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When Esther Chambers moves to central Oregon from Chicago in 1896, she finds herself caught in a range war between cattle-ranchers and sheepherders. Anna Keesey's elegant debut novel, Little Century, resurrects the complex West of those early days, in prose that captures the rhythms and diction of 100 years ago.

Esther's mother died a few months earlier, and her only surviving relative is a distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, known as Pick, who owns the Two Forks ranch outside of Century, Ore. Pick persuades the 18-year-old to swear she is 21 in order to file a claim on a plot of land that includes a playa lake called Half-a-Mind. Water is scarce in this arid country, and Pick wants to graze his cattle at Half-a-Mind, although sheep-ranchers also use the free-range land nearby. “You've had a hard time,” Pick tells Esther. “But this is a good country for someone alone. We're all equal out here, and everyone makes his own luck.”

Esther settles down on her claim and begins to adapt to her new life. She befriends a few of the locals, including Century's shopkeeper, Joe Peasley, who loans her books and the use of his typewriter; and its schoolteacher, Jane Fremont, who also lives on a claim. Esther is initially perplexed by the tensions and alliances between the townspeople. But before long, she realizes that those who behave coldly to her often do so because she has unwittingly thwarted their hopes or ambitions.

Pick is the community's most-respected member, and when he asks Esther to consent to “an understanding” that they will one day marry, she agrees. But expedience has a way of trumping morality on the frontier, and the conflict with the sheepherders escalates into wagon-burnings, livestock-killings and murder. Even the upright-seeming Jane and Pick have secrets. Liberated by her own claim's isolation, Esther indulges in a forbidden friendship with a young sheepherder.

“Justice is hard to come by,” Esther thinks, and the plot of Little Century echoes this notion.

Keesey has fashioned an authentic story out of the moral compromises Western settlers made in order to live and work with one another.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Little Century

By Anna Keesey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Picador

336 pages, $16

Published in Literature

Halfway through Marisa Silver's crystalline new novel, Mary Coin, two women's lives converge near a frost-blighted field of peas in Depression-era California.

Vera Dare, a government photographer, aims her camera at a rumpled migrant family. Her thoughts drift to her own children: two young boys sent to a boardinghouse, because she cannot afford to take care of them. The woman on the other side of the lens is Mary Coin, a single mother with seven hungry children who is barely scraping by as a migrant farmworker. In the photos, she cradles a sick infant and looks considerably older than her 32 years.

You might pause to take a long look at the book's dust jacket and let Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother” (cropped close and colorized) meld with the story. Lange documented farm-laborers for the Farm Security Administration, which sought to draw national attention to rural poverty. Lange's iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson, taken in 1936 near a California pea field, grounds Silver's fictionalized account. Improvising on cues plucked from history, she fills in the emotional lives of the two women with carefully distilled details of survival, love and loss.

How do Vera and Mary inhabit the biographical outlines of Lange and Thompson? Silver gracefully conjures Mary's Oklahoma childhood, as well a one-room sod house with centipedes inside the walls, and an earlier encounter with a traveling photographer who, struck by her Cherokee features, paid her to pose as a “real Indian princess.” She is seen as an idealized mother despite her desperate circumstances. “When she looked at her children playing their game of chase,” Silver writes, “she thought of them as a fist held up to fate.”

In contrast, the driven photographer is depicted as guilt-ridden, a woman who “felt her ambition as a disfigurement, something deeply unfeminine and not worthy of a mother.” The novel's preoccupation with the exploitive, selective nature of photography invites an examination of its own pastiche of fact and fiction.

When, late in the novel, Mary comes face to face with her portrait hanging in a gallery, someone in the crowd says, “You can see it all in her face.” Mary wonders exactly what it is they see.

Hardship? Dignity? Courage? Mary Coin is Silver's meditation on that question.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Mary Coin

By Marisa Silver

Blue Rider

336 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

When it comes to modern poetry, Mira Gonzalez is an invigorating force.

She recently released her first collection of poems, I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together, through Sorry House Publishing.

Originally from Venice, Calif., Gonzalez is the daughter of visual artist and singer Lora Norton, and the stepdaughter of Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Her mother, stepfather and brother, Milo, are also members of the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. While her family is known for music, Mira has made writing her creative outlet of choice. She lists Haruki Murakami, Tao Lin, and Virginia Woolf as her writing influences.

