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Know the West

Looking for fresh reads? Western authors weigh in.

Here are some books from 2020 you don’t want to miss this winter.

 

The coronavirus pandemic may have disrupted much of what boosts new book releases — bookstores, events and author signings, attention spans — but Westerners need good reading material as much as ever. Fortunately, writers have obliged, with new works that offer education, delight and, occasionally, escape. Here, some of our favorite authors suggest books to dive into this winter. By spring, we hope this reading will help you feel both more grounded in the present, and ready to build a better future. 

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Author recommendations:


Subduction,
Kristen Millares Young – fiction, Red Hen Press

One of the books I read this year and loved (and keep recommending!) is Kristen Millares Young’s Subduction, set on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington. The story follows two characters: Claudia, an anthropologist who has spent the last few years conducting fieldwork among the Makah, and Peter, the son of one of her cultural correspondents. There is a lot of interesting tension surrounding major themes of family, community and belonging — Peter has lived off the reservation for years and works as an underwater welder, and Claudia is herself Latina and an immigrant — but the book is also full of beautiful and lyrical prose grounded in the land and seascape of the Northwest coast. So if you're nerdy about place-based writing and like to give the field of anthropology the side-eye, this is a book for you.

Danielle Geller is a writer of personal essays and memoir (Dog Flowers, forthcoming 2021), and she currently lives and works on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen People. 

Votes For Women: The Battle for the 19th Amendment, Ally Shwed, editor – graphic nonfiction, Little Red Bird Press

As you can imagine, this has been a crazy time. The only new book I’ve read recently is Votes For Women, an anthology graphic novel edited by comics creator Ally Shwed. All of the contributing comics creators are female. I love the book’s exploration of the history of women's suffrage from a variety of different perspectives — Black woman, Latinx and Native women, LGBTQ, etc. I actually liked it so much that I bought it for my mother for her birthday last month.

– Graphic novel author R. Alan Brooks teaches writing for Regis University’s MFA program, and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, as well as writing a weekly comic for The Colorado Sun, “What’d I Miss?” 

The Cactus League, Emily Nemens – fiction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I loved reading The Cactus League by Emily Nemens earlier this year. There was something about reading this book that just felt warm and comfortable to me, even though a lot of the characters are struggling or even self-destructing. Maybe it was the pacing and the prose, or the depth of attention to how individual people think and feel. It felt like being with a friend.

– Jon Mooallem is the author of This is Chance! and a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine.

Horsefly Dress: Poems, Heather Cahoon – poetry, The University of Arizona Press 

It is such a pleasure to experience so many Old Stories told in and between the lines of Heather Cahoon’s gorgeous poems. I love seeing the landscapes of our shared land — the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes — here, too. These places are familiar to me; the Mission Mountains, the Jocko, the small blip-of-a-town called Dixon, infamously made famous for a brief moment in the ’70s by poets Richard Hugo, James Welch and J.D. Reed. I want to rise up and journey up into that valley now, find my own traces of Coyote’s passing.

Métis writer and storyteller Chris La Tray (Missoula, MT) is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, whose second book, Becoming Little Shell, will be published by Milkweed Editions in the spring of 2022. 

Book of the Little Axe, Lauren Francis-Sharma – fiction, Atlantic Monthly Press 

The best historical fiction illuminates the forgotten truths of a bygone era, and Book of the Little Axe, by Lauren Francis-Sharma, does just that. Set in the era of westward expansion, this novel tells of the love between mother and son, and the connection between Trinidad and the American West from a perspective that we did not study in our history books.

– Rishi Reddi is the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based author of the novel, Passage West, which tells a story of the Punjabi and Mexican and Japanese families who farmed in California in the 1910s.  

Electric Deserts, Amber McCrary – poetry, Tolsun Books

I enjoyed Electric Deserts by Amber McCrary. I love it because it’s an electrifying take on land, identity and love. It’s a love letter, and I think we all need that in some way.

– Jake Skeets is the author of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers and teaches at Diné College on the Navajo Nation.

 

This Is Chance!, Jon Mooallem – nonfiction, Random House

I loved Jon Mooallem’s This is Chance! I’m always amazed by the ways the best writers can conjure up the past, working only from documents, interviews and (in this case) audio recordings, and Mooallem’s narrative about the M9.2 earthquake that shattered Anchorage in 1964 is among the best historical reconstructions I’ve ever read. Vivid and detailed, it follows local radio host Genie Chance as she remains on the air for marathon stretches throughout the aftermath of the quake, her voice bringing the fractured city back together. It’s a story about a community uniting in the face of disaster — in other words, the right book for 2020. 

– Eva Holland is a Yukon-based freelance writer, and the author of the new book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear. 

Meditations with Cows: What I Learned from Daisy, the Dairy Cow Who Changed My Life, Shreve Stockton – nonfiction, TarcherPerigee 

I loved Shreve Stockton’s Meditations with Cows: What I Learned from Daisy, the Dairy Cow Who Changed My Life. This beautifully written memoir by rancher and writer Shreve Stockton is full of beautiful details and observations that can only be written by someone who knows and loves the land deeply. Based in Wyoming, Stockton expertly brings her cattle to life so we feel we know them as well as she does. Her prose is deceptively effortless — even a city slicker will learn something — while residents of the High Plains will have the pleasure of seeing the plains and the prairie through fresh eyes. Given that many are stuck indoors and aching for nature, Stockton’s gorgeous book is a balm, and her intelligent take on land, animals and ranching should be required reading for anyone wishing to learn more about our beautiful country. 

– Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the recipient of the 2020 Sister Mariella Gable Award for American HarvestShe is also the author of a novel, Picking Bones from Ash, and a memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, which was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award. She lives in San Francisco. 

Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz – poetry, Graywolf Press

This is the book I keep by my bed — the one I read over and over. Words are failing me more than usual these days, so Diaz’s ability to distill overwhelming, unwieldy ideas into small, tender sentences strikes me as the ultimate miracle.  Her poems are everything: sexy, defiant, lyrical, brilliant. Hers is the kind of writing so uncomfortable it soothes you, makes you grateful for being human.

– Sierra Crane Murdoch is a journalist and essayist based in Oregon and the author of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country.

Anything Will Be Easy After This: A Western Identity Crisis, Bethany Maile – nonfiction, University of Nebraska Press

Recently, I've been loving Bethany Maile’s Anything Will be Easy After This: A Western Identity Crisis for the badass way it combines sharp cultural critique, memoir and reporting, on Idaho rodeo queens, ladies night at the shooting range, wild mustangs, the industry of development, and the many stories the West tells itself about itself. 

– Ander Monson is the author of, most recently, I Will Take the Answer and The Gnome Stories from Graywolf Press. He teaches at the University of Arizona, and his next book is Predator: a Memoir (Graywolf, 2022).


Elena Saavedra Buckley is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email her at at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor