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Literature

13 Feb 2015
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Fourth of July Creek, the robust debut of Portland, Ore.-based novelist Smith Henderson, follows the life of Pete Snow, a state social worker in the fictional town of Tenmile, Mont. At work, Snow is steady and skillful, able to calm frightened children and parse messy domestic situations. But after hours, he’s an alcoholic prone to unbridled benders, alienated from his own land-baron dad and fugitive brother. He has lived in an isolated cabin ever since he left his cheating wife. One day in the early 1980s, a disheveled child named Benjamin wanders into the town, west of Glacier National Park. Pete buys Benjamin new clothes and medicine for giardia and scurvy, and returns him to the remote spot the boy calls home. Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah, a wild-bearded, scripture-quoting, shotgun-toting survivalist, collects his son while threatening Pete with a “fatal wrath.” But Pete refuses to give up on this odd family,…
16 Jan 2015
In her debut novel, Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom draws on her own childhood in eastern Washington and current life in Northern California to share the tale of a shy Sacramento teenager inhabiting those same locales. Bergstrom offers a riveting story of first love entwined with faith, family tragedy and the power of place. Steal the North begins with 16-year-old Emmy reluctantly heading north to Washington to spend the summer with an aunt, Bethany, about whose existence she has just learned. Emmy’s mother, Kate, had always insisted that she had no living relatives. Now married and expecting a baby, Bethany tracks down her estranged sister and begs her to send Emmy to Moses Lake, Wash.—because Bethany has suffered earlier miscarriages and believes that she needs Emmy’s help, along with a special faith healing ceremony, to carry this child to term. Staying at her aunt’s trailer park, Emmy meets Reuben,…
13 Jan 2015
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Jervey Tervalon adores Los Angeles—and he wants you to adore it, too. The author, who also teaches literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, challenges the notion that New York City is the cultural center of the cosmos. “Los Angeles is wonderfully diverse,” he says. “I’ve been dedicating myself to creating a model in which L.A. never has to take a back seat to New York.” Born in New Orleans, Tervalon grew up in South Central Los Angeles and earned his MFA at UC Irvine. He taught high school in L.A. and co-founded Literature for Life—a nonprofit online literary salon and journal dedicated to bringing the work of multi-ethnic local writers and artists into area schools. His sixth and latest novel, Monster’s Chef, tells the story of a former drug addict who lands a job as personal chef to a wealthy but suspiciously reclusive hip-hop artist. It’s a…
12 Dec 2014
Something about Michelle Huneven’s novel, Off Course, makes people want to talk about themselves. Women, especially. I sit down at her wide, rough-hewn kitchen table, vowing not to be one of them. Her 14-year-old terrier mix, Piper, cuddles unabashedly at my feet; a black cat nuzzles my elbow. My resolve topples. While Huneven pours lemon-verbena ice tea into two large juice-jar glasses—“Is it sweet enough?” she asks—I let it slip that I, like Cressida, the novel’s protagonist, lost years of early adulthood to a love affair destined to fail. “Years I wish I could rewrite,” I confess. Then I catch myself. Stop. Talking. Huneven narrows her eyes behind her fashionable glasses and pushes a fine dark-blond wisp of hair off her forehead. She listens more than tolerantly. “It’s good,” she says, the way her novel draws out personal stories. “It’s really good.” In fact, she says she wrote it for…
10 Dec 2014
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Growing up on a farm outside Prescott, Arizona, writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade learned how to survive in rough country. At age 12, she dropped out of school to work on a nearby ranch; at 14, she began attending college classes at night. Since then, de Grenade has traveled to more than 30 countries, worked on construction crews and fishing boats, worked as a field botanist, and earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing and a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her Fulbright Fellowship took her to Baja California, where she studied the cultural and conservation role of desert oases. At the Tucson Desert Oasis Initiative, she helped city and county government collaborate with nonprofits on projects to make Tucson a “model of sustainable desert living.” Her memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback, was released in June, and traces her season…
02 Dec 2014
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Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production scrutinizes a host of today’s commonly held assumptions about the cattle industry. Red meat isn’t making Americans unhealthy, writes author Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental attorney turned California rancher. Nor should cows be so vehemently blamed for drought and climate change. Cattle-ranching, she writes, can be extremely beneficial to the land. At the height of Hahn Niman’s legal career, she was hired by Bobby Kennedy Jr. to start a national campaign to reform meat-industry pollution. A few years later, she got into the ranching life when she married Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California. The natural meat company is well-known for traditional husbandry methods, no hormone use, and environmental land stewardship. In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman, who happens to be a long-time vegetarian, seeks to add nuance to what she considers to be an oversimplified public discussion about beef's…
21 Nov 2014
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On Oct. 8, 2008, several elite leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as the LDS or Mormon Church—went on the air and urged members in California to boost their involvement in defeating the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage. The LDS Church was one of the last to join the Protect Marriage Coalition—mostly composed of conservative religious groups, including Catholics and Orthodox Jews—but they were certainly not the least. Elder M. Russell Ballard’s call to action was clear. “Many of you will text message, blog, make phone calls, walk your neighborhoods,” said the then-80-year-old on camera. “These methods of engaging will be major elements of informing people of the issues and of the coalition’s position.” The Protect Marriage Coalition claimed victory on Election Day: Proposition 8 passed with 52.2 percent of the vote, and gay marriage in California was temporarily eliminated. According to some estimates, Mormons…
14 Nov 2014
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California author Armistead Maupin has returned with the ninth and final volume in his much-loved Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal. Maupin, who has long refused to be pigeonholed as a “gay writer,” writes about contemporary San Francisco and the love lives of both gays and straights in an era confronted with a dramatic reassessment of the ways in which people choose to love. In this standalone novel, Anna, a 92-year-old transgender pioneer, realizes her last days are filling with small surrenders: “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as simplification.” And she feels compelled to attend to unfinished business in her childhood hometown of Winnemucca, Nev. “It’s something old people do. … Old ghosts.” Inspired by Christine Jorgensen, once George Jorgensen, a real-life former Army private who scandalized the nation in the early 1950s with a sex change, Maupin’s protagonist…
07 Nov 2014
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In 1876, a woman named Jeanne Bonnet, who made her living catching and selling frogs to San Francisco restaurants—and was repeatedly arrested for wearing trousers in public—was shot to death. A mention of Bonnet in a book on unconventional women intrigued the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, and she’s spun the few available facts into a rollicking story of post-gold rush San Francisco. Frog Music is told from the perspective of Bonnet’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who witnessed the murder. Blanche is a smart, resourceful woman who is a well-known burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute. In France, she performed in circuses, dazzling audiences with her equestrian act, while her lover, Arthur, flew on the trapeze. But after Arthur injured his back in a fall, and the Franco-Prussian War broke out, hitting Paris hard, the couple fled to California in search of better fortune. Frog Music moves…
09 Oct 2014
Too hefty to be carried in a hip pocket or even a daypack, William Wyckoff’s How to Read the American West is a field guide unlike any other, with a focus on patterns, variations and the distribution of landscape features. Inspired by Peterson’s glorious bird books, How to Read the American West draws attention to eco-tones, watersheds, settlement patterns and corridors of connection (such as interstates or historic trails), and to questions of use, scale and control. Ultimately, it considers our grip on the land—and the land’s grip on us. Cross-referenced and studded with photos and maps, this guide invites us to browse, linking waypoints by topic more often than by region. It capably leads the reader through 100 entries arranged by theme. Much as birders learn to distinguish dozens of sparrows, we learn to read the nuances of the West. Wyckoff teaches earth sciences at Montana State University, and…