When we published our first list of must-read books set in the Pacific Northwest, we knew it would be a popular and contentious feature, but we never anticipated that five years later we’d still be fielding passionate responses from our customers. When it was time to determine the theme for this year’s 25 Books to Read Before You Die list, we couldn’t resist the challenge of narrowing our favorites down further into what we consider a consummate selection of books written by Pacific Northwest authors.
A collection of old and recent books, expected authors and some who may be new to you, what the 25 books on our list have in common is the masterful prose, indelible characters, unique perspective, and profound gift for observation found in the very best fiction and nonfiction. Whether your passion is for short stories, nature writing, history, or literary fiction, you're guaranteed to find a stack of new reads to add to your bucket list.
Set along the northern Oregon coast range in the late 1840s, Don Berry’s 1960 landmark novel, Trask, was inspired by the life of settler, mountain man, and fur trapper Elbridge Trask (for whom both a river and a mountain are named here in the Beaver State). Compelling and adventurous, the story follows the titular character as he tries to become the first white man to settle in Tillamook Bay. Along the arduous journey, he and his guide — a friendly Clatsop Indian and spiritual leader named Charley Kehwa — must endure tragedy, torrential weather, rugged climate, and the seemingly bellicose Killamook Indians. Trask is far more than mere historical fiction; it is an insightful and beautifully crafted novel that captures the great uncertainty and promise which the region’s settlers undoubtedly knew all too well. Berry's portrayal of Native culture is compassionate and well-rounded, far from the shallow caricatures that often plague the genre. Trask is the first novel in a remarkable trilogy that includes Moontrap and To Build a Ship.
— Jeremy G.
I have always been the Beezus to my sister Faith’s Ramona. I have so many fond early memories of our parents reading this series aloud to us (and later to my youngest sister, whose arrival paralleled Roberta’s and cemented in our minds that this series was somehow Meant For Us) that for a long time, “reading” and “Beverly Cleary” were practically synonymous in my mind. On our first childhood trip to Portland, the two most important stops on our list were the nigh-mythical Powell’s Books and Klickitat Street, so we could say we’d been where Beezus and Ramona grew up. Beezus and Ramona was first published in 1955, but its pitch-perfect portrayal of sisterhood — “I love her, but I don’t have to like her!” — is just as compelling and relatable today, as is Beezus’s chafing against her reputation as the “responsible” one, and Ramona’s incredible, heartwarming capacity for mischief.
— Madeline S.
Set in the brutal Oregon high country in the 1890s, The Jump-Off Creek tells the story of the widow Lydia Sanderson and her struggles to settle in an unforgiving land. Gloss did her research, drawing on pioneer journals and hand-me-down stories, and she writes with a quiet restraint that respects the characters and their vast surroundings. Anyone interested in what life was actually like for Oregon's pioneers — the elaborate responsibilities of homesteading, the solitude interrupted by pointed human encounters, the very real dangers of a hostile landscape — will find much to grab hold of and admire in this masterful debut.
— Renee P.
Frequently dubbed the "quintessential Oregon novel," Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion bears remarkable similarity to our fabled Oregon winters: seemingly sprawling and unending at first, characterized by incessant rain, somewhat disorienting until you become acclimated, yet ultimately compelling, fecund, and altogether necessary. Not only is Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's masterwork, it very well may encapsulate the American ethic and landscape as well as any other novel of its era. Concerned with the ongoing timber strike in the fictional coastal range town of Wakonda, Sometimes a Great Notion revolves around the very proud and unyielding Stamper family, who decide to continue logging despite the acrimony and pleading of their neighbors. One could easily make the case that Kesey’s novel is mainly about the labor struggle or encroaching modernity or the timber industry or Oregon itself, but, at its root, it’s also about the underlying and driving motivations that characterize the complexity of interpersonal relationships. Hubris, stubbornness, revenge, jealousy, envy... this fantastic, unforgettable novel, while propelled by some of the basest of human emotions, is also marked by some of the noblest: love, loyalty, camaraderie, and kindness.
— Jeremy G.
Astoria is Peter Stark’s epic telling of the establishment of what was intended to be the base of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific fur trading empire. The harrowing journeys that led the settlers — by sail, canoe, or overland — to the mouth of the Columbia River are almost beyond belief. The obstacles they faced included not just the many natural barriers of an unmapped continent — sand bars, river canyons, and mountains — but also the self-defeating vices they brought with them: greed, paranoia, murder, and war. Stark doesn’t shy away from the fact that the bravery of the explorers was all in service of the desire to exploit the sea otters and Native peoples that already inhabited the area, and while Astor’s empire ultimately wasn’t built off the Pacific, that exploitation came nevertheless.
— Keith M.
