20 Books Every Seattleite Should Read

Twenty books with ties to the region—some explicit, some not—that make the case that Seattle is one of the world’s great literary cities.

By Ryan Boudinot April 1, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Raymond Carver (1983)

Raymond Carver’s stories are where the literature of the Pacific Northwest becomes the literature of America. With everyday settings as common as living rooms and diners, and with characters whose lives revolve around such low-stakes conundrums as whether or not to purchase a used refrigerator, Carver manages to capture expansive emotions in plain English. Many credit Carver’s success to the work of his hardheaded editor, Gordon Lish. Regardless of where you land on the Carver-Lish question, these works endure. The title story, about a man’s uneasiness with his wife’s blind male friend, is alone worth the purchase price. 

This Boy’s Life

Tobias Wolff (1989)

When his parents divorcedin the early 1950s, young Tobias Wolff found himself stranded in Seattle with his mother, who soon paired up with a backwoods bully named Dwight. In this legendary memoir, Wolff recounts the time he spent living with Dwight in Concrete, where he suffered abuse, fell in love with basketball, and forged his own high school transcripts in a successful attempt to escape to a private boarding school. The career that resulted—Wolff won a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and has taught at Stanford and Syracuse—arguably justifies his deceptive ploy. Besides, what a fantastic story. 

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Ceremony for the Choking Ghost

Karen Finneyfrock (2010)

Every line counts and every line surprises. Karen Finneyfrock’s poetry is beautiful because it achieves this rare blend of economy and novelty. Pick up her Ceremony for the Choking Ghost and prepare your senses for funny, piercing, and vividly imagined poems. And her performances! To watch Finneyfrock recite a poem is to be pushed endlessly off a cliff by language, and endlessly caught. In her spare time she pens funky, cool YA books like Starbird Murphy and the World Outside and The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. With Ceremony you get closest to the flame of Finneyfrock’s talent.

Skid Road

Murray Morgan (1951)

This book’s title may be responsible for one of the worst hair metal bands of the 1980s, but don’t hold that against Murray Morgan. The story of our fair (read: muddy) city’s founding, Skid Road chronicles the optimism, greed, speculation, xenophobia, and venereal disease that put this supply point for Yukon prospectors on the map. The personalities enshrined in street names loom large—Yesler, Denny, Boren, and Mercer all get their moment in the spotlight—but it’s the hard-edged tales of vigilante justice, inebriation, and cathouse conflagrations that earn the book’s reputation as a page-turner. Under the sordid details you can detect the beginnings of what would become the progressive city we know today, most poignantly in the friendship between the drunk, polyamorous visionary Doc Maynard and the chief who gave Seattle its name. 


Frank Herbert (1965)

Freaking sandworms, man! Widely hailed as one of science fiction’s most beloved masterpieces, this richly detailed space opera partly set on a desert planet is less known as springing from the Pacific Northwest. Herbert, a resident of Port Townsend, was inspired by the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, to create a world in which scheming cartels battle for control of the most precious resource in the galaxy—a spice called melange that facilitates space travel and (bonus!) doubles as a hallucinogen. The novel inspired many sequels, a movie by David Lynch that bombed, and a movie treatment by Alejandro Jodorowsky that sadly never made it to the screen.

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The Three Einsteins

Sarah Galvin (2014)

Sarah Galvin’s poems make you laugh because they’re so startling, and while you’re cracking up you’re marveling at their exquisite craft. At the APRIL Festival’s “A Poet, a Playwright, a Novelist, and a Drag Queen” reading at the Sorrento Hotel last year, an unidentified woman wheeled a large suitcase in front of the fireplace. From it emerged Galvin herself, who proceeded to make the audience howl. If you equate poetry readings with an overdose of ponderousness, you need to get your ass to the next venue where this fearless and reckless poet takes the stage. You’re going to want to get this book if only because one day you’ll sound cool when you say you’ve been a fan of Galvin’s since The Three Einsteins. 


