Last month I mentioned some of the non-fiction books that I've found helpful in seeking a sense of place here in the Northwest. I've been reading novels for the same reason. Here are some I like, which may serve to help you find some good holiday gifts.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007). Much like the author, the 14-year-old Arnold Spirit grows up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, plays basketball, and transfers from the rez school to a white high school 20 miles away when he realizes it's his only chance for a better life. Like the best young protagonists, Junior sees what adults can't or won't. And he draws cartoons — supplied by illustrator Ellen Forney — that are just as funny, sad, and engaging as his storytelling.
The Seattleite Alexie has gotten a good deal of recognition outside of the Northwest for his first young adult effort, including a National Book Award, but not as much as this book deserves. The best part: Alexie says it's the start of a four-part series.
Waxwings, Jonathan Raban (Picador, 2003). Another autobiographical novel: I was wary at the prospect of a mid-career British writer in Seattle writing "fiction" about a mid-career British writer in Seattle. But after walking through the Wisteria Lane neighborhoods of Upper Queen Anne, I understood why Raban wanted to set a dark comedy about domestic discord up there: you can't help but wonder what goes on behind those relentlessly cheerful house-fronts.
The River Why (Sierra Club Books, 1983) and The Brothers K (Doubleday, 1992), David James Duncan. I can't write about Duncan's writing with anything resembling journalistic detachment. His two novels gripped me when I was 18 and never really let go. In The River Why, a disillusioned fly fisherman in suburban Portland attempts his own Waldeneseque hermitage on a Cascadian river. Like anyone who's sought cheap enlightenment in the wilderness, he finds the chatter of civilization replaced by the chatter of his own head. The search for a better way leads him back to people.
Broader in scope and power, The Brothers K follows four Camas, Washington brothers in the 1960s. Nothing I've read better captures the political, cultural, and spiritual upheavals of the era. The draft sends one brother to Vietnam and another fleeing to Canada. Another heads to India with a backpack of Hindu poetry. The youngest stays home and narrates. Their passionately religious mother and minor league-pitching father might be two of the most fascinating, complicated characters in American literature. (I'm trying to limit the hyperbole here, really.)
The title nods to the Russian tradition of sprawling familial epics and plays on baseball shorthand for a strikeout (K), as each brother strikes out in a different way before finding himself carried back in a sort of rebirth.
The Other, David Guterson (Knopf, 2008). When I requested this rich-kid, poor-kid Seattle buddy novel from Seattle Public Library three months ago, I was 200-somethingth on the waiting list. It's just recently become ready for pickup.
The Living, Annie Dillard. (Harper Collins, 1992) A great American mystic like Duncan, Dillard wields language with a control that is truly exceptional, even as she seems barely in control of her own starry-eyed love for the natural world. Other Dillard fans say this story about 19th century Bellingham Bay pioneers tale doesn't match the quality of her nonfiction. We'll see.