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Literature

10 Feb 2016
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Whither the U.S. Forest Service? Jim Furnish, whose 34-year career with the agency culminated in one of the most important public-lands protection measures in the nation’s history, has grappled with this question throughout much of his life. In his engaging new memoir,Toward a Natural Forest, Furnish outlines how the Forest Service transitioned from a can-do operation with a clear mission—getting out the cut—to an agency striving, and largely failing, to find new reasons to justify its existence. He also chronicles his own transformation, from gung-ho young forester to passionate advocate for responsible environmental stewardship. Furnish portrays an agency that grew increasingly at odds with public sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s, as it outstripped the ecological limits of the land it managed. But those in charge insisted on staying the course. The Forest Service sold more timber in 1989—a year racked with litigation and controversy—than in any other year in…
03 Feb 2016
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Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years. For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.” The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken…
28 Jan 2016
When 26-year-old Megan Kimble became intrigued by the idea of unprocessed eating, she wasn’t entirely sure what the term meant. After all, she writes, nearly all food is processed by the time we eat it—chopped, sautéed, fermented or folded into batter—“and often it is the better for it.” But she also knew that some of our food is too processed, organic or not—and so she set out to discover where, exactly, the line should be drawn. It took her a whole year. Her debut book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food, documents Kimble’s shifting definitions, as she grinds wheat berries into flour, brews mead in a bucket, harvests salt from the ocean, and tries her hand at slaughtering sheep. Along the way, she explores all kinds of topics—from the preservatives that give industrially produced food a longer shelf life, to the planned obsolescence of our food gadgets; from the…
23 Jan 2016
I’m now in my third season as one of the Independent’s theater reviewers. I have seen many excellent productions here in the valley, and some … well … that were not so good. But I don’t know if I have ever been as emotionally affected by a play as I was by Dezart Performs’ world premiere of Suicide Dogs. Jess Honovich’s play, which won the theater’s 2015 Play Reading Festival, chronicles how one family deals with the aftermath of a suicide of a man named Barry. Chief among the loose ends which must be tied up is what to do with Barry’s ailing dog, Driver. Barry (Michael Shaw, who also directs), who was gay, was a successful golf pro—hence the dog’s name. In flashbacks, we learn that in his youth, Barry was insecure and a bit melancholy; he also had a somewhat difficult relationship with his mother. Perhaps the thing…
19 Jan 2016
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I wrote this book for three reasons: I wrote this book to show the dangers of using silicone injections so that no one else has to suffer injury or even death. If I can prevent one person from using these, I’ll feel that it was worth writing. I wrote it to show how tragic Joi’s life was because of her vulnerability and fragile self-image and how it changed when she found someone who loved her for who she was, a gentle and sweet woman. I wrote it to show the love that can exist between two human beings, regardless of sexual orientation. Joi loved men the majority of her life. She was “straight.” When we met, we connected as soulmates with a love that evolved into an all-encompassing committed relationship. This is not just a lesbian story. It is a love story. Chapter 5 • Go-Go I had told some…
13 Jan 2016
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“Every story might seem unique and particular, but is actually recurring, in conversation with others,” observes a man in Oregon-born writer Benjamin Percy’s third novel. “We’re all characters caught in a cycle of ruin and renewal.” What if a global flu pandemic resulted in nuclear war? The Dead Lands begins 150 years after such a catastrophe occurred, at a time when the people living inside a walled enclave known as the Sanctuary, formerly the site of St. Louis, have finally begun to wonder whether anyone else exists in the land that used to be America. When a strange young woman named Gawea appears on horseback at the Sanctuary’s gates—speaking of a lush green land across the country in Oregon, where a kind of civilization has managed not just to survive, but, apparently, thrive—the Sanctuary’s loathsome dictator orders her execution. But others—including a bold woman named Mina Clark, a security agent…
08 Jan 2016
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William T. Vollmann’s striking new novel, The Dying Grass, chronicles the shameful events of the Nez Perce War of 1877, when the United States Army tried to prevent several bands of Native Americans from fleeing to Canada after miners and settlers encroached on tribal lands in the Northwest, in blatant violation of an earlier treaty. Much of the tale—and it’s a long one, north of 1,200 pages—is told from the perspective of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who led the campaign. Howard personifies a troublesome wrinkle in American history: the near-simultaneous fights to emancipate slaves and obliterate Native Americans. Unlike many of his fellow bluecoats, Howard was fiercely opposed to slavery; in fact, he founded Howard University, a black college, in Washington, D.C., in 1867. Vollmann uses Howard’s memoirs to create internal dialogues that show him wrestling with the injustice of American Indian policy. Howard was acutely aware of the fact…
23 Dec 2015
In Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters, veteran firefighter Jason Ramos chronicles the history of the elite group of airborne firefighters who attack blazes in some of the West’s most remote and rugged country. Smokejumpers are equipped to handle any situation, in any terrain, at any time, and since 1939, they have battled wildfires from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Silver City, N.M. Ramos calls his comrades “the Swiss Army knives of firefighting,” justifying that moniker with an array of colorful anecdotes. At the same time, he explains the ecological importance of wildfires, pointing out the natural regenerative role that they play. Ramos worked his way up the ranks, starting as an adolescent municipal firefighter in California. His knowledge of the firefighting community is impressive, and even after 16 years, he says, “I’m still learning new things all the time.” Smokejumpers have to be tough, and so…
10 Dec 2015
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Heading into his sunset years, Louis Waters doesn’t ask for much. “Hell,” he says, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.” He quit teaching years ago. Cancer killed his wife, and his daughter has moved away. He’s resigned himself to a lonely end in small-town Holt, Colo., the fictional setting of all of the late Kent Haruf’s quietly sweeping novels. (Haruf died after completing this book, Our Souls at Night, and before its publication.) But Louis’ neighbor, Addie Moore, has a different idea. “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him. “I’m lonely. I think you might be, too.” She’s not talking about sex, but about companionship: a hand to hold, a body to warm and, most of all, someone with whom to share her thoughts. “The nights are the worst,” she says.…
04 Dec 2015
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Extreme behavior inspires Santa Barbara-based novelist T.C. Boyle, whether it’s the megalomania evinced by brilliant men such as Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women) and Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or humanity’s dismaying readiness to revert to animalistic behavior (When The Killing’s Done). In his 25th book, The Harder They Come, Boyle finds hard-charging drama in the lives of Westerners whose beliefs and delusions push them toward destructive actions. Two real-life news events sparked Boyle’s imagination. In 2007, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran on vacation in Costa Rica killed a would-be robber with his bare hands. Then, in 2014, authorities captured a California fugitive who’d been surviving in the Utah wilderness for years, robbing cabins and hunting animals. In The Harder They Come, Sten Stenson is the strapping veteran and retired school principal who saves his fellow elderly tourists during a stickup. He’s treated as a hero after the incident, but the…