Altitude Sickness

Litsa Dremousis (2014)

The existence of this gutsy little book is owed to a tragedy—a climbing accident that took the life of Litsa Dremousis’s onetime lover and friend. Coming in at 10,600 words, this emotionally fraught memoir punches well above its weight, revealing a writer willing to confront brutal, uncomfortable truths. Available from Instant Future, an imprint of Future Tense Press helmed by Matthew Simmons (himself a renowned regular of Seattle’s lit scene), this e-book also suggests a new way forward for Seattle publishing. We need more inventively produced works like this just as we need more works by talents like Dremousis. 

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Shawn Wong (1979)

University of Washington creative writing professor Shawn Wong got his start with this slim, emotionally rich account of a first-generation Chinese boy coming to accept his adopted country. The novel itself could serve as a master class on tone and lyricism. Wong plays with subtle, repeating motifs and creates one arresting image after another. The result is somehow both life affirming and haunting, as in passages about the suicides of hopeless Chinese expats stranded within America’s immigration system. This is the sort of novel that sticks with you for years and years. 


Neal Stephenson (1999)

Neal Stephenson’s chronicle of World War II code breaking and the rise of geek culture in Seattle appeared in 1999, just in time for Y2K paranoia and the WTO riots. It’s rooted in history, prescient, and a fabulous read, like taking the best college course of your life. And while Cryptonomicon dazzles with sheer brainiac firepower, its characters come across as compellingly human and alive. Historical figures like Alan Turing make an appearance, mingling with spies and hackers, but what makes this novel such a joy are its moments of inspired, nerdy hilarity. 

American Romances

Rebecca Brown (2009)

Reading this book of essays by Rebecca Brown is like going on a road trip through American culture with someone who insists she knows where she’s going, GPS be damned. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brian Wilson, Herman Melville, and Gertrude Stein get picked up along the way, and the resulting conversations are so lively that you stop worrying where you’re going; you just trust that Brown will get you there. Seattleites lucky enough to have taken classes from the author will recognize the same boundless enthusiasm she brings to the classroom on every page. 


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Desolation Angels

Jack Kerouac (1965)

Supposedly Jack Kerouac used to hang out at the Blue Moon Tavern whenever he passed through Seattle. His time in the Pacific Northwest was more significantly marked by a stint in a fire lookout tower on Desolation Peak, which hikers can visit to this day. Desolation Angels was the result of this adventure in solitude, a fusion of Beat era insouciance and Eastern philosophy. For the Beats, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg among them, the foggy, mossy Pacific Northwest inspired philosophical forays into Buddhism that echoed what the painters of the Northwest School were committing to canvas. 

Revenge of the Lawn

Richard Brautigan (1971)

Richard Brautigan suffered through a dreary childhood of hardships in Tacoma but is most often associated with the rollicking San Francisco poetry scene of the 1960s. He was our most brazen literary mad scientist, a poet turned prose stylist whose absurdist scenarios suggested a more user-friendly Donald Barthelme. Revenge of the Lawn, a collection of short stories, is a good entry point into the oeuvre of this horny and thorny lover of language. The story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” finds a trailer park trio conspiring to write a novel in the most idiotic way possible. Hilarious.

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Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon (1973)

Oh, sure, you started it once in college and it defeated you. But there’s no denying the lasting pleasures of this confusing and arousing romp through the aftermath of World War II with one of America’s most enigmatic former Boeing technical writers. Thomas Pynchon made his home for a time in the University District, but it feels a bit disingenuous to claim him as a Seattle writer, particularly since for long stretches of his career no one knew where he lived at all. Either way it’s hard to imagine this 770-page hallucinatory monster existing without the influence of the kind of rocket science the Pacific Northwest spent much of the twentieth century dropping on the world.

The Girl with Brown Fur

Stacey Levine (2011)

Levine is one of our most idiosyncratic and unsettling prose writers, and absurdity reigns in her story collection The Girl with Brown Fur. Her first lines make it impossible to not read her second lines. For example, “Imagine being a bean: a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time.” Levine’s are stories that aren’t so much read as succumbed to. She makes the English language sound new, and while she rightly belongs in the company of other fantasists like Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz, her masterful manipulation of creepy atmospherics sets her apart. 


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Andrew Henry’s Meadow

Doris Burn (1965)

The author of this treasure of a children’s book lived and worked in the 1950s and ’60s on Waldron Island, where she was liberated from many of the creature comforts we take for granted, like electricity and running water. The island’s community inspired this story of an unappreciated boy inventor who sets out to create a child’s utopia by building forts for his friends in a meadow. Her pen and ink illustrations convey the light and shadow of the Pacific Northwest like your most cherished childhood memories. Burns’s The Summerfolk is equally spellbinding and deserves to be back in print.  

My Body is a Book of Rules

Elissa Washuta (2014)

Memoirs that traffic in tales of depression and substance abuse often come across as though the author is fishing for attention and sympathy. Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules transcends the tropes of the genre by virtue of the unsentimental strength of her prose. She’s reflective without being solipsistic, insightful without being pedantic, and wise beyond her years. An adviser for the University of Washington’s native studies program, Washuta claims membership in the Cowlitz tribe, and she explores her native identity as thoughtfully as she considers her bipolar nature. Truly a writer to watch and root for. 

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Heavier Than Heaven

Charles Cross (2001)

Kurt Cobain’s legacy is Charles Cross’s domain. Cross wrote for the seminal Seattle music magazine The Rocket, which kids from all over the Pacific Northwest depended upon for news of the grunge revolution. That scrappy rag chronicled a once-in-a-lifetime musical renaissance, the pinnacle of which was Nirvana. In this biography and a number of other books (Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain is a more reflective followup), Cross approaches his subject with the honesty and sensitivity the complicated genius of Cobain warrants. Heavier Than Heaven, like the best Nirvana songs, delivers sorrow and inspiration in equal measure.   

Skinny Legs and All

Tom Robbins (1990)

Goddamn has Tom Robbins given us a body of work. In 2014 fans filled Town Hall to see him read from his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie, which is sentence by eye-popping sentence some of his finest, most heartfelt work. But if you haven’t read this former Seattle Times art critic yet, start with Skinny Legs. He keeps his absurd conceits (inanimate objects discover how to travel across America) at a high boil, while meditations on the world’s common religious traditions simmer on the back burner. This is the book where the linguistically bonkers gusto of his 1970s novels began to accommodate more serious and lasting themes. Robbins should replace George Washington on the state flag. 


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Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer (1996)

If you pat yourself on the back for being adventurous because you occasionally throw a tent in the back of your Prius and head to the Olympic Peninsula for the weekend, reading Into the Wild will disabuse you of the notion. The tragedy of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic young man who rejected civilization to live alone in the wilderness of Alaska, was adapted into a movie directed by Sean Penn, but the book goes far deeper into its ill-fated protagonist’s motivations. The rigor of research by former Seattleite Krakauer works in harmony with his empathetic take on his subject’s deeply held, but arguably misguided, beliefs. 


Black Hole

Charles Burns (2005)

Much of this graphic novel, originally serialized by Seattle’s own Fantagraphics, takes place in Ravenna Park in the 1970s. Burns’s monochromatic and thick-lined style renders a profoundly creepy world in which Seattle’s teenagers start showing signs of mutating. One girl grows a tail, another sheds her skin like a snake. Threaded throughout are dreams and hallucinations that are deeply unsettling and stand beside any nightmare David Lynch has ever committed to film. For those of us who are intimate with the ’70s and/or suburban Seattle, reading this book is an experience made all the more odd for what’s recognizable. You’ll never look at the greenbelts of this city the same way again.


PLUS:  We asked six local writers to each nail down one must-read book for Seattleites. 


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