“I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, or at least since I was very young,” Gonzalez said. “I guess I started focusing on writing poetry specifically sometime in early high school. I have always enjoyed reading and read a lot of books, which is what inspired me to start writing in general. What draws me specifically to poetry is how easily accessible it is for people who have a hard time or don’t enjoy reading full length novels.”

Gonzalez’s poems often focus on dating struggles, odd ex-boyfriends, depression and social angst, and the poems sometimes feature strange twists and turns. “Secular Humanist” is about a man named Stephen who is obsessed with naked women: “He wants to find every bone in your body, all two hundred and six of them. He wants to feel them through your naked skin with his fingertips. He wants to name them as he finds them.”

After she describes Stephen’s fantasies, Gonzalez ends the poem with, “He feels like a grain of sand, on a beach, that isn’t a real grain of sand, but is actually a very tiny piece of a clamshell from a clam that died 10 years ago.”

Gonzalez said much of her poem-writing process actually involves editing.

“When I write a poem, I usually sit down and type everything that comes to mind, which can sometimes be two to three pages or more,” Gonzalez said. “Once I have all of that out in front of me, I edit it down to only the best lines; then I edit each sentence to say what I mean to say in the most succinct way possible.”

The almost Zen-like simplicity of her poems stands out. They are deep, yet simple and powerful. She said her unique writing style didn’t come naturally to her.

“I don’t think doing that ‘comes naturally’ to anyone, really,” Gonzalez said. “I guess certain people could be more skilled at crafting sentences so that they express ‘big’ ideas in not very many words, but nobody can just sit down in front of a computer and write a sentence like that, no problem. For me, at least, it comes with a lot of careful thought and a lot of time spent editing. I will spend hours on one sentence sometimes, and if I feel that sentence isn’t expressing exactly what I want it to express, I will delete the sentence entirely. I think it takes a lot of precision and tedious work, and I’m still not entirely sure if I’m able to express things the way I want to express them”

The response to the book has been promising. The initial printing of 500 copies sold out very quickly, and Sorry House Publishing did a second printing. Gonzalez says that she’s very surprised by the book’s success.

“Any time copies of my book sell, I’m completely shocked,” Gonzalez said. “I didn't expect it to have anywhere near as much success as it did. I think a lot of credit for that can go to my editor, Spencer, who has done a great job marketing the book through Sorry House.”

I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together

By Mira Gonzalez

Sorry House

56 pages, $12.95, available at www.sorryhouse.com

Published in Literature

San Francisco-based writer Susan Steinberg experiments with form and structure in her arresting story collection, Spectacle, as she examines the roles men and women play.

“The woman,” she writes, “is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” An unnamed woman narrates these 13 first-person stories, revisiting certain touchstones—her relationships with her brother and divorced parents, especially her father, an addict; the memory of a friend’s death in an airplane accident; the shifting balance of power between men and women in relationships, especially in tense situations.

In the story “Superstar,” for example, the narrator accidentally scrapes a man’s car with her own. He screams at her and belittles her, “calling (her) certain names reserved for women,” until another man intervenes, taking over the fight, recasting her as “some sweet thing” he must protect.

Steinberg captures charged incidents in sharp and nervy prose, questioning common euphemisms. When the narrator must decide whether to discontinue life support for her father, she writes bluntly: “There are some who say I did not kill my father. Not technically they mean.”

The doctor who advises her “did not, of course, use the word kill. He had another word, a series of words, a more technical way of wording.” The woman feels pressured by the doctor and by her brother to make this decision over the phone at 4 a.m. In this story and throughout the collection, the narrator stands outside the heat of the moment and speaks from a cool, rational remove. When the doctor sighs, frustrated with her hesitancy, Steinberg writes, “The sigh applies pressure to the woman. Then the woman is supposed to give them what they want.”

She takes this emotional distance even further in the story “Universe,” in which the narrator’s unborn child dies, and Steinberg writes, “One could now drink heavily. One could now eat shark.” Sometimes, this technique makes the narrator seem callous, but in most of the stories, this flinty stance toward personal loss simply underscores its horror.

