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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reading the Northwest: Book club authors share their 2018 favorites

By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokesman-Review launched Northwest Passages just over a year ago as a book club and community forum with a mission to get people reading – and talking.

If anything, we underestimated the passion of our readers, as crowds packed some of the biggest venues we could find to hear writers including Craig Johnson, creator of the Longmire mysteries; Jess Walter, the best-selling Spokane novelist; and Tara Westover, debut author of a celebrated memoir about overcoming her difficult upbringing in rural Idaho.

To mark the first year of the growing community forum, I went back to some of our Northwest Passages authors and asked them to recommend their current favorite books, including the last book they couldn’t put down. Here is what they said.

Nate Blakeslee

Journalist Nate Blakeslee was among the first authors invited to speak to Northwest Passages. His book, “American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West,” is a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which honors nonfiction books of both literary quality and social impact.

Current project: I’d love to get started on another book. For now, I’ve been doing magazine work.

Couldn’t put down: “The Which Way Tree” by Elizabeth Crook, which tells the story of a boy and girl struggling to survive on their own in the Texas Hill Country in the 1860s. If you liked Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” or Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (who didn’t?), you’ll love this novel, too.

Recommends: “American Prison,” by Shane Bauer. It’s an outstanding exposé based on Bauer’s monthslong undercover stint as a prison guard in a Louisiana prison run by CCA, the private prison company. His report in Mother Jones created a sensation, and the book is even better.

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson used to drive himself to Spokane by motorcycle on regional book tours from his home in Ucross, Wyoming (population 25). This time around the now-best-selling author of the Longmire mysteries, including his latest, “Depth of Winter,” arrived by plane for an event at the Bing Crosby Theater that drew more than 600 people.

Current project: “Land of Wolves: A Walt Longmire Mystery.”

Couldn’t put down: “The Hour of Lead” by Bruce Holbert (Spokane author).

Recommends: “Don’t Skip Out On Me” by Willy Vlautin.

Tod Marshall

Gonzaga University professor Tod Marshall came to Northwest Passages last spring to talk about his experience as Washington State’s poet laureate, and how he’s managed to build a successful career as a professional poet. His latest books include “Bugle,” a book of poetry, and “WA 129,” a collection of 129 poems by Washington poets that he edited.

Current project: Essays, journalism and new poems.

Couldn’t put down: “Freak Kingdom” by Timothy Denevi. It’s a biography of Hunter S. Thompson that focuses on the political journalism of Thompson. Many of the contexts in which HST wrote echo our historical moment (unrest/deep division).

Recommends: “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” by Michael J. Sandel. A great read – economics and moral philosophy.

Eli Saslow

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow came to Spokane from his home base in Portland to talk about white nationalism and his book “Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.”

Current project: Reporting on immigration for the Washington Post.

Couldn’t put down: “The Son” by Philipp Meyer.

Recommends: “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon, which is brutal and astonishing.

Kris Dinnison

Spokane author Kris Dinnison spent nearly two decades as a teacher and librarian before publishing her first novel, “You and Me and Him,” in 2015. She joined the book club for our celebration of short fiction, “Summer Stories: Road Trip.”

Current project: I’ve been working on a novel inspired by a relative who was … complicated.

Couldn’t put down: “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a really fun historical novel with some amazing characters.

Recommends: “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations” by Georgina Howell. A great biography of a truly remarkable woman and some wonderful insights about how the Middle East was messed up post-WWI. Also, “The Boneless Mercies” by April Genevieve Tucholke, an amazing fantasy with a bunch of strong females and a heartbreaking quest. And “Book of Exodus” by Kathryn Smith, beautiful poems by a local poet inspired by a real family who hid out in the Russian Taiga for 50-plus years.

Alexis Smith

Spokane author Alexis Smith also joined our Summer Stories evening. Her latest novel is “Marrow Island.”

Current project: A speculative young adult novel set in a small town in the Cascades.

Couldn’t put down: “The Best Bad Things” by Seattle’s Katrina Carrasco. It’s a wild, rip-roaring historical crime drama of the Old (Pacific North-)West.

Recommends: “So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith (another Seattle writer), “Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas, and “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore” by Elizabeth Rush.

Brooke Matson

Brooke Matson, executive director of Spokane nonprofit Spark Central, is the author of “The Moons,” a book of poetry. She joined us in the spring for My Town Poetry Night.

Current project: A collection of poetry called “In Accelerated Silence” that focuses on the unknown in both physics and death (sounds crazy, but somehow it works). I’m also compiling some poems about my childhood for a purpose to be determined.

Couldn’t put down: “The ADHD Advantage” explores how ADHD is actually a trait many famous entrepreneurs and CEOs possess. Instead of looking at ADHD as a deficit or disorder, it approaches the creativity and curiosity that accompanies the trait with entrepreneurial success. I was blown away by the research and anecdotes from individuals like Sir Richard Branson and others who see ADHD as essential to their success in life.

Recommends: Rick Barot’s collection of poetry, “Chord.” Terrance Hayes’ collection of poetry, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”… brilliant!

Bethany Montgomery

Bethany Montgomery, co-founder of Power 2 the Poetry, joined us in the spring for My Town Poetry Night.

Current project: I am working on releasing my first book of poetry, which includes about 40 poems and is partially a memoir. I plan to release it in late 2019 or early 2020.

Couldn’t put down: “White Girls” by Hilton Als.

Recommends: “We Were Eight Years in Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” by Samantha Irby.

Shawn Vestal

Shawn Vestal is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review and the author of “Daredevils,” which won a Washington State Book Award for best novel in 2017. He was the book club’s first featured author.

Current project: Short stories, always, and a novel that might take me another decade to finish.

Couldn’t put down: “There There” by Tommy Orange.

Recommends: “Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf, which I recently read for the first time; “Dancing in Odessa,” a book of poems by Ilya Kaminsky; “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner; and Sam Ligon’s ongoing, serialized novel in the Inlander, “Miller Cane.”

Paul Lindholdt

Paul Lindholdt, a professor at Eastern Washington University, joined Northwest Passages in July to discuss “The Spokane River,” a book of essays he edited to tell the story of the waterway.

Current project: A book of poetry titled “Making Landfall” being published this month.

Couldn’t put down: “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari. The Israeli history professor is a peerless visionary and provocateur.

Recommends: “Imaginary Vessels” by Paisley Rekdal. She is a sensuous blast, especially her poems spoken in the persona of Mae West.

Laurel Randolph

Cookbook author Laurel Randolph, author of “The Instant Pot No-Pressure Cookbook: 100 Low-Stress, High-Flavor Recipes,” appeared most recently at a sold-out book club evening with chef Chad White. They teamed up to prepare a four-course meal in front of the Northwest Passages Book Club.

Couldn’t put down: “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean.

Recommends: “The Fruit Forager’s Companion” by Sara Bir

Kathleen Flinn

Food writer Kathleen Flinn, author of “Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Family” and other books, joined the book club last spring for a session at the Dorothy Dean Home Cooking Show.

Current project: I have a new podcast, “Hungry for Words,” in which I interview well-known food writers as we try some of their recipes. As for books, I’m at work on two. The first is “Scary Fish,” which I’m writing for the Japanese market. It explores why consumption of fish has dropped in Japan as the diet there becomes increasingly Westernized and what that means for their culture. The other book, “Go Fish” explores why Americans, unlike the Japanese, have started to eat more fish but not necessarily good fish. Both books promote consuming sustainable fish and will include recipes.

Couldn’t put down: “Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken” by Monica Bhide. It’s a beautifully written love story set in Delhi. I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it, then got up, went to the store and got the ingredients to make butter chicken for lunch.

Recommends: “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking” by Masaharu Morimoto and “Japan: The Cookbook” by Nancy Singleton Hachisu. To research my book for Japan, I’ve read a lot of Japanese cookbooks, and these two stand out for their depth, clear recipes and the personal stories laced throughout. I’m also a huge fan of the book “Acid Trip” by Michael Harlan Turkell. It will completely change the way you think about vinegar.

Neal Thompson

Author Neal Thompson joined the forum for a talk on his painfully honest family memoir of raising two skateboarding sons, “Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood.”

Current project: I’m nudging two projects forward – one nonfiction, one fiction – but somewhat messily, and waiting for one to assert itself. I’m mostly a nonfiction (or, more recently) memoir writer, but I’ve been dinking around with a novel for a few years and it keeps tapping me on the shoulder – “Hey, remember me?” We’ll spend some time together in January.

Couldn’t put down: “Virgil Wander” by Leif Enger. There’s something old-fashioned and sweet, but taut and timely, about this story of a struggling town and its cast of struggling characters. I read it in three big gulps. The characters – quirky but not madcap, sweet but not simple – reminded me of older John Irving.

Recommends: “A Lucky Man” by Jamel Brinkley (a National Book Award finalist) – just a brilliant, observant, and urgent voice. Also Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” and David Shields’ “Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump,” which is not quite the predictable (and too-easy) Trump-bashing book you might expect from the title.

Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher, a longtime Spokane community therapist, hasn’t appeared at Northwest Passages (yet), but I couldn’t resist asking him for book recommendations. His latest young adult novel is “Losers Bracket.”

Current project: I’m working on two projects. The first is “Some Guy,” a book I finished a while back about the longtime aftermath of a particularly horrible mass shooting (like there are any other kind?) but needs extensive editing, partially due to my time with students and teachers at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Florida. The other is a little lighter, about a young man who flies across the country to spend the summer in an elite writing camp – due to high praise of several essays that he didn’t write.

Couldn’t put down: “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. And the follow-up, “Homo Deus.” Both should be required reading for anyone with a desire to understand what we’re doing on this planet.

Recommends: “On Tyranny,” “The Boys in the Boat,” “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Ask me on a different day and you’ll get different books.

Donna Wares

Donna Wares is a senior editor at The Spokesman-Review and director of the Northwest Passages Book Club.

Couldn’t put down: I read so many good books this year, but the one that kept me up at night, actually three nights in a row, was Tara Westover’s “Educated.” She captured life off the grid through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl in beautiful, haunting detail. Her story, and our sold-out book club night in Spokane, resonated with readers here.

Recommends: Two very different books about family secrets, “All You Can Ever Know,” by Nicole Chung and “This is How It Always Is,” by Laurie Frankel.

Martin Wolk has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications. He recommends “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande.