Oregon’s own

    Throughout its history, Oregon has churned out many successful writers. With Powell’s, a multi-level bookstore that spans an entire city block, it is fair to say that our area takes its literary nature rather seriously. But what sort of sensibility does living in Oregon, particularly Portland, give to a writer? Other than the oppressive and near-constant winter rain, there are the verdant springs, hot summers and crisp autumns – classic American weather. People from this state tend to be a bit more salt-of-the-earth than those from some other states, owing to our city’s history as den of indescribable sin while the state around us was logged by rough-knuckled lumberjacks. The odd mix of characters has made this state distinct and given its writers some unique perspectives on life.

    Eugene-based writer John Zerzan writes nonfiction work that is heavily colored by themes of anarchy, primitivism and the notions of abstract and symbolic thought. He is strongly environmentalist and advocates a departure from structured society, agrarian culture and technology. It’s heady stuff, but valuable summer reading for the eco-anarchist looking for some intelligent arguments. He did, after all, cultivate an acquaintance with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, after reading his manifesto (he denounced the bombings but applauded the philosophy behind them). Some of his most famous (and colorfully titled) works are Against Civilization: A Reader and Running on Emptiness.

    Ken Kesey was born in 1935 and grew up all over the Pacific Northwest before his family settled in Springfield, Ore. A contemporary and friend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well as the band The Grateful Dead, Kesey graduated from the University of Oregon School of Journalism in 1957 and went on to write his first and most famous work, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, in 1962 while living in California. Set in Northern Oregon (with mentions of Beaverton, Portland and The Dalles), the book takes place in a mental hospital populated by some of the most beautifully and distinctly written characters in modern literature. Another book, Sometimes A Great Notion, centers on a dispute between an Oregon logging family and the community that surrounds them, and is praised as a classic of American literature. Kesey traveled all around with his Merry Pranksters, dropping acid and avoiding the law, but his true home was in Oregon, and he moved back permanently to Pleasant Hill in the mid 1960s. He died in 2001.

    Richard Brautigan was raised in Eugene and went on to express great disdain for the hippy subculture. Odd then, that he would base his first novel on Big Sur, Calif., which in its ’60s heyday rivaled even Eugene for its hippy-ness. The author of several novels and books of poetry, Brautigan was known for the evocative impact of his work, with influences from Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture. His most famous work, Trout Fishing in America, has inspired bands and even one man to name themselves after it. Brautigan died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1984 at the age of 49.

    Chuck Palahniuk is one of our state’s most intriguing writers, with a devoted fan following and one of the most popular cult films of all time based on his novel Fight Club. Palahniuk’s works are dark, brooding and frequently bizarre, as his characters find themselves battling mental illness, murderous storybooks, bizarre alter egos, vengeful cult members and a variety of other unlikely scenarios and characters. His nonfiction book Fugitives and Refugees is about Portland, and the novel Survivor partly takes place in Oregon. Palahniuk makes his home in Portland to this day, and his work continues to shock and confuse the masses. One of the most notable features of Palahniuk’s work is the seemingly random lists of facts his characters spew in their conversations and narration of the story. Except for some instances (like bomb-making recipes) in which sharing actual information would be dangerous, all these strange facts are supposedly true. His most praised work, after Fight Club, is probably Diary, a bit of a departure from his usual work in that it is not particularly violent and is more of a mystery novel.

    For the kids, one of Portland’s most famous and most beloved authors is Beverly Cleary. Born in McMinnville in 1916, Cleary has been writing books for kids since 1950, with her most recent work coming out in 1999. Responding to the complaint she often heard as a librarian about there not being enough books for young boys, her first work was Henry Huggins, about a boy and his dog Ribsy. After writing several more children’s books, she began her most famous series, the Ramona books, in 1955. Following the adventures of a precocious kindergartener living in the same Portland neighborhood as Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby continues to be one of the most enduring characters in pre-adolescent literature. The Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library features a map of Henry and Ramona’s Klickitat Street neighborhood, and statues of Henry, Ribsy and Ramona can be found in Grant Park. For slightly older readers, the books Dear Mr. Henshaw and Strider discuss issues such as divorce and loneliness at more of a fourth- or fifth-grade level.

    Sci-fi/fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin was born in California but has lived in Portland since 1958. Famous for her brand of "soft" science fiction, which lends real emotional depth to her characters (human or not), her work has themes of anarchy, sexual identity and exploration of sociology. Her most famous series are the Earthsea and Ekumen series of novels and short stories. Aside from her several dozen published novels, she has also written poetry and children’s books.

    To truly experience a place and the personality of its people, it’s quite useful to read its books. Fortunately, Portland and the surrounding state have been a fertile ground for literary works. Happy reading!