The Decade in Books
The past decade has been an endurance test in more ways than one, but one principle that still applies is that literature can get readers through the hardest of times. As I compiled this list of favorite books of the decade by authors from Washington state, I was struck by how much I wanted to sit down and read them all again, because they all say something about where we live or who we are (or both). That is the signifier of a good book. Here’s a list of 10 personal favorites, listed by year of publication:
“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin (2012)
This gripping saga tells the story of a reclusive man who lives and tends apple trees on the east side of the Cascades in the early 20th century. He takes in two pregnant runaway girls after he catches them stealing apples from his orchard, then becomes their unlikely protector against an evil manipulator. The Washington Post hailed “The Orchardist” as “somber and majestic,” and its strong sense of place and powerful women characters installed the book permanently in my memory bank. It was Coplin’s debut novel, an astonishing achievement for the Wenatchee-born writer.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple (2012)
I never laughed so hard as during my first reading of Semple’s novel, the story of an unhappy Seattle newcomer being driven mad by our city’s particular brand of passive-aggressive, oh-so-nice political correctness. After giving up a promising architecture career and moving to Seattle from California, Bernadette is predisposed to hate the city, and she doesn’t like herself much better, and her one anchor is her levelheaded daughter Bee. This book is a testament to Semple’s gift for comic timing — she is a veteran television writer — but its humor cloaks some poignant truths about the predicament of a lonely, bright woman in an alien place.
“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown (2013)
In this epic work of nonfiction, a worldwide bestseller, Brown immortalized the 1936 University of Washington rowing team, a group of nine working-class kids who bested the Ivy League elite for the privilege of rowing in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Then they traveled to Berlin and defeated the Nazis’ hand-picked crew team in front of the Fuhrer himself. Brown’s genius was to focus on one troubled team member, Joe Rantz, and his odyssey from family outcast to Olympic gold. Not just a great sports story and character study, “The Boys in the Boat” is an indelible portrait of Seattle during the years of the Great Depression.
“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (2013)
In this virtuoso piece of world-building, Seattle’s own Griffith took an obscure historical figure — St. Hilda of Whitby, a 7th-century English abbess — and created both an entrancing protagonist and a living, breathing world around her, one somehow more alive than our own. In Griffith’s telling, St. Hilda is a strong, sensitive, astute and wily young woman, one living in a brutal time, navigating competing versions of religion (British Christianity, Roman Christianity, Scandinavian/Teutonic gods) and trying to find her own power. Every day I pray to St. Hilda for a sequel.
“Loitering” by Charles D’Ambrosio (2014)
A professor of fiction at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, D’Ambrosio grew up in Seattle, and several pieces in this essay collection have roots in our area, its moods and its struggles. Subjects range from whaling rights for Washington’s Makah tribe to Mary Kay Letourneau, but the centerpiece is the essay, “Seattle, 1974,” a deep meditation on our city in a certain time and place, and of one’s family’s struggle in it. In recommending this book as a must-read Pacific Northwest title, the writers at Powell’s Books in Portland said of D’Ambrosio: “Absolutely accessible and incredibly intelligent, his work is an astounding relief — as though someone is finally trying to puzzle all the disparate, desperate pieces of the world together again.”
“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson (2015)
An astounding work of imagination by Seattle’s cult science-fiction author, “Seveneves” tells the story of what happens after Earth gets a death sentence. Something makes the moon blow up, creating an asteroid rain that will eventually kill everything on Earth. Earth’s leaders have two years to figure out how to preserve the human race. Stephenson has thought out every angle — psychological, political, environmental. He has an expert’s grasp of the science involved, and is such a clear and transparent writer, even this physics-challenged reader could understand it (OK, most of it). Another ensemble of great women characters.
“Last Bus to Wisdom” by Ivan Doig (2015)
The last book by the great Seattle author, published just after he died in 2015, “Last Bus” tells the story of a 11-year-old parentless boy who is consigned to an overbearing Wisconsin aunt when his guardian grandmother has to have surgery. Donal Cameron escapes to Montana and encounters adventure, mischief and some highly original specimens of humanity. Laced with humanity, truth-telling and humor, this was a fitting bookend to an amazing career — Doig’s books, from his 1978 memoir “This House of Sky” to his last novel, are powerful chronicles of the vast changes wrought on the American West.
“Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name” by David Buerge (2017)
This book, the first full biography of Seattle’s namesake, was a yearslong work of devotion by Buerge, a Seattle historian. It tells both the chief’s story and the tragic history of Native Americans at the early years of Seattle’s settlement by whites, and resurrects the life of a determined leader who never failed to keep his people’s welfare in his sights. A classic work of Seattle history.
“A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of Faith” by Timothy Egan (2019)
The inestimable Egan, National Book Award winner and New York Times opinion columnist, got personal with this account of his search for answers after his mother suddenly died of brain cancer. Egan, who grew up in Spokane and has called Seattle home for many years, was one of seven children from a large Catholic family, but he let his faith lapse. After his mother’s death, his path of rediscovery was the 1,000-mile Via Francigena, a medieval pilgrimage route that stretches from Canterbury in England to Rome. This book, a skeptic’s revisiting of his childhood faith, is an outstanding combination of history and memoir, travelogue and soul-searching, enlivened by Egan’s humor, sense of wonder and plain speaking. It’s hard to pick just one Tim Egan book, so as a runner-up, let’s include 2012’s “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” the story of Seattle photographer Edward Curtis, whose lifelong quest to photograph all of North America’s native tribes almost broke him.
“Deep River” by Karl Marlantes (2019)
Karl Marlantes’ 725-page novel takes some diligent reading, but it’s a soulful, satisfying take on the classic immigrant tale, the story of Finnish immigrants who escape political upheaval in their native land and escape to America. Landing in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon, they encounter a beautiful, forbidding country, an incomprehensible language and dangerous work in logging, fishing and farming. And the characters! My favorite: tough-as-nails Aino, a labor organizer who manages to make the same mistakes over and over, but never lets her troubles extinguish her red-hot independent streak. Most historical fiction is justly criticized as an exercise in nostalgia, but “Deep River” is a gritty testament to a time when life was hard and struggles with anti-immigrant prejudice, worker exploitation and post traumatic stress disorder were as real as they are today. Aino and other principal characters in “Deep River” are inspired in part by characters in the Kalevala, an epic poem based on the mythology of the Finnish/Karelian people, but Marlantes’ creations are utterly and appealingly human.
A few runners-up
“The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Jonathan Evison (2012). A funny and heartbreaking story of a man wrestling with an unendurable family tragedy who becomes a caretaker to a teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. No one combines comedy and tragedy like Bainbridge Island’s Evison.
“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter (2012). A gorgeous, funny, wistful chronicle of a 50-year love affair by the acclaimed Spokane novelist … though here I must slip in a plug for my very favorite Jess Walter novel, 2004’s “Citizen Vince,” about an East Coast thug in the Federal Witness Protection Program who lands in Spokane.
“The Family” by David Laskin (2013). Seattle author Laskin, a four-time Washington State Book Award winner, traces three branches of his family and their triumphs and tragedies through immigration to America, the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.
“This is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel (2017). This poignant novel by a Seattle author tells the story of a Seattle family with five boys, and how everything changes when the youngest one realizes that he doesn’t fit the mold, because he’s a girl. If you have never encountered the challenges and perplexities of this transition, this book will open your eyes.