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Literature

21 Sep 2013
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A wistful and at times mournful spirit permeates the 41 brief essays that make up Liz Stephens’ first book, The Days Are Gods. The Oklahoma-born Stephens is a “card-carrying Choctaw tribal member” and recently earned a doctorate in creative nonfiction. Her multifaceted memoir is the 34th volume in the acclaimed “American Lives” series. What is she mourning, exactly? The idea of home, of the West, of belonging somewhere and knowing a deep historical attachment to one place—the foundations she lacked growing up in the Midwest and later in California, where she worked for a decade in the entertainment industry: “Originally, I’d moved to Los Angeles for the same reason everyone does. I wanted excitement. I also wanted to officially join the club of the other people who’d been too weird for high school, but not weird enough to drop out.” Smart and articulate, Stephens and her boyfriend prosper by serving…
13 Sep 2013
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Solomon Robert’s Tug o’ War and Other Drinking Games is a book that tells a great coming-of-age story. With a writing style similar to that of Michael Chabon, Robert—a 20-something author who lives in Washington state (he's pictured to the right)—also makes Tug o’ War a great adventure story. The novel begins with the two main characters: Nathan, and his best friend, a woman named Riley. During a heavy night of drinking, which includes a dine-and-dash attempt because Nathan forgot his wallet, they encounter a strange character named Chase, who works in the restaurant and offers to pick up their tab—as long as Riley does a specific favor. Chase tells Nathan and Riley that he’s leaving on a road trip down the West Coast the following morning. After they continue their night of heavy drinking, the two friends find themselves on the road the next morning with Chase, and his…
07 Sep 2013
Tired of school, broke and eager for a change, Christine Byl took to the woods with a National Park Service trail crew. Much later—after 16 summers of manual labor in Alaska and Montana, maintaining, repairing, designing and building bridges, ditches and trails—she came to realize that “a deep education is one of both head and hands.” Through sheer physicality, Byl breaks open encrusted dichotomies: nature-culture; work-pleasure; male-female; mind-body. “An authentic life,” she finds, “will be built, at least in part, on ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift.” She comes to revere tools and the artifacts that define us as they did our flint-wielding African ancestor, Homo habilis. Fans of Thoreau might cringe at the trail crews’ sometimes industrial arsenal, and the scope of the landscape alteration involved. Yet much of the work is conservation. “Just as we mark the world when we live in it, so the world…
31 Aug 2013
Brandon R. Schrand’s second book, Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior, retraces the Idaho author’s life through his obsessive love of literature. Each personal essay is paired with notes about a book that influenced that time in his life, with entries varying from passing references to detailed tributes. The first essay introduces us to a college-age Schrand as he’s arrested in Arizona while driving through red-rock canyons and smoking pot with his fraternity brothers. Schrand ends up missing out on a class discussion of Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, although he has a copy of the book in the car. This beginning introduces four constants around which the memoir revolves: stunning Western landscapes, trouble with authority, a boy trying to become a man, and the books he fell in love with along the way. Schrand first connects with the West —and his own family’s story of settling in…
24 Aug 2013
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In 13 sharp, witty stories, Spokane, Wash.’s Jess Walter captures the gritty, quirky and heartbreaking lives of a variety of Pacific Northwesterners. Walter convincingly inhabits each character he creates, from a hungry meth addict wheeling an enormous TV toward a hoped-for pawnshop payout, to a blue-collar dad trying to figure out which of his kids is stealing from the jar of pocket change that holds the family’s vacation fund. Much like his previous books, We Live in Water is alive with junkies, gamblers, scammers, drunks, down-and-outers and white-collar criminals, all of them too complex and endearing for the reader to easily judge or dismiss. Many of these stories delve deeply into the relationships between fathers and sons, particularly “Anything Helps,” which gets its name from the phrase that Bit, its homeless protagonist, inks on a cardboard sign. With $20 from a Mercedes driver, he buys a Harry Potter book for…
10 Aug 2013
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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…
03 Aug 2013
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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…
19 Jul 2013
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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…
13 Jul 2013
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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.…
06 Jul 2013
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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…