Reading for — and about — a rainy day

  Here in the Northwest, you can accumulate large quantities of the following: rainwater, unemployment and local literature. The folks at Oregon Quarterly (the University of Oregon’s magazine) collect the third. Last year, they ransacked their archives and created a new literary record of the region, Best Essays NW. Most of the 27 essays read like short stories rather than highbrow meditations, and they cover everything from fruit and fire to sand dunes and old gyppos. Odes to the iconic — rain and salmon — are here, as is a funny, informative explanation of Oregon’s anti-California sentiment.

There’s also the unexpected. Charles Goodrich mows his lawn and ponders the full meaning of grass, manicured and wild. Corrina Wycoff writes a highly personal tale of going on welfare. When she discovers her food stamps have an Oregon Trail emblem, she writes, "It is a paradox that the triumphant mythos of the Oregon Trail on this plastic currency signifies anything but triumph." Then, there is Ellen Waterston’s mournful account of the last large log processed at a Bend, Ore., mill. "The shift whistle sounded long and sang loud of the machines," she writes, "and the men who operated them offered shrill thanks to the evergreen forests that surrounded them."

Best Essays NW isn’t tight as a drum. A few essays sag; their authors work too hard to characterize the Northwest with one definitive word. But overall, the book — written mostly by unknown writers — makes cozy nighttime reading, and explains why this corner of the West is worth a drop or two of reflection.

Best Essays NW: Perspectives from Oregon Quarterly Magazine, edited by Guy Maynard and Kathleen Holt. 219 pages, hardcover $24.95. University of Oregon Press, 2003

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