Cascade Observations: A year of books

I’m literally closing the books on 2016 as the new year begins — reviewing my diary and my reading from the last year and counting the number of books read (42, for a total of 11,518 pages). I began this practice four years ago, urged on by a challenge to “Oregonian” readers from columnist Steve Duin. This year’s pages-turned totals weren’t a record, but I read 21 works of fiction and 21 non-fiction books, besting my previous years’ totals.

I revisited several authors who have become old “friends” after reading many of their books. I’ve never met most of them in person, but feel I know them through their words.

Timothy Egan is one such author. In 2016, I finished reading his complete collection (eight books) with his brilliant set of essays “Lasso the Wind,” his odd but interesting lone novel “The Winemaker’s Daughter,” and “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero” about Thomas Francis Meagher. His books are informative and fascinating, and frequently ask us to look closely at the West that we love, and at times are loving to death.

I picked up “Lasso the Wind” following a vacation I took to the Southwest with family. Many of my reading selections in 2016 have direct connections to my 2016 travels. While visiting Santa Fe, I read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” To prepare for a trip to northern Spain, I read local author Maureen Lauran’s wonderful memoir of hiking the Route of Saint James, “Carrying Grace to Santiago.” I learned a lot about the Basque country reading “Basque History of the World” by Mark Kurlansky. I was fascinated, and horrified, reading “Spain In Our Hearts: Americans In the Spanish Civil War,” an absolutely riveting book about courage and complacency. While reading it, I visited the Peace Museum in Guernica, Spain. The museum actively engages visitors in a visceral experience about war. The book and the museum visit left me filled with hope … and despair.

I’ve visited the Wallowas and the Hell’s Canyon area several times, and though I didn’t have the opportunity to do so physically in 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed “Temperance Creek” by Pam Royes, her memoir of four years spent sheepherding in those mountains with a mountain man who became her husband. When they left the wilderness to settle down and raise a family, they did so along the Imnaha River, where they built a charming home. Forty years later, that home is now a retreat for writers and vacationers who truly want to get away from it all.

Wilderness adventure books have always been a favorite genre for me. Years ago, 20-year-old Pete Fromm experienced wilderness first hand when he spent a winter caring for salmon eggs in the Selway-Bitterroot. From that experience, he wrote a wonderful book called “The Indian Creek Chronicles.” His new book, “The Names of the Stars,” tells the story of his return to the wilderness at 45.

Other favorite authors I revisited this year include Jane Smiley (her trilogy, “The Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga,” at 1,314 pages, is a commitment worth taking); Laura Esquivel (I read two of her books in Spanish this year, but her books are available in English); former “Gourmet” magazine editor Ruth Reichl (“For You Mom, Finally”); and Heather Lende (her charming books are “If You Lived Here, You’d Know My Name” and “Find the Good.”)

Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to books about misfits and others who may not fit easily in the world. In 2016, I read “The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins” by Dean Jensen; “Rosemary — The Hidden Kennedy Daughter” by Kate Clifford Larson; “American Heiress,” a comprehensive look at Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin; and “The Girls,” a novel by Emma Cline based on the real women who followed Charles Manson.

Every year, when reviewing my reading log, I try to spend time reflecting on the book or books that really stuck with me. 2015’s book was “Spare Parts,” a true story of a group of impoverished Latino students and their quest for greatness in the world of robotics competitions. Their story, about pursuing the American dream, was heartfelt and heart wrenching. A year later, as 2017 dawns and a new administration threatens to deport many, the themes of immigration and documentation loom large in my book list. I read several books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction, that shed light on these issues, particularly as they affect young people. “The Book of Unknown Americans,” a novel by Cristina Henriquez, was the “Multnomah County ‘Everybody Reads’” 2016 selection. “Across A Hundred Mountains,” a novel by Reyna Grande, focuses on families split apart by immigration; “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League,” by author Dan-El Padilla Peralta and “My Underground American Dream,” by Julisa Arce both tell the true stories of coming to America as children, and living daily with the threat of deportation.

I want to believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, but in a world overrun with violence and hate, it’s sometimes difficult to trust this is so. Books can’t end wars, but they can bring people together as a community. Every year, the Hood River County Library does just that, selecting a title or two and giving out free books for everyone to read, followed by community discussions. 2016’s book was Brian Doyle’s masterful “Martin, Marten.” This year’s books are “Ordinary Grace” by William Ken Krueger and “Mockingbird” by Kathryn Erskine. The kick-off with book giveaway is March 19. Krueger will visit Hood River county in late April.

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