Book Recommendations–Horse Stories

Often a late bloomer, I missed the phase of life known as pre-teen-girl-becomes-horse-crazy.  Well, I am finally and happily blooming into that phase at almost 70, after moving to a new location where rescued horses and donkeys come with the property.  I have the best of both worlds: petting and smelling and feeding treats to three horses without having to pay the feed or vet bills.  Which brings me to the subject of reading horse stories, of which there are almost as many as there are dog stories. Nearly overwhelming, but here is a place to start with some of my favorites.


iuHorse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

In case you have not read any of Smiley’s excellent books, I recommend this very accessible and lively story set in the thoroughbred horse racing mileau of Southern California. Smiley never seems to write the same story twice–her novels are varied and fully developed. She clearly knows the world of horses and horse racing more than most, and I learned a lot while being entertained. The novel is Dickensonian in scope and story–it’s over 600 pages, with a cast of 50 characters, one of the best being a Jack Russell terrier! And as an added bonus, what I remember most is that this story includes one of the most erotic love scenes I have ever read–but no spoiler from me–you’ll have to find those pages for yourself.


The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts

Here is a true Cinderella story, which none of us can resist even as they may be hard to9780345521095_p0_v2_s114x166 believe. Farmer and horse lover Harry de Leyer was headed for a horse auction one winter’s day in the mid-1950’s, but arrived too late to bid.  Instead he saw a dirty white plow horse headed for slaughter and bought him for $80 just to save the horse’s life.  Snowman went on to become a national jumping champion two years later, after de Leyer discovered the horse loved to jump, and was unnaturally steady and calm.  In the world of horse jumping in the years after WWII, money and image were everything, and the combination of a young Dutch immigrant farmer paired with a workhorse not known for his looks made a most unlikely pair. An engaging story, well told.


9780156031172_p0_v2_s114x166Chosen by a Horse, by Susan Richards

Another Cinderella horse story (is there any other kind?), this memoir captured my interest because both the horse being rescued and the woman who rescues had been abused. Richards, who entered her 40’s with a lot of baggage–years of previous addiction, an abusive family and ex-husband–was asked to rescue an abused mare named Lay Me Down and her foal. Already caring for three horses, Richards was somewhat reluctant to take on two more, especially ones that came with such a rough history.  But she soon discovered that her new rescue had more trust and vulnerability than she did, and healing began.  Now there is not an animal story that I know of that does not involve loss, and this is no different. This memoir is a quick read, flows smoothly, and may seem like it could be easily forgotten later. But it sticks.


The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

We have sold so many copies of this book at Darvill’s, I would be surprised if you don’t9780547085753_p0_v2_s114x166 already own it; it is a long-time staff favorite. Set in Eastern Oregon in 1917, at a time when local men were going off to war, a young Martha Lessen showed up at the Bliss’s ranch looking for work breaking horses. George, the ranch owner, thinks he sees something unique in the shy 19 year old and gives her a chance. She has a serious intelligence, and gentle way with the most recalcitrant animals, a style we have come to know as a “horse whisperer”.  This style earns her both new friends and an enemy in the form of another ranch hand who is abusive and insensitive. This story lacks the sentimentality and sappiness of many an animal story–fiction or not.  Instead, Gloss has told a story both familiar and fresh, with a wry wit to boot. It is a real winner! 


Painted Horses, by Malcolm Brooks

9780802121646_p0_v3_s114x166A debut by an author with much potential, I believe, set in mid-1950’s rural Montana.  A young female archeologist is sent to Billings to survey the site of a dam about to be built, to determine if native artifacts are present before the dam is filled.  She is naive, maybe a bit too much so, yet wary.  Her character is not as fully developed as I would have hoped, yet the book delivers a strong sense of place and time (I thought of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his take on horse culture).  Brooks’ gift of that spare yet lush description of the West, its rawness and beauty, is evident throughout.  He evokes the kind of change that has a dark underside to it and has always been present in the history of the West: those who want it to stay the way it was, and those who thirst for development. This story, enhanced by characters who represent both sides of that classic western drama, is lovely and makes me nostalgic for the days when I first discovered authors like Zane Grey and Ivan Doig.


Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand

Still another rags to riches story, this one set in the depression era when people needed9780449005613_p0_v1_s114x166  fantasy so badly. Although Seabiscuit had patrician bloodlines (a descendant of Man O’ War), his legs were misshapen and he had a strange gait.  But four men, particularly trainer Tom Smith, saw the potential in the horse and trained him to overcome his handicaps, accidents and injuries he suffered as he progressed in his racing career.  The highlight of his story was a 1938 race against his acclaimed rival, War Admiral. Hillenbrand is a remarkable writer–passionate and involved with her subjects. She is also famous for Unbroken, which has dominated the best seller list for over four years, and was recently made into a movie.  This book set the stage for her to write Unbroken, and it spent over a year on the best seller list itself.  Well deserved!




Book Recommendations–Memorable Memoirs

Of all the genres one could read, biography and memoir has to be my favorite.  There is nothing quite so fascinating to me as someone else’s life story, or parts of a life story.  Memoirs in particular seem to resound with the strongest emotional landscapes, as they are recounted by the person who has experienced them. Besides my all-time favorite (if I had to choose only one) Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams, here are more titles that stayed with me long after I closed the books.


Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje

9780679746690_p0_v2_s114x166I am particularly enamored with Ondaatje’s poetry  (Rat Jelly 1973, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid 1970), but most readers may remember him more for The English Patient.  Yet what remains most strongly in my mind is his semi-fictional memoir about his childhood in Sri Lanka, where he lived until he was eleven. Wildly exotic, outrageously laughable and elegantly presented, this memoir has been further embellished with a sprinkling of the author’s lovely poems and old family photographs. The story unfolds in a non-linear arc; there are short vignettes and family stories rather than a classic narrative style. It written after Ondaatje visited his native country in the 1970’s (he is Canadian, born of a Dutch mother and Sinhalese/Tamil father).  Charming, exotic, and bittersweet, plus written by an acclaimed writer who deserves all the awards bestowed upon him over the years.


A Match to the Heart, by Gretel Ehrlich

An acclaimed nature writer, Erlich deserves to be more widely read.   This 9780140179378_p0_v1_s114x166breathtaking memoir, about being hit by lightning years ago during a storm near her Wyoming ranch, was published in 1994. It is part thriller, part medical science, and a wholly human story.  Erlich struggles to understand what happened to her, after realizing she is in a hospital, and how to heal against  huge odds.  She is aided by an immensely talented and perceptive cardiologist, and an immensely perceptive dog in her healing.  For anyone who has had heart surgery, her description of the process (the lightning did the most damage to her heart) should be required reading.  And for the rest of us, it is a fantastic story of a near-death experience, coupled with her luminous nature writing.


9780553354829_p0_v1_s114x166An Unknown Woman, by Alice Koller

When I discovered this book years ago (published in 1981) I was jealous of the journey Koller was undertaking at age 37.  It sounded almost romantic–alone with a new puppy in a rental house on Nantucket, walking daily by the sea in winter, virtually cut off from the outside world.  Then I realized–I would have to face myself and my thoughts day after day after day.  And train a new puppy. No thanks!  However, Koller’s story is not romantic; it is insightful, brave and wholly convincing. What she does, in short, is to analyze herself during this withdrawal from the world: the pain of past relationships and mistakes, what she contributed to those challenges in her life, and what she decided to change. The story is laced with her observations about a newly developing love for her dog, which gives it empathic comic relief. While we do not find out what happens to her once she returns to civilization after a number of months, that seems unimportant in the context of this “woman’s Walden”.


West with the Night, by Beryl Markham

Considered a classic, and well-loved for years, I cannot review this genre9780865477636_p0_v1_s114x166 without including this story that I so cherish, and bookstores (particularly Darvill’s) still carry. Even  Ernest Hemingway proclaimed himself “ashamed of myself as a writer” when comparing Markham’s writing to his own. She was a remarkably able and brave young woman who was born in England, grew up in East Africa, then became an aviator.  From 1931 to 1936 she carried mail, passengers and supplies to and from Kenya, the Sudan, Rhodesia and Tanganyika, and in 1936 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  If there are any among you who have not read this treasure, please consider yourself intellectually impoverished.  But there is a quick and delightful cure for such an affliction!


In the Wilderness, by Kim Barnes

9780385478212_p0_v1_s114x166Barnes, an award-winning poet from Idaho, wrote this memoir of growing up in a logging camp in the northern Idaho forests, from which she has created a rugged and tender story.  Life as a young girl was steeped in poverty, yet joyful and free as she and her family explored nature and made their home in the woods.  As logging started to decline in the 1960’s, her father lost his job and moved the family to Lewiston, where he tried to assuage his anger and hurt at losing his work by turning to a pentecostal religion.  From playing in the woods and exploring with abandon to adopting paternalistic and rigidly enforced rules, Barnes felt she had to rebel against her family’s change.  Eventually, she went to live with with a family who, who helped her move from rebellion to reconciling with her family with less judgment and more maturity and understanding.  Beautifully written and deeply moving, it is both a coming of age story and one about the profound effects of economic and cultural change.


Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton

I admit it, I am a fool for almost anything by May Sarton; poet, fiction writer and creator of some of the most honest and fascinating memoirs.  Sarton (1912-1995) kept9780393309287_p0_v1_s114x166 journals for most of her literary life, and published many of them.  This was probably her best-selling non-fiction title, and I found it strangely comforting, gentle and quiet.  But Sarton was living and writing in a different time and a very different world.  She muses on her writing, visits with (or from) friends, gardening, birds, weather, and particularly the vagaries of her own personality.  Known as a “difficult” person, Sarton tries to mine her own emotional landscape for clues as to how to behave with others, and that is part of her journal’s appeal. She can make the most mundane of daily activities seem fascinating and enriching. I also loved Plant Dreaming Deep and The House by the Sea.



Book Recommendations–Important Ideas

It may seem like a strange topic for the holidays, but the gifts that books bring into my life are most precious when they stretch my thinking, challenge old beliefs, and put into words the feelings I have that are too complex or deep to be able to articulate. There are many original thinkers and writers out there: these are only a very few of my favorites. So this is my holiday “gift” to those of you who like to read widely–a list of books, most fairly recent, that have given me new insights into life’s many ideas.


The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman

9780393240740_p0_v2_s114x166Ackerman is one of those writers whose subjects, mostly scientific, explore her boundless interest in how humans “work” in the world.   Here, she tackles the deeply important question of how humans have changed the world; how the intersection of people and nature have made for both innovation and extinction.   She optimistically explores innovations in farming, such as the exploding popularity of organic and rooftop farming in urban-landscaped places such as Manhattan. She also examines human innovations using energy sources such as wind, solar and even body heat.  She is less optimistic, and rightly so, about the changes in animal species and their longevity as a result of intersecting with humans. And where, she asks, is the charm in inventions such as robotics?  Her conclusion: there are a lot of tradeoffs and this is the world as we get to experience it–for good and ill.  Ackerman always writes with both charm and intelligence, which is what has kept me reading her books for years.


Justice, by Michael Sandel

When I first read this book a few years ago, I knew it was an important book–very important.9780374532505_p0_v1_s114x166 And so do thousands of others, based on how widely distributed the contents have become.  Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy since 1980, has become a celebrity (with standing room only classes and a PBS series based on the book), partly because of the topic of this book, subtitled “What’s the Right Thing to Do?”  Sandel explores the ethical issues, where no black and white answers may prevail, to contemporary topics such as military conscription, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and surrogate parenting.  He explains, in empathetic and open-minded terms, theories of justice based on maximizing personal freedom, minimizing social harm, and concern for developing collective civic virtue.  He wants his students, in particular, to grasp that ethical concerns are difficult to juggle, and that there is no “perfect” answer, mostly hard choices.


9781555976897_p0_v1_s114x166On Immunity, by Eula Biss

For all the screeching from pro and con sides of the vaccine debate (fueled partly by the fear that vaccines have contributed to the soaring rates of autism), here at last is not only a history of vaccines but an intelligent look at all sides of the issue.  Why I decided to pick up a book on the subject has to do with the fact that I have been advised not to have any more vaccines, due to an immune illness several years ago. Biss deserves kudos for not only the uniqueness of her subject, but her dogged pursuit of all sides of the issue, and profiles of people involved such as scientists, patients, and political decision-makers. Who would believe me if I told them a book on immunity was one of my top picks among the books I read this year?  Science has many skilled and imaginative writers now days, and Biss is a writer to be watched.  This book provided me with an education of the most intriguing kind.


