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Western Reading; Should I Write a Memoir?

April 29, 2011 | by

Dear Mr. Stein,
This summer my husband and I will be taking a train from Portland, Oregon, to Whitefish, Montana. Can you recommend any novels set in that region? I’ve read Jim Harrison, Michael Dorris’s
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Stegner’s Angle of Repose and am hoping there are many good novels I’m not yet familiar with set along our route.
Best,
Nora Brzyski

Ms. Brzyski, you’ve landed on a blind spot the size of, well, Idaho. So I’ve asked an expert, Philip Connors. Apart from working as a fire lookout (and many other things), Phil is the editor of New West Reader: Essays on An Ever-Evolving Frontier. He writes:

Happily, the natural beauty along that train trip is matched by the beauty of more books set on or near your journey than I can name. If I were at home, staring at my bookshelves, I’d probably give you a slightly different list, but since I’m on a grand tour of my own, currently in Santa Fe, this will have to be off the top of my head. A list of the great Oregon novels would include David James Duncan’s The Brothers K and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The indispensable book on eastern Oregon is a memoir with the sweep and grandeur of a great novel—William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, a story of paradise found and paradise lost on his family’s Warner Valley ranch. Washington is Sherman Alexie country: check out his novels Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Crossing over into Idaho, you absolutely must read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which plays out in the town of Fingerbone, a fictional analogue to Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint; it’s a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction. Finally, perhaps the best book set in western Montana is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—two novellas and one story, the title novella being among the most beautiful and haunting tragedies written by anyone, anywhere, in any time.

Finally, if you find your attention for long prose works flagging, make sure to have handy the collected poems of Richard Hugo, Making Certain It Goes On, which contains some of the finest poems of place—from western Washington to western Montana—that I have ever read.

Dear Mr. Stein.
It seems like everyone is writing a memoir. I have always thought about writing one myself. Which have been your favorites this year?
Sincerely,
John Harvey

In the last month there have been Terry Castle’s and Samuel R. Delany’s, not to mention Philip Connors’s (see above). Right now I’m in the middle of Meghan O’Rourke’s witty, very touching The Long Goodbye.

But listen, Mr. Harvey: don’t do it. Not unless, like Henry Green (author of the 1940 memoir Pack My Bag) you are morbidly convinced that you are about to be drafted into the Army and shot:

That is my excuse, that we who may not have time to write anything else must do what we now can. If we have no time to chew another book over we must turn to what first comes to mind and that must be how one changed from boy to man, how one lived, things and people and one’s attitude. All of these otherwise would be used in novels, material is better in that form or in any other that is not directly personal, but we I feel no longer have the time.

In the event, Green made it through the war and lived to a ripe old age—and so may you!

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9 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Aaron Fagan | April 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Nora Brzyski may enjoy the work of Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, and Ed Dorn.

  2. John Williams | April 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I always love to see Duncan’s Brothers K mentioned. One of my very favorite books.

  3. Norah Brzyski | April 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you for the recommendations. I have read Alexie, Robinson, and Maclean, but will definitely bring the Oregon writers along for the trip. And I am also looking forward to reading Fire Season. Thanks again! Norah Brzyski

  4. Kelly | April 29, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Re: Montana, what about Maile Meloy? Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is very readable and thus perfect for a trip.

  5. Joseph | April 30, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Wow, the Brothers K. One of my favorite fishing books, that girl standing stock-still and naked in the tree, hurls a spear at a fish and then dives in after it. Am I remembering that right? Haven’t read it in years..

  6. AYC | May 2, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Although Ms. Brzyski didn’t mention poems, Mr. Connors did: so if you’re going down that road, you should get Charles Wright’s new book of selected late poems, Bye-and-Bye. He’s one of the best writers about landscape, and he’s been writing a lot about Montana where he lives part time (near Whitefish, in fact).

  7. James Harrigan | May 3, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I haven’t read any of the Oregon books mentioned above, but here’s a great one: “The Wilding”, by Ben Percy, which came out last year. Here’s a insightful review by my insightful wife,
    http://www.sharonharrigan.net/blog/the-wilding-by-benjamin-percy/

  8. Anna | May 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Strange that nobody mentioned Willy Vlautin, who has just won several Oregon Book Awards for Lean on Pete. I just love that book.

  9. Jesse Martus | October 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Montana 1947 by Larry Watson

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