The Highest Tide has much to recommend it, principally a wonderful narrator (a tiny 13-year-old named Miles O'Malley, who is reminiscent of a geekier, less confident Holden Caulfield) and Lynch’s surprising, successful use of ocean ecology as its primary story line. A dislocated ragfish, a swarm of bioluminescent worms, and yes, a giant squid, are the engines which drive the plot — and it's absolutely fascinating. (When a novel can simultaneously make you laugh and teach you all you never knew about geoduck clams, you've got to be at least a little impressed.) With ever-increasing evidence of the ways our impact on the planet is affecting the oceans, The Highest Tide is an increasingly relevant read — a classic, quirky coming-of-age tale with an appealingly honest voice and a mesmerizing exploration of ocean life.
— Jill O.
Amanda Coplin’s debut novel fits squarely into the Really Wonderful Novel category, and deserves a far wider readership. Set among the apple orchards of Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, The Orchardist follows the life of the introspective Talmadge, who, as a child, loses his family in quick succession to accident, illness, and mystery. As an adult, Talmadge’s solitary life is disrupted by the arrival of two pregnant runaway prostitutes, Della and Jane, and the drama that trails behind them. Coplin does a magnificent job of depicting the almost paradisiacal valley landscape, aided and threatened by the arrival of the steam engine, and of the diverse people who call it home: Nez Perce horsemen, frontier criminals and victims, farmers, and tenacious pioneer women. I fell in love with Talmadge’s paternal gentleness and Della’s ferociousness, and with the gorgeous and bygone fruit-laden land where their stories take place. But don’t mistake The Orchardist for a nostalgia piece — Coplin’s storytelling is wise to our tendency to mythologize and soften the West, and resists it with profound characters and a love for the region strong enough to admit its faults and wonders.
— Rhianna W.
The stories in Margaret Malone’s People Like You are so good — they’re only-book-on-a-desert-island good. They are exactly why I read, with their sumptuous minimalism, their gorgeous, particular detail, their delicious deadpan humor, their off-kilter characters. Like the book’s title, every sentence and paragraph is elegantly constructed to mean what it means and to mean more. But the main reason I’d keep this book on that desert island and go without warmth if it were the last piece of available kindling is that underneath all of Malone’s delicately honed skill is a voice so true, so absolutely you and me, bearing witness to the traumas, triumphs, and tragedies of all the tiny moments of regular life.
— Gigi L.
As someone who has broadened the notion of what it means to be both a world traveler and a profoundly curious writer, it’s no wonder that National Book Award–winning author Barry Lopez, now 74 years old and battling terminal cancer, has given us a work so expansive it can only be named Horizon. Lopez has visited more than 70 countries, and though his book is loosely divided into just six regions — from the Oregon Coast to the Transantarctic Mountains — it wanders off course with the regularity you’d expect from a seasoned explorer. Lopez’s facility in drawing parallels between cultures, the natural environment, and his own experiences makes Horizon much more than a travelogue or a memoir; it’s a deeply personal and fluid meditation on a devastated and devastatingly beautiful world — and what happens next depends entirely on human compassion. It’s a book infused with urgency and wisdom, written by someone who has, as much as possible, seen it all.
— Renee P.
In Cathedral, Carver’s third short story collection, he adds more detail and color to his bleak landscapes, and the unrelenting misery of his characters abates a bit. There’s a breath of possibility in every story, a beam of light that illuminates and pierces the heart of the reader, and it’s those moments of illumination that grab me every time I read through Cathedral.
— Mary Jo S.
This book hits close to home, literally. Peter Rock’s unsettling novel was inspired by a real-life family that spent years living undetected in Portland’s enormous inner-city wilderness, Forest Park. In Rock’s fictional retelling, 13-year-old Caroline and Father live a relatively stable existence in the park, with a strict routine of chores and school work and time allotted to wander and forage. When a jogger spies their makeshift home and calls social services, the two are placed on a horse farm to resume living a “normal” life. Unwilling to acclimate, Father forces Caroline to leave the farm for a series of increasingly desperate and dangerous situations. While the plot is riveting, what makes My Abandonment the kind of book that will linger in your mind for years is the troubling but fierce love that inspires Father’s actions, and the unsettling ways the ideals and experiences of her childhood shape Caroline as she matures. Completely contrary to the popular narrative of rescue and rehabilitation, My Abandonment is a masterful examination of parental love and duty, and the state’s role in mandating what those should look like and why.
— Rhianna W.
Regional author Egan’s classic travelogue of the Pacific Northwest has only grown more prescient (and pressing) since its 1990 release. In The Good Rain, Egan follows the path of Theodore Winthrop, who in 1853 journeyed across Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Winthrop was overcome by the wild majesty of the Pacific Northwest; Egan is equally in awe, but also angry about the clear-cutting of old-growth forests, threats to local animals like salmon and wolves, and the continuing repercussions of the violent white expansion into Native lands. Egan’s a fluid and engaging writer, allowing even the somber portions of this book to sparkle with the enticement and energy of a story well told. A vivid portrait of our beautiful and irreplaceable wilderness, The Good Rain is not to be missed.