Steinberg applies the same intense analysis to lighter moments, as when the narrator agrees to hike with various boyfriends who love nature, as she does not. Steinberg writes, “I’d hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn’t averse to dirt; I was averse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star.”

Spectacle is a penetrating collection, and although the narrator is sometimes powerless, the author never is. Steinberg masterfully controls language to convey her stark insights about unbalanced relationships, in which one person always has the upper hand over another.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Spectacle: Stories

By Susan Steinberg

Graywolf

$14, 160 pages

Published in Literature

Death hovers over Benediction, the latest of novelist Kent Haruf’s books about the eastern Colorado town of Holt.

Two earlier works are called Plainsong and Eventide, and the liturgical nuances of the titles seem fitting as this benevolent Colorado novelist bids farewell to a dying world. A definition serves as the book’s epigraph: “Benediction—the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.”

As with Haruf’s previous work, Benediction offers a nonjudgmental study of ordinary lives in a mundane rural environment, replete with the troubles and joys all humans encounter. Holt might appear uneventful, even boring, but Haruf’s sensitive portraits of its residents make readers empathize with their problems, from family strife to homophobia to money troubles to suicide.

“Dad” Lewis, a new character in the trilogy, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis on Page 1; the reader accompanies him through his last summer in this quiet, yet rich and isolated agricultural community. Dad was one of Holt’s eminent citizens, the owner of the hardware store; he ends his days surrounded by his wife, Mary; their middle-aged daughter, Lorraine; and the animated memories of a lifetime.

Other townspeople linger around him, some of them visitors from the wider world, others the ghosts of Holt’s outcasts, like his absent yet ever-present gay son, Frank, long estranged from his father and the conservative mores of a place that seems to have been bypassed by the 21st century.

Not only are the older townspeople of Holt fading away; even the young succumb. Lorraine’s daughter is killed in a car crash. Next door, Lorraine’s contemporary has died of breast cancer, leaving a daughter, Alice, to be raised by her grandmother, who rises to this unexpected responsibility with tough stoicism.

Alice is the only young person in Holt, it seems, who brings light and life to the older generations surrounding her. When Alice and the elderly women swim naked in the stock tank on a scorching day, joy reigns. “The women climbed into the tank with her and squatted down and lay back and floated and stood streaming. Their faces and bodies shining. Later they got out and dried off. … Their hair was still damp. It felt heavy and cool on the backs of their necks.”

It is a benediction, of sorts.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Benediction: A Novel

By Kent Haruf

Knopf

272 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

Arizona author Martin Etchart’s compelling second novel takes readers to the heart of a Basque family, originally from the French Pyrenees, that has been whittled down to two: a father and a son.

Mathieu Etcheberri, the son of Basque shepherds who built a hardscrabble life in the mountains above Phoenix, wants nothing to do with the family ranch or its “boring sheep.” He’d rather attend a university and find a new future. But when his father dies in a truck accident, caused by a monsoon storm that “tightened into a fist that crushed my world,” he finds himself alone, facing a perplexing situation. It turns out that the ranch is not his to sell; it belongs to an aunt in Urebel, France, a woman he has never met, and who has always returned, unopened, any letters sent to her.

Declining an offer by a crooked attorney who wants the land for development, Mathieu stumbles along in his good-hearted “Basq-oh” way, choosing to trust the still, small voices of his dead father and aitatxi (grandfather). And so he finds himself back in one of the seven traditional provinces of Spain’s Basque country, face-to-face with bihotz isilekoa—the deep secrets of the heart.

Confronted by the mystery of past family quarrels—“even though I’d discovered a family I hadn’t known existed,” he notes, “half of them wouldn’t acknowledge me”—he gradually unravels the knotted strings his progenitors left to entangle their descendants.

Through a twisting chain of events, narrated with a broad sprinkling of Euskara (the Basque language, which lacks common roots with any other language), Mathieu begins to understand the deep community bonds among his people. Their culture may be unfamiliar to most readers, but the haunting resonance of ancestral ties echoes in families throughout the world, from time immemorial.

