Hmmmmm. Let me stretch out here with some stunning reading from the past year, in which I made a concerted effort to read the greatest Oregon books, the greatest spiritual writers, and every great book I could find about Australia, where I finally visited a while ago and about which I now daydream all the time, probably because it rains eight months of the year in Oregon, but I am not bitter, not me. Just sort of moist.
In no order, then, some terrific tomes:
Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. Best novel about Oregon ever. Rivers, rain, prickly independence, timber economy, moss, firs, muddled love affairs, the stuttering urge for community, and rain is the main character.
Wildmen, Wobblies, & Whistlepunks, by Stewart Holbrook. Best Oregon writer ever, all due respect to Barry Lopez and Ursula LeGuin and Ken Kesey and Beverly Cleary. Hilarious, penetrating, and unmatched for close attention to what Holbrook called lowbrow history — loggers, cops, thieves, con artists, prophets, and other mountebanks. And a verve and zest in his prose that make you happy to be American.
Winter Count, by Barry Lopez. With total respect for his many other books, this one is magical — surfs beautifully along the line between fiction and not. Kind of a masterpiece.
Ellen Tibbets, by Beverly Cleary. Could have picked any of ten books by Cleary, and this leads to one of my favorite pub arguments: If the greatest virtue of books is that they wake up kids to a lifetime of reading, and the greatest kids’ writers in American history are Beverly Cleary and E.B. White and William Steig, than aren’t they the greatest writers in American history, making Faulkner and such look like pikers?
The Journals of Lewis and Clark. A basic text for Americans; the Iliad and Odyssey of our literature, as scholar Frank Bergon says. And a great read. They were mostly always wet, grizzlies wanted to eat them all the time, and there was a baby on board. Wow.
Every War Has Two Losers, by William Stafford. Another basic text for Americans. I am beginning to think that no one ever thought and spoke more clearly about the idiocy of violence than Twain and Stafford, and Stafford’s line violence is a failure of the imagination that ought to be tattooed on everyone’s forehead so we see it all day every day.
For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard. The greatest spiritual book I ever read, period. Odd, weird, dissonant in the beginning, but it builds and builds and it is as close to written genius as I have seen since I first read Robert Louis Stevenson.
Meditations from a Moveable Chair, by Andre Dubus. A wonderful short story writer, but his last two books were collections of astounding essays that catch, in lyrical and sometimes heart-rending fashion, the deep spirit of Catholic life. Haunted, penetrating, lyrical, mesmerizing.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. About as lean and taut a story as I have ever read, and a deep shivering prayerfulness that resonates for a very long time after you finish. Bet you haven’t reread it for many years. Trust me — read it again.
Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, by J.F. Powers. With Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic writer of the 20th century, and hardly known outside that ancient thorny brilliant cruel amazing church. But what an ear, what an eye, what gentle patience!
Charming Billy by Alice McDermott. In the way that William Faulkner and Eudora Welty caught Mississippi, and Joseph Mitchell caught New York City, and Walker Percy (a Catholic) caught Louisiana, and Edwin O’Connor (a Catholic) caught Boston, McDermott masters Irish Catholic New York, and in a real sense Irish Catholic America in the latter half of the twentieth century, which was a great deal of Catholic America. No one in fiction limns the dreams and drags, the grace and grit, of the urban American Irish Catholic experience with her resonance and power.
God Laughs & Plays, by David James Duncan. Hilarious, furious, piercing, howling, stunning. Wow.
The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes. Basic Australia text. First book to really poke into the convict economy and the reality of a history that England forgot and Australia chose to ignore for two centuries.
Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton. Masterpiece. Haunting novel of western Australia. And once you dive into Winton then you have to read The Turning, another terrific book, and then maybe his hilarious Lockie Leonard children’s books.
Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf. Perhaps the greatest of living Australian writers, with all due respect to Helen Garner and Peter Carey. Another haunting masterpiece. And Malouf, bless his heart, has written about five terrific novels — not to mention a new collected stories. And an opera. And a lean lovely memoir of growing up in Brisbane. Plus he’s a courtly gentleman. And he dresses beautifully. I hate Malouf.
Dancing With Strangers, by Inge Clendinnen. A meticulous and beautifully written account of the oddly sweet first year of white contact with aboriginal culture in what would be called Sydney. Just a lovely book.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by Helen Garner. A remarkable exploration of “the ragged hole between ethics and the law,” as Garner says. Famous as a novelist, Garner’s even better as a nonfiction writer.
The Game in Time of War, by Martin Flanagan. Ostensibly a sportswriter, Flanagan (whose brother is the novelist Richard Flanagan) is to my mind the most riveting of Australian writers, because he is the one most concerned and eloquent and angry and openhearted about public honesty and possibility, about who Australians really are and might be. In a sense the indispensable writer of his nation, for no one else keeps poking for solutions like he does, and he does so with a terrific eye for grace under duress.
There’s plenty more — I mean, Tim Flannery is the Australian Stephen Jay Gould but a much better writer than the late Stephen, and Richard Flanagan just wrote a really chilling prescient novel about the West’s paranoia about terrorism and what it means, and you could read all of Helen Garner and never find a dull sentence, but I have to get going, I am supposed to be making dinner, and I got all these kids, and…