— Matt K.
“If you’re the devil, then it’s not me telling this story.” How can a book that opens like that not be the perfect combination of intimate and epic? Tom Spanbauer’s iconic tale of the (very quirky, very particular) Old West follows the lives of Idaho madam Ida Richlieu, widowed prostitute Alma Hatch, Montana cowboy Dellwood Barker, and narrator “Shed,” a half-Shoshone bisexual young man seeking love in a hostile world. Written with his brilliant mastery of voice and detail and his wealth of wisdom and insight, Spanbauer’s saga of race, sexuality, cruelty, and humanity has deservedly become a true classic of Pacific Northwest fiction.
— Gigi L.
Where to start with this strange little book? The Sisters brothers are a pair of killers-for-hire: Charlie, the hard-boiled pragmatist of the pair, and Eli, the reluctant, sensitive softy. Assigned their next hit, the pair begins a long and winding journey which leads them in a wildly atypical direction: they befriend their "hit" and events diverge from the normal sordid path. Packed with quirky, dark humor and razor-sharp character studies, The Sisters Brothers presents an unusual treat: a pair of killers with whom you cannot help but sympathize. Just embrace the peculiarity here. Offbeat, idiosyncratic, and odd, this is one novel you won't soon forget.
— Dianah H.
A Tale for the Time Being is a hard book to describe. First of all, it’s two stories in one — the story of Ruth Ozeki (the character, who may or may not also be Ruth Ozeki, the author), a writer living on a Pacific Northwest island where a diary from Japan washes up on the beach, and Nao, the teenaged Japanese journal writer whose story Ruth gets caught up in. But it’s so much more than that — it’s also the story of Nao’s family, Ruth’s husband, the flora and fauna of the PNW, and the cultural complications of modern Tokyo. It’s primarily an exploration of time that also touches on topics like Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, teen bullying, war, suicide, what it means to be human, and many other themes. Ozeki manages to pull it all together in a way that reads beautifully, provokes thought, and has a real impact. I loved the characters, the settings, and the philosophical themes — my only quibble is that I wish the book was longer. I didn’t want it to end.
— Leah C.
Charles D'Ambrosio's essays are excitingly good. They are relevant in the way that makes you read them out loud, to anyone who happens to be around. Their subjects include Hell House, a Christian haunted house in Texas designed for conversion; Mary Kay Letourneau (at the time of her trial); whaling rights for the Makah Tribe in Alaska; his brother's suicide; and the title piece, about life in a Russian orphanage. D'Ambrosio's essays do what good essays should do: they migrate from the overt situation to personal extrapolation to the larger cultural or artistic or philosophical implications of the subject at hand. As such, they have a timeless quality about them; and at times they move, charmingly, more like poems than like essays. 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.
— Jill O.
I first encountered Eli Clare’s slim memoir in a graduate course on Disability Theory, but to be honest what really struck me at the time — and has stayed with me in the years since — is Clare’s way of integrating the seasonal shifts and geography of Oregon into his powerful story of navigating life as a trans man with cerebral palsy. Exile and Pride does an astonishing job of conveying the parallel experiences of personal and environmental destruction and rehabilitation; it’s become a trope to think of the body as a landscape, but Clare vividly demonstrates how capitalism infiltrates not just the ways we choose to use our environmental resources, but how we view and use one another’s bodies. To his way of thinking, the more alienated we are from our natural environment, the easier it is to become alienated from ourselves and others; and it is easy to abuse what you don’t appreciate or understand. Since its initial publication in 1999, we’ve seen a boom in excellent books on gender and disability theory. What I love about Exile and Pride is its localism: Clare’s story and insights are borne of the Oregon experience, but they shed critical light on life everywhere.
— Rhianna W.
Survival Math is a brilliant memoir told in a unique and powerful voice. Jackson explores his family history, the history of Portland, and the larger issues that surrounded his childhood. “Survival math” refers to the hard economic choices he and his family made in one the whitest cities in America. Jackson’s eloquent and mesmerizing prose makes this a standout read.
— Mary Jo S.
It’s tea time for two of the three remaining residents of New Eden. He’s 99, she’s about to turn 100. Heading their way, hoping to break up this tea, is the third human still standing in this strange, isolated town, himself a spry 89 years old and carrying with him the deep secret he’s been holding all his adult life. Robert Hill’s marvelously bizarre tale is full of rollicking weirdness, quirky characters with names like Brisket Whiskerhooven and Remedial Bliss — and some of the best, most brilliant wordsmithing I’ve ever read. But though I could joyfully swallow this book whole for the writing alone, Hill’s voice-magic and humor never get in the way of — and in fact somehow enhance — the deep-down humanness and sadness and beauty of the story. The Remnants is truly a book unlike any I’ve read before.