The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

This is one of the most unique books I have come across in a long, long time–a collection of essays that explore the many aspects of empathy–both from the author’s own experience and that of others.  I would Empathy-Exams-Jamison-200x300call it a brave book. Jamison’s stories encompass a huge range of examples of empathy, from deeply graceful to exceedingly painful.  She starts with her own experience as a “medical actor”, helping medical students learn to carefully listen and diagnose from scripted symptoms.  Violence and crime, reality television, extremely painful illness, tourism in a country of dire poverty–I was constantly astounded at the depth of this writer’s intelligence and compassion (and she looks so young in her cover photo!).  I have recently been seeing this important book appear on lists of the year’s best non-fiction, and it is tremendously well-deserved.  Take a plunge here, and I am sure you will be impressed too.



Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

So far there is not a book or column (NY Times) of Gawande’s that I have not read with great interest–and as a top-rated physician, he is in a unique position to write about modern medicine. I think this book is his best, and most important. Half of the book concerns living options as we age–and how we can age with more choices and self-respect.  The  second part concerns how we can die with dignity. One of his major points is that the amazing advances in medical care in the past century have left most health care providers with a laser focus on saving a life, and almost none on the quality of life  the patient will have after being subjected to those techniques.  It is the subject of conversation we all should be having with our loved ones and each other–it is a subject whose time is unconscionably overdue, and Gawande brings great credibility and passion to the subject.


Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Of all the books that have been recommended to me about why a person would want to live–this is the classic.  I am sure9780807014295_p0_v1_s114x166 most of you have read it at some time, but I would be remiss if I did not include it as one of the books that has a place of great importance in my life. Named one of the ten most influential books in the world, it chronicles the experience of Viennese psychologist Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.  What Frankl noticed, in particular, was that some less hardy people survived when others who were not as ill and starving died.  He came up with his theory, that those with meaning, or hope in their lives had a greater chance at survival. Called logotherapy, it promotes three methods of discovering meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude a person takes toward unavoidable suffering. No wonder the book has sold over 12 million copies!


Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

9780393317558_p0_v1_s114x166In my opinion, Diamond is a truly original thinker, and I have read this book and watched the PBS version of it with utter fascination.  His theory that three of the major influences on the rise of civilization and survival of societies have been geography, environment and the ability to develop tools and technology (not to worry, germs are not left out! While ambitious in scope (it covers human history since the ice age), it is intellectually intriguing, and has given rise to many spirited discussions among those who have read it.  Instead of attributing Eurasian influence and domination to racial or intellectual causes, he makes the case that those who could produce their own food and tools, leaving behind the hunter-gatherer life that most humans maintained for centuries, had the greatest opportunity to travel and conquer other peoples. When Diamond writes a book or article, I tackle it with gusto.


Book Recommendations–Fall Treats


Fall delivers so many treats, and one of the best is the abundance of new books that publishers traditionally release at this time of year.  The stacks by my bed, by my reading chair, and on my desk constitute only a small number of a glut of new titles, too many to mention at once.  It is a bit like choosing my favorite Halloween candy from a particularly large stash.  But wait!  These are all sugar-free, and so, so yummy!


The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

9780062306814_p0_v3_s114x166What charmed me about this book are its themes–miniatures (as in doll-like houses), Amsterdam in the 17th century, and a bright and unique young heroine who is a new bride in an arranged marriage. Nella is from a formerly-wealthy country family, who marries and moves to the house of a wealthy older man in Amsterdam, a man who is kind but curiously detached and physically remote.  For a wedding present, however, he presents Nella with a cabinet house (based on an actual 17th-century dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) that replicates  every room in their  home. Her efforts to furnish it lead Nella to an enigmatic miniaturist, who recreates the furnishings, people and animals of the home a little at a time, and who must know more about the family than Nella, possibly foreseeing things that have not yet come to pass.  Burton brings Amsterdam vividly to life, fascinating enough by itself.  And the plot reads like a thriller, as Nella tries to understand the family and its secrets. This is a surprisingly accomplished first novel, much deeper and richer than I expected.


The Interior Circuit: a Mexico City Chronicle, by Francisco Goldman

Goldman first came to my attention with his haunting novel/memoir, Say Her Name, which recounted the death of his young wife Aura in a freak surfing accident in 2007. In the 9780802122568_p0_v3_s114x166 intervening years, while mourning her death, Goldman decided to spend as much time as he could in Mexico City, where he and Aura had met and lived.  He wanted to learn to drive the circuit, a thirty mile ring around the city, partly to immerse himself in the city, and to draw symbolic ring around his grief.  Driving in Mexico City (known as “the DF”) is not for the faint of heart, as neighborhood streets intersect each other at unanticipated angles, dumping cars into thoroughfares with no merging lanes, each car driven by “wild-eyed, eager race-car drivers who veer off track”.  What Goldman contemplates, during his examination of the city, is not only his personal grief, but the ongoing tragedy of Mexico’s narcoviolence, which in previous decades had left the city “untouched, although still corrupt”. Goldman has tackled and brought into focus a portrait of one of the world’s great historic, tragic and beautiful cities.


Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

9780374187613_p0_v1_s114x166For years, I was almost embarrassed to say that I had read only one of Robinson’s books, Housekeeping, and skipped her newer novels.  Now I’m glad I waited, for Lila is the backstory of a central character for Robinson’s best selling novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008).  I can hardly wait to tackle those two that I missed, now that I am so taken in by her unusual characters and the small town in Iowa that they inhabit.  Lila, a former orphan has had a tough life on the run, barely surviving before (and after) being “stolen” by an older girl who saw the small child neglected and abandoned.  Years later, Lila finds the small town of Gilead, where she ends up settling in (against her instincts) and even marrying an older man, the local preacher.  Robinson is such a skilled writer she can handle burning material with the most delicate care.  Particularly in her portrayal of the relationship of Lila and her new husband, I often held my breath to see what Lila would say or do, only to end up more breathless at the outcome.  A tender, tough and beautiful story.


The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean

How could I ever resist a book that is subtitled “the history of the human brain” by 9780316182348_p0_v1_s114x166popular science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb)? What makes Kean’s book particularly appealing, (amidst hundreds of books about the brain) is his skill using true stories of unusual doctors, maladies and cures to illustrate this history.  The history of medicine often seems to be one ill-timed, gruesome and unbelievable experiment after another that can make the stomach turn and the mind reel.  Yet among those stories the creativity and determination of doctors who have paved the way for innovations in mental health, surgery, and infectious disease cures stands out.  It would be hard to pick a favorite chapter, as each illuminated a part or function of the brain that I did not want to miss. Science writing is one of the strongest genres being published today, and if I were you, I would not want to miss this one!


The Secret Place, by Tana French

9780670026326_p0_v4_s114x166Many of you know by now that I am a sucker for anything Tana French writes, and her newest is no exception.  This is her fifth novel in her Dublin-set mystery series, yet each of her books can stand alone, as she is adept at not necessarily following the same set of detectives each time. She often uses a minor character from a previous novel to play a major role in a newer novel.  In her typically lovely prose, she plumbs the complexities and depths of her characters in a way that few mystery writers do (P.D. James comes to mind, yet French can do as well with fewer words).  A recurring theme in all her books is adolescence, and in this novel a pair of detectives are assigned a cold case involving the year old murder of Chris Harper, who was a student at an exclusive Dublin school. French so beautifully renders the motivations and behaviors of cliques in the world of young women in this book, I could not put it down.  Warning: do not start The Secret Place unless you have hours to spend at one sitting, and have snacks in hand.


The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

Waters is the author of five other novels (including Night Watch (2006) and Tipping the Velvet, 1998), which I have not read but probably will now. Initially the9781594633119_p0_v1_s114x166 plot and setting of this novel intrigued me, and I was surprised at how masterfully she combined a keen examination of England’s post-Edwardian years, a lesbian love story, and a gripping thriller so seamlessly. With two brothers killed in WWI and her father’s death shortly after, Frances Wray and her mother are left struggling to maintain their London home with a huge debt.  They decide to take in an unhappily married couple as boarders, and the upshot is that the two women fall in love. Waters is known for her unusually silky prose, and a talent for lulling the reader into her smooth (and often comic) plot, then turning up the heat to scorching. A gripping mystery I could not stop thinking about, even two weeks after I finished it.




Book Recommendations–My Hometown

I grew up in the gorgeous Wenatchee Valley of Washington State, and just returned from a visit there for my 50th high school reunion. In spite of the growth it has experienced since my parents moved there in the mid-40’s, it is still gorgeous to me–lush orchards backed by high dryland plateaus and the foothills of the Cascades, with a wide blue ribbon of the Columbia winding through it.  To grow up in a small town during the 50’s and 60’s felt safe and magical–how lucky I was! Whenever I visit, it makes me long for “home”, and here are some stories that remind me of my hometown.


