by KEVIN TAYLOR and ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & uch praise has been heaped on the three local authors who were finalists, this year and last, for the National Book Awards, considered the nation's highest literary award.
More praise should be heaped. For these guys to do what they did -- Sherman Alexie, 2007 NBA young people's literature winner for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Jess Walter, 2006 fiction finalist for The Zero, and Timothy Egan, 2006 nonfiction winner for The Worst Hard Time -- all at the same time is astonishing.
It's as if, in that other NBA, John Stockton had two other Spokane guys in the league at the same time as him, all whizzing around playing at the absolutely highest level.
So, of course, this is a gift guide and you can see where this is headed... or can you? Let's riff on this "local book" theme a little longer.
Everybody with a reader on their gift list will go for the big names -- in fact, finding a copy of Alexie's Absolutely True Diary or Walter's Citizen Vince can be a challenge, we hear. Instead, how about books that reflect the concept of "local" in surprising ways, or that come from surprising sources?
The Museum of North Idaho (museumni.org or 208-664-3448), for instance, has a completely unexpected offering, From Hell to Heaven, which details circumstances of fatalities in North Idaho mines and mills. Author Gene Hyde, a longtime Hecla Mining geologist, writes without hyperbole, and his chronicle of accidental death has surprising power.
The museum also stocks books about railroads of the region -- there's a new one on the Milwaukee Road in the Bitterroots! -- and the Lookout Cookbook, an eclectic volume that seeks out recipes and stories from the people who manned fire lookouts.
Another surprising source is the AIA (American Institute of Architecture) bookstore in downtown Spokane (aiaspokane.org or 747-5498). The hot tome touted on the Website is Sounding Spokane: Perspectives on the Built Environment of a Regional City.
Sure, it sounds as if it may be good only as a coaster, but this 2003 anthology edited by WSU professor David Wang addresses the interesting question: What does being an urban center for a large geographical region do to the communal identity of such a city as Spokane?
Sounding Spokane features chapters by WSU architecture faculty members and by Frank Swoboda, producer of the Spokane-made film The Basket. You could buy the book (on a six-degrees-of basis) for this fact alone, since it ties back to Jess Walter, who has a cameo in The Basket as a professional hoopster with a mustache that can poke out your eyes. Chapters on neighborhoods, geography, architectural styles and preservation discuss the forces that shape who we are. (KT)
The region is blessed with three strong university presses: Eastern Washington, Washington State, and Idaho. Each offers a surprising array of books.
EWU (ewupress.ewu.edu, or 509-368-6574) is strong on poetry with two interesting volumes published this year, Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies by Jim Daniels and Turkish Pears in August by Robert Bly.
At WSU (wsupress.wsu.edu, or 509-335-3518), the eyeopener of the year is a collection of three decades' worth of work by the artist Gaylen Hansen, titled -- oddly enough -- Gaylen Hansen, Three Decades of Painting. It comes with comments from another WSU grad who made it big in the visual arts -- Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson.
The offerings at the University of Idaho (caxtonpress.com or 208-459-7421) trend towards the obscure, but it is the one place a thoughtful reader can still find Common Courage: Bill Wassmuth, Human Rights and Small-town Activism.
This book by former Spokesman-Review reporter Andrea Vogt grew out of interviews with Wassmuth, the human rights activist in Coeur d'Alene who was among the first to fight back against white supremacists in the region. (KT)
Books From Hither and Yon
Of course, there are plenty of non-locals out there writing books as well. In literary fiction some notable names have new books out, including Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-American author whose novel The Kite Runner became a word-of-mouth bestseller. He's back with A Thousand Splendid Suns, another epic of hope amid shattered lives in Afghanistan.
It's also a good time to catch up with all those buzzworthy books now available in paperback that you -- or your gift recipient -- never got around to reading. One of my favorites last year was Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the story of Blue Van Meer, the preternaturally well-read and articulate 16-year-old daughter of an itinerant political science professor. Throughout Blue's awkward indoctrination into the complex social hierarchy of prep school, Pessl's strong first-person narrator saves the book from becoming yet another pedestrian account of randy privileged teens rampaging around a brick-and-ivy campus. Blue is a champion Observer with a huge library of reference material to draw from and a keen sense of the absurd. A couple of unexpected deaths turn the book's second half into a rich whodunit, and in the end Blue uncovers a story that links all of the bizarre events together while shaking the very core of her own identity.
For kids, the classic fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin, is superbly illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Set in an Italianate villa, this Caldecott Honor winner features a Rumple that'll remind readers of a house elf from the Potter universe.
Spokane kids have their own local author in Kenn Nesbitt and his newest collection of wonderfully silly poems, Revenge of the Lunch Ladies. The only way to deal with school indignities is to be silly, like the title tale of ladies in the lunchroom getting back at all those kids who complain about cafeteria food. Nesbitt travels the country talking to kids about poetry, and his Website (www.poetry4kids.com) is both recreation and inspiration for kids (and poets) of all ages.
For food lovers, the key words this year are local and sustainable, and there are plenty of earnest books out there that tackle the topic. One of the most refreshing is The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, who's been buying and cooking fresh, seasonal, local foods since the '70s. Waters begins briefly with nine principles of eating within relationship -- getting to know the people behind the food, cooking and eating together with family and friends, savoring the sensual pleasures of uncomplicated food and paying fairly for the labor of those who produce it. The bulk of the book (some 400 pages), though, is devoted to instruction in what to shop for and how to prepare this simple, local, sustainable food once you get it home from the farmers market.
Another book with timely local interest is Tony Bennett in the Studio, a beautiful large-format publication revealing the singer's work as a visual artist. From impressionistic watercolors around his home in New York to casual sketches of show-biz notables, the book shows him to be a talented and dedicated visual chronicler. (Curiously, he signs his paintings with his real last name, Benedetto.)
And finally, should you find yourself having to hold forth on one of the thousands of books published recently, perhaps you need How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard. A runaway hit in Bayard's native France, the book outlines categories of books, familiar tropes and themes -- it's sort of a thumbnail guide to erudition. Not that we would ever resort to any of those techniques, of course -- we're just trying to provide guidance for your gift giving. (AC)