-world adventures). The main character of Before the Wind comes from a family of sailboat racers, and he lives on his boat in a marina on Puget Sound. The marina scene itself is entertaining, filled with the types of characters you’d expect who live on boats, and the types of boats you’d expect them to live on if you’ve ever spent time in small marinas on the coast.
What I really appreciated about this book was that the author doesn’t shy away from using the language of sailing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. It puts the reader inside the mind of a sailor, what they think about, what they notice, what they fear, and who they read to learn more:
The line [from Joshua Slocum] our father made us memorize was: “To know the laws that govern the winds, and to know that you know them, will give you an easy mind on your voyage round the world; otherwise you may tremble at the appearance of every cloud.”
But this book isn’t just about sailing — it’s also a great story about a dysfunctional family who raced sailboats together when the kids were kids, the sister who had a magic about her on a boat, and their attempt to reunite as a family to sail one last race.
Book: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Author: Sherman Alexie, born Spokane, WA
Setting: 1970s Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA
Set primarily on an Indian Reservation in Spokane, Washington, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a book of short stories that are both hilarious and dispiriting, and are fiction based on on Alexie’s childhood and teenage years on the Reservation.
This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.
Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.
There is deep love and respect and a code of living among the tribe, but the primary tone of the stories is one of sadness, loss, and a broken people. Funny and modern, the stories are wonderfully written, enough so that I wanted to keep reading despite how sad it made me feel.
“Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away,” she said. “And that hurts because I don’t know how much of a future we have.”
Alcoholism is rampant in these stories, and mixed with that is a weaving of the mundane and what Alexie called Reservation Magic when someone asked if he’d describe this book as including elements of Magical Realism. This magic is woven throughout other Native American books I’ve read as well, as if the people of the tribes walk between the worlds.
Novel: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple, lives in Seattle
Setting: Seattle, WA (and Antarctica)
What a refreshing, funny, and smart read! Based in Seattle after an catastrophe in LA, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of a genius architect, Bernadette Fox, her unassuming (also genius) husband who works at Microsoft, and their daughter Bee who goes to school at an elite private school overseen by overachieving, overbearing, helicopter parents. Bernadette is an eccentric recluse, which the busybody power-moms from the school cannot stand about her.
What I loved about this book, aside from the fact that it made me laugh, is that it shows what can happen when a creative genius is not creating: they destroy instead. Since the book sometimes uses narration from Bee, and sometimes correspondences between characters as chapters (emails and letters, for example), it’s also a really well-done demonstration of perspective, and how one person can be seen so differently by so many people, and how dangerous that can be.
Utah is a fascinating state. In the fiction I read, it is a desert land, isolated and desolate, where people go to be left alone, or where the government sends things to be hidden: polygamous Mormon sects, Japanese Americans in internment camps, and testing grounds for nerve gas and other weapons of war. I know from photographs and from visiting that Utah is beautiful — Arches National Park is in Utah. That desert beauty appears in The 19th Wife and The Last Cowboy, and it makes for an interesting tension with the ugly things that happen in those books.
Novel: The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Setting: Fictitious town of Mesadale, UT
I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I heard about it on NPR more than 10 years ago, and it was worth the wait. I didn’t know much about the Mormon faith before reading this book, and while Mormons may not appreciate that this fiction is where people might get information about their faith, The 19th Wife taught me much about the history of Brigham Young and Mormonism in the U.S. It also taught me the salacious aspect of what Mormons are often known for — polygamy — and how destructive it was for families and women, and how utterly patriarchal and cult-like.
I should clarify, in case it’s not obvious, that only the men have multiple partners, not the women. Men want to have sex with girls younger than their daughters, and they justify it by saying it’s the command of God, to multiply the people of their faith — the correct faith. Like so much of the BS that goes on in so many religions, it is based in fear-mongering so the people in power can keep their power and control everyone to serve their own needs.
Mormons apparently are not polygamous anymore, but in this novel, there are offshoot sects that still are. Part historical fiction, part modern murder mystery, The 19th Wife tells stories in two different genres. It parallels a story of Brigham Young’s 19th wife (or 55th, depending on how you count), the true historical figure of Ann Eliza Young, and a modern 19th wife accused of murdering her husband. It was compelling and absorbing, and I really enjoyed the book.
Novel: When the Emperor Was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka (her grandparents were in an internment camp in Utah)
Setting: 1942 Japanese American internment camp in Topaz, Utah
When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a Japanese American family who, like all their neighbors in California, enjoyed a pleasant, suburban, educated life. They are refined, have 2 kids, a dog, roses, friends, white neighbors who show the kids the stars through his telescope.
In one day, all of that changed, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Their father was taken by police and never came home. The mother and children were forced to leave their home and all their belongings and their life behind to be locked in an internment camp in Utah for more than 3 years.
It was 1942. Utah. Late summer. A city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. The wind was hot and dry.
This was the United States. We locked our own people behind barbed wire fence because of the way they looked. It’s shameful.
Novel: The Last Cowgirl
Author: Jana Richman, local author
Setting: rural valley in Clayton, Utah
I loved this book! Set on a ranch in Utah, The Last Cowgirl is about Dickie, a girl who was a natural and at home in the desert and ranching life, but who hated her life on the ranch because it had moved her from town. Sensitive, capable, and quick to cry, Dickie rejected the lonely land for a traitorous best friend, and then later for a numb life in Salt Lake City where she didn’t look back to the land she loved in her bones, the people who lived there, and the tragedies that happened because of government testing of nerve gas nearby.
I miss desert rain, especially those first few drops that plop into a patch of alkali and bounce chalk into the air.
With family challenges, romance entwined with friendship, and gorgeous scenery of the unpopulated lands of Utah, this book had everything I wanted for a summer read.