9780393967951_p0_v1_s114x166Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

When I read this story in high school, it made a deep impression on me, and when I read it again as an adult it felt as fresh and new as it had the first time. It is one of my very, very favorite classics.  Anderson published this novel in 1919, and it is considered his greatest work. Young George Willard, the somewhat omniscient narrator, is a reporter for the small town newspaper of Winesburg.  He explores the lives of its citizens in a series of “sketches” that illuminate their inner lives and struggles to fit in–into small town life and into themselves.  Small towns have a way of both judging and enfolding, strengthening and weakening, but ultimately help us come to know ourselves in ways city life cannot.  I obviously love small towns, and recognized so many character types that I knew growing up, in this universal tale of individual lives woven together.


A River Lost, the Life and Death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden

When I recently heard this author speak, I was so impressed that I bought the book 9780393342567_p0_v1_s114x166immediately and read it in two sittings.  Harden has a finely-honed journalistic gift: being compassionate toward both sides of controversial issues.  In this case, it is the pro-environmentalist- salmon-lovers and tribes, vs. farmers and businesses who need water for irrigation and cheap energy from the many dams on the Columbia.  Even though I grew up on the river, there were so many things I did not know about it until I read this book, particularly how much barge traffic the river handles, and how dumping more water over the spillways at particular times of the year is bringing back the salmon fisheries.  A very worthy read for anyone from the Northwest.


9780874221220_p0_v1_s114x166Rufus Woods, the Columbia River & the Building of Modern Washington, by Robert Ficken

This biography of the ever-eccentric, energetic publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World (now the Wenatchee World) was one of the Northwest’s most influential men.  His tireless promotion of Wenatchee and the Grand Coulee Dam had its supporters and detractors, and no one seemed to be in the middle!  I was only five when he died, yet our family was closely intertwined with the Woods'; our family “grew up” with the family of Rufus’ cousin, Warren, who also worked for the paper. It is still owned by the Woods family, and grandson Rufus is now the publisher. The story was fascinating to me because it not only examined the life of someone who cast a giant shadow in our valley, but because the politics and logistics of building the dam showcased federal policy and history in ways that are still being felt today. I loved reading more about a most unusual and memorable man, and more history about “my hometown.”


Hometown, by Tracy Kidder

I will at least try anything Kidder writes, and have loved almost all of them.  This is one I did not know until recently, and in true Kidder style he burrows into his subject (this one, the small town of Northampton, Massachusetts) and examines it in engrossing detail.  Most 9780671785215_p0_v1_s114x166of the complex drama of life in this small town (population 12,000) is examined through the eyes of Tommy O’Conner, a town cop.  But there are other characters equally complex:  a single mother given a chance to attend  prestigious Smith College, an executive with mental illness, and several others. What emerges is an unflinching yet tender portrait. While this may not be Kidder’s strongest book, even his runners-up are better than most authors’ first place offerings.


9780893011512_p0_v1_s260x420Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West, by Toby Sonneman and Rick Steigmeyer

Sonneman and Steigmeyer lived the migrant life of fruit pickers in the 1970’s, traveling from Florida to Washington State to follow the harvest. They lived within loose family groups of mostly Okie (former Oklahoman) migrants, trying to organize an advocacy group, which ultimately fell apart.  Much of the text and photographs were written about Washington’s harvests, a topic well-known by most of us who grew up or live in the Wenatchee Valley. Steigmeyer’s photographs are intimate and fascinating, capturing more of the grace and grit than the hardships of migrant life. They remind me of much of striking 1930’s WPA photographs.  Sonneman’s text is gracious and rich in detail about a way of life that has all but disappeared, as more migrant families stay put in one area.  This is a book I have owned for years, was a Western States Book Award winner in 1992, and  I would not part with it for anything!


East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

This is unlike most of my recommendations in that I loved most of the book, except for9781400032655_p0_v1_s114x166 the ending, which seemed not a reliable fit with the rest of the story.  So if you can ignore that, here is a painting that captures the Wenatchee Valley, where I grew up, perfectly.  Guterson describes the feel of the orchards, the harvest, weather, and the people so tactilely.  His story follows the fate of Ben Givens, a widower and retired surgeon, as he grapples with his terminal cancer.  He keeps living life, engaging with people around him and those whose paths cross his, and they represent a rich and varied group–a migrant worker, a drifter, a young couple, and a sage veterinarian, to name a few.  He hunts where my own Dad used to hunt, and captures the Palisades, south of Wenatchee, so well I could practically smell my Dad’s hunting jacket, pockets stuffed with Chukkers we would later have stewed for dinner.