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08 Mar 2013
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Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's newest novel, Durango, is timely, as many Westerners agonize over drought and the energy industry's use and abuse of water. Hart's novel, however, takes us to another front in the water wars, the decades-long dispute over damming southern Colorado's Animas and La Plata rivers to provide more water for the growing town of Durango. Hart's historically accurate story begins in the pioneer era, as he explains Native-white relations and the role of water in their interactions. For the Utes, the major tribe in the region, "Water and existence could not be separated. Water itself had a spirit." But for the whites, comparatively recent immigrants, "They fought over it and more than a few times killed each other over it. This behavior gave rise to the saying known to all ranchers in the West: 'Whiskey is for drinkin'; water is for fightin'." More recently, the Utes—who…
31 Jan 2013
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To snatch a moment from the wild and capture it in words that pulse with life is quite a feat. Stephen Grace, author of the 2004 novel Under Cottonwoods, makes it seem effortless. When he describes sandhill cranes rising from the wetlands of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, the reader can almost hear the thunderous applause of their wings. It takes an entirely different kind of gift to comprehend and then explain the tortured sophistry of the policies that are destroying those cranes for the sake of alfalfa farms, feedlots, casinos, suburban lawns and swimming pools. But Grace can do that, too. In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy. It should be acknowledged that he does not accomplish this alone. Dam Nation's debt to Marc Reisner's 1986…
15 Jan 2013
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Dana Johnson's thoughtful and affecting first novel, Elsewhere, California, is narrated by a girl named Avery, whom we first meet as a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s. When her brother is threatened by gangs, their parents decide to move to the suburbs. Avery eagerly prepares for the "long journey" to West Covina. Her father responds: "Journey? It ain't but 30 minutes up the road." Avery learns that however short the distance, West Covina might as well be another planet. The chapters alternate between Avery's childhood and her life as an adult, when she has become an artist, living with Massimo, an older Italian man, in his swanky Hollywood house, and she's looking forward to an exhibition of her art at a Los Angeles gallery. Avery's language deftly evolves throughout the course of the book. Johnson writes the early chapters in the voice…
14 Dec 2012
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It seems everyone, including my mother-in-law, is reading badly written smut in plain view these days, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Let's do something to change that right now. Here are gift ideas that include well-written smut, a beautifully rendered history of summer camps and a deftly constructed horror novel about a drone pilot gone homicidal. Got a camper on your list? As winter takes hold, it helps to remember that summer inevitably returns. What better way to rekindle the heat of first love, lake water and chewy s'mores than with David Himmel's poignant A Camp Story: The History of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps (The History Press, $19.99)? Himmel eloquently relates the story of a summer camp in southwestern Michigan, which sprang up from the efforts of a Jewish orphan named Louis Greenberg. Eighty years later, the impact and legacy of this annual gathering remains strong.…
08 Dec 2012
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It began when Joshua Ellis could no longer spit. The blockage in his saliva gland resulted in swelling, and the pain forced him—a freelance web designer and writer—to visit a place that 50 million Americans who lack insurance coverage know too well: the emergency room. Finally, after hours of waiting, waves of guilt washing over him as a rising tide of heart-attacked, bullet-riddled and generally worse-off souls gurneyed inside to meet their fates, he received an X-ray. What it revealed would lead Ellis 700 miles away into the Mexican city of Juarez and into the inscrutable mystery of the preserved heart of a baby vampire. To put it to a point, his teeth were killing him—specifically, his severely impacted wisdoms, which his skull had grown around. The teeth threatened to pierce his sinus cavity. Left unaddressed, they would likely break his jaw and possibly stab his brain. In other words,…

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