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Literature

18 Sep 2015
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You’re hiking alone along a steep switchback trail in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, when suddenly, you turn a corner and see a massive mountain goat, its black eyes trained upon you. A few years ago, a goat attacked and killed a man in this very park, and, at the thought, a trickle of sweat wends its way from your hairline to your collar. The goat is still looking at you. Then you remember that mountain goats aren’t native to these mountains, meaning that both it and you are relative newcomers here. But does that—should that—knowledge do anything to diminish the wildness of this encounter? Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, but every wilderness-lover has his or her own definition of “wild.” A few purists would see the non-native goat as a deal-breaker, but increasingly, many people do not base their definition of wilderness on whether a particular landscape is…
11 Sep 2015
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Every day in Tombstone, Ariz., actors re-create the famous gunfight of October 1881, when the Earp brothers—Virgil, Morgan and the legendary Wyatt—along with their friend, Doc Holliday, confronted a gang of local troublemakers known as the “Cow Boys,” in a shootout that wounded several and left three dead. The battle lasted a mere 30 seconds, though in modern cinematic slow-motion, it goes on forever. In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell goes beyond the bloody melodrama, turning painstaking historical research into an absorbing 600-page novel that seeks to understand these men and the context in which they lived and fought. Russell writes of the participants, “Whether you live another five minutes or another 50 years, those awful 30 seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.” Russell ended her terrific 2011 novel, Doc, before Holliday’s brief stint in Tombstone, largely because she felt the O.K.…
07 Sep 2015
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In “Mountains Without Numbers,” the first short story in Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest collection, The Water Museum, a middle-age woman pages through her high school yearbook before heading into work. Frankie, as the locals call her, owns the only diner left in her washed-up uranium town. “The sky feels like it’s on fire as she drives into town,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist writes. “Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people in the West.” When she can, she keeps her back to the butte where, for decades, the most daring high school seniors had scaled the cliffs to paint their graduation date. The dates, the stories—all serve as memento mori, painful reminders of better times. “Is a town dead,” she wonders, “when the old men die, or when the children leave?” The stories in The Water Museum stretch from South…
24 Aug 2015
Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland. Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from being an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to being the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story. Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked…
07 Aug 2015
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Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider. A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.” That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.…
05 Aug 2015
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On June 30, 2013, Arizona’s infamous Yarnell Hill Fire overran the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killing 19 firefighters as they crouched beneath their woefully inadequate aluminum shelters. The tragedy was nearly as mysterious as it was horrific: Minutes earlier, Granite Mountain had been stationed in the secure “black,” already-burned land that couldn’t reignite. Why the hotshots abandoned safety is a question that has spawned two official reports, hundreds of articles and countless Internet-fueled conspiracy theories. Was it incompetent leadership? Hubris? Or a reasonable decision rendered disastrous by a sudden shift in the wind? Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it’s the best account yet of the Yarnell catastrophe. Dickman, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a former firefighter, is concerned less with how Granite Mountain’s men died than with how they lived. Burning Edge offers an intimate window into the singular culture…
24 Jul 2015
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Snowblind, the first collection of short stories by veteran travel writer and alpinist Daniel Arnold, explores mountaineering and the power it holds over the people who pursue it. Arnold’s characters are drawn irrevocably to the mountains they climb, and their obsession works strangely on their minds, pushing them into sometimes-terrifying realms of thought and behavior. The locations range from cabins at the base of Mount Hood, in Oregon, to brutal mountains at the edge of human settlement in Alaska. The stories’ protagonists tangle intimately with death in all its many faces, from storm-caused disasters to fatal falls and even suspected murder—as well as the lingering ache of mourning. Even when death is not imminent, the threat of it hovers at the edges of the stories. In one piece, after a dangerous climb, the mountaineers demolish a centuries-old cabin in a fury of pent-up emotion. In another, a climber’s accidental death…
17 Jul 2015
Montana-based author David Allan Cates plunges us into the raw grief of a recently widowed doctor in his latest novel, Tom Connor’s Gift. Janine has walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and driven to a friend’s empty cabin in the Rocky Mountains to confront the emptiness of life without her husband, Mark. She hopes that “the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind.” A stray puppy appears to keep her company as she revisits her past, reliving her marriage and reading old letters from a man named Tommy Connor, who was her first love, 30 years ago. Meanwhile, outside the cabin, a curious grizzly bear lurks. This tautly written book, which the Independent Publisher Book Awards just named the year’s best fiction from the Mountain West Region, explores the continuum of human experience, from ecstasy to bone-deep…
14 Jul 2015
Gripping beginnings are said to be a key to successful short stories—but it’s the endings in Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair that make this collection stand out. Punchy, surprising, nebulous and even shattering conclusions mark these stories, with finales that can be as spectacular as explosions. McGuane has authored more than a dozen other books, but he hasn’t published a story collection since the acclaimed Gallatin Canyon appeared nine years ago. In Crow Fair, the longtime Montana resident writes from his home state, pursuing the themes you’d expect to find in such a sparsely populated region: isolation, loneliness and rugged individualism. In “River Camp,” for example, two childhood friends who take a fishing trip to confront their faltering friendship end up facing grave dangers, including a lunatic guide, ravenous bears and death-trap rapids. The differences between the two men become starkly apparent in their reactions as they float away from their…
10 Jul 2015
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In 2004, four low-income Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix built an ingenious robot for a science competition that pitted them against teams from top colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The story sounds almost too “Hollywood” to be true, and in fact, it has already inspired a documentary and a feature film. But seasoned journalist Joshua Davis sticks to the facts in his original book, Spare Parts, carefully reconstructing how these ESL students, “caught in the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations,” became one of the top underwater-robot teams in the country. Davis opens with officials from the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition, sponsored by NASA and the Navy, grilling the team members. “These kids had shown up with a garishly painted plastic robot that was partially assembled from scrap parts,” Davis writes. “They called their creation Stinky because it smelled so bad when they glued…