Etchart’s musical writing draws its strength from the rhythms of his native sensibility. The behotza, the heart, knows the answers. Mathieu learns to listen to it, and in the process, discovers how to set about righting some age-old wrongs.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Last Shepherd

By Martin Etchart

University of Nevada

216 pages, $22

Published in Literature

One of the happy consequences of reading Kim Stafford’s work is that he makes you want to become a better person. The Portland, Ore.-based author of 12 books of poetry and prose writes with a quiet gentleness, intimacy and kindness.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is a personal and introspective memoir chronicling Stafford’s relationship with his older brother, Bret, who took his own life at the age of 40, with very little warning. In 82 chapters, some only a few paragraphs in length—”sippings,” as Stafford has called them elsewhere—the writer searches his “tunnel of memory” for clues to the painful mystery that still haunts him.

“For the work of memoir,” Stafford writes, “is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others.”

For Stafford, most memories are consoling, and 100 Tricks shows us a man—who just happens to be a gifted writer—looking back, struggling to make sense of tragedy. “I have written in this book what the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset called ‘salvations’—short narratives that seek to apprehend and save essential stories and discoveries: a moment, a fleeting glimpse, any episodic evidence toward understanding.”

Stafford’s economic and deft use of language is one of the book’s strengths. This comes as no surprise: Like his famous father, former U.S. Poet Laureate William Stafford, Kim Stafford is first and foremost a poet. “My soul has pockets,” the younger Stafford writes, “and into these pockets gather the places and moments that mutter my brother’s life.”

Stafford also has a history of offering wisdom with Zen-like simplicity, and 100 Tricks does not disappoint: “Happiness is born in struggle and even in failure,” and, “Each story will seek the right listener.”

Ultimately, many of Stafford’s questions remain unanswerable. Though 100 Tricks centers on his brother’s suicide, it is neither glum nor depressing. Instead, it’s a heartwarming and touching investigation into family and memory—a book about love and living well above all else.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared

By Kim Stafford

Trinity University

256 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Berkeley resident Sascha Altman DuBrul has accomplished much as a community organizer and punk rocker, inspiring many who subscribe to the philosophies of Noam Chomsky or punk-rock ethics.

And he’s done so despite struggles with bipolar disorder.

In his book Maps to the Other Side, he offers a journey through his writings over the years, covering subjects such as train-hopping, political activism, community gardens and his struggles with mental illness. “The stories in this book are the personal maps through my jagged lands of brilliance and madness,” he writes in the introduction.

DuBrul starts by talking about his childhood. He was raised in a chaotic home by two parents who consistently fought while he was being raised by the television. He talks about the Live Aid concert in 1985, saying he was disappointed by the much-anticipated concert, and calling it as a gathering of coked-out rock stars who got together to sing “We Are the World.”

As DuBrul grew older, he became more influenced by punk rock and set out to change the world, inspired by Noam Chomsky and the punk-rock style of activism. Oh, yeah, and he listened to Chumbawamba during their early punk-rock days before we all heard “Tubthumping” on repeat.

He traveled the country via train-hopping, listening to the stories of migrant workers and hoboes; he eventually fell into the world of community gardens and took part in protests against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. He spent a lot of time in Northern and Southern California working in community gardens and organizing punk rockers to take up political causes. He even set up California’s first seed-exchange and seed-preservation network, known as BASIL. Author Ruth Ozeki was inspired by him and based a character on him in one of her novels.

While DuBrul was an inspiring figure who worked tirelessly for his causes, people around him were beginning to notice he was coming apart. He describes various episodes while off medication, such as scaring his friends with his rants and making scenes in public, including an interesting encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. “For brevity’s sake, I’ll spare the details, but let me just say that I’m lucky I didn’t end up with an LAPD bullet in my chest,” he writes.

His struggles with taking his daily regimen of prescription drugs while trying to stay productive are at times heartbreaking, but inspiring when he manages to pull himself together and keep moving on. By founding the Icarus Project, he became an alternative-information source on the subject of bipolar disorder, while giving people the ability to express themselves through the arts and collaborate as a collective on the subject of mental illness.

Despite being derailed at times by bipolar disorder, DuBrul offers a unique perspective on what it’s like to lose one’s mind, yet still manage to make a difference. Maps to the Other Side also offers a unique look into the world of collective-based activism that was going on long before Occupy Wall Street came along—as told by someone who has dedicated his life to social justice.

Maps to the Other Side

By Sascha Altman DuBrul

Microcosm

192 pages, $15.95/sliding scale at microcosmpublishing.com

Published in Literature

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