— Gigi L.
I haven't enjoyed a book this much in so long! Set in a tiny coastal Oregon town, this story is populated with characters who seem to leap off the page and speak their lines into your ear. They are that real. Brian Doyle breaks all the so-called "rules" of good writing, yet this book is rich and layered and beautiful and profound. Riotous and complex, Doyle's lush tale compels you to read faster than you'd like, because you can't stand not knowing just what the heck is going to happen next. Every sentence is a tiny jewel you want to roll around on your tongue and slowly savor. Quirky, unique, and delightful, the tale of Neawanaka gets under your skin and lives inside you. Go read it!
— Dianah H.
As a teenager who often felt alone in my weirdness, reading Geek Love changed EVERYTHING for me. Discovering this story of a circus family that purposefully experiments with drugs and chemicals to create children (and therefore performers) with physical deformities rocked my world! The idea that weird could be considered good, that uniqueness was a gift, and that differences should be celebrated? Well, that was mind-blowing. Fast forward many years and this book is still incredibly affecting. The writing is straightforward but extremely skilled, and the story and characters are complex and fascinating. There are so many weighty themes crammed into this relatively simple tale, from power to fate to hubris to identity to rage to love, all explored with intelligence, wit, and empathy. Sometimes a creepy horror story, other times a tale of unrequited love, this book will surprise you, push your buttons, and hopefully, make you feel like a mind-blown teenager again.
— Leah C.
No list of Pacific Northwest must-haves is complete without a title from our reigning goddess of sci-fi, fantasy, and literature, Ursula K. Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven, to me, feels like her sleeper hit; of course, lots of people have read and loved it, and there are even two TV movie adaptations, but it still doesn't seem to get the recognition of The Left Hand of Darkness or her Earthsea series. Published in 1971 and set in Portland, Oregon, in 2002 (a markedly drearier and even rainier place than the real Portland), the novel centers on George Orr, whose dreams change external reality, though he's the only one who realizes it. When he starts going to a court-mandated therapy to deal with the drugs he's taking to try and stop his dreaming, an unscrupulous psychiatrist starts using Orr's abilities for his own visions of the world. The Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating and page-turning examination of power and corruption, and a perfect example of the insight and clarity about humanity that makes up the backbone of Le Guin's fiction. (It also features Mt. Hood prominently, in some very surprising ways...)
— Jill O.
I’ve been an admirer of local war reporter/comics journalist Joe Sacco since reading Safe Area Goražde, his incredible long-form comic about the Bosnian War. Journalism gathers many of his shorter cartoon pieces from war zones ranging from the Russian military occupation of Chechnya to the Iraq War to the Gaza Strip. Though the locations change, Sacco’s commitment to capturing the daily realities of both military and civilian life in a war zone, and his obvious empathy for those struggling through violence and oppression, are deeply moving and informative. Sacco often positions himself within the narrative, a canny device that simultaneously admits to the subjectivity of his work and reminds the reader than he was there — meeting people, witnessing their lives, and coming home to share their stories with others. Reading Journalism gave me new eyes with which to view the world, and a profound appreciation for the power of comics to communicate what can’t be described using words alone.
— Rhianna W.
Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir, The Chronology of Water, is fierce and voluptuous. Intimate and expansive. Hard, hard stuff presented in gorgeous, sometimes beautifully experimental language. When it first came out, I picked it up on impulse, knowing nothing about the author, read the first line, and was crying before I reached the end of the opening segment. She writes about the darkness of her childhood and the chaos of her young adulthood as she spun out of control and spun, also, toward finally reclaiming herself. There’s heartbreak in here, yes. That’s part of why I cried when I cried (oh, so many times) reading this book. But what really brings tears to my eyes when I read is the beauty.
— Gigi L.
Heart Berries is a slender jewel of a memoir written in an original and unexpected new voice. Terese Marie Mailhot has found such unusual and delightful ways to play with language that the words don’t feel written so much as physically extracted from her body, emerging twisted, honest, and wholly beautiful. The structure of the book is designed to mirror her mindset, so while it starts out rather jumpy and chaotic, as she moves through the hard times and builds strength and power, the narrative becomes more straightforward and linear. The subject matter is serious and often heartbreaking as she explores her life as an Indigenous woman in the Pacific Northwest — exploring such subjects as mental illness, grief, bigotry, motherhood, addiction, need, and betrayal — but Mailhot approaches these topics with such a forceful, raw, and truthful sensibility that somehow, you still trust she’s going to make it through. And make it through she does! Ultimately, Mailhot is a survivor, and perhaps most impressively manages to hold onto hope despite everything she’s been through. And as a result, you can’t help but feel hopeful as well.
— Leah C.