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Literature

07 Mar 2014
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Thompson Grey abandons his Indiana farm in 1858 and joins a caravan of pioneers trekking west along the Santa Fe Trail in Gary Schanbacher’s accomplished new novel, Crossing Purgatory, a moral Western that questions what any decent human being owes another amid the harsh conditions of the American frontier. After Thompson’s wife and sons die of diphtheria while he is away on a fruitless mission to seek an advance on his inheritance, he plunges into deep mourning, blaming himself for being absent when his family became ill. In grief and guilt, he tramps west, a man with his “spirit out of fix,” and with no plan in mind—until he encounters a caravan led by Captain Upperdine, a shrewd businessman who guides groups of potential settlers across pioneer trails and trades with Indians, homesteaders and prospectors along the way. Upperdine sees the taciturn wanderer as an asset, a competent and honorable…
13 Feb 2014
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Many people have a hard time understanding and grasping transgenderism—and a local woman, Kaitlin Sine Riordan, is trying to change that by telling her story with her book, Bondage of Self. Born a boy, Riordan was raised in Richmond, Va., by a father who was extremely self-disciplined and into bodybuilding, and a mother who was a housewife. During her childhood, she found herself confused about her gender identity. She describes a moment, when she was 6 years old, on a shopping trip with her mother: She was playing with dresses in a clothing store. When her mother said she would tell Riordan’s father, she disciplined herself by bashing a toy rifle against her legs, leaving big, purple welts. It turns out that her father was cold and indifferent to the whole matter. Riordan also shares details about her life as a teenager—revealing a person in serious pain. She played basketball…
15 Feb 2014
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Many of us have attended public meetings at which emotions run uncomfortably high. Each side is firmly, sometimes even fiercely, entrenched; voices are raised; tempers are frayed. People hurl verbal grenades at each other, refusing to concede an inch. Actual communication is rare, and the gathering often degenerates into chaos. That’s where people like Lucy Moore come in. As a professional mediator and facilitator, she is charged with bringing some measure of understanding and perhaps peace (or what passes for it) to such meetings, persuading warring parties to dial down their emotions and truly listen to each other. A Santa Fe, N.M., resident, she’s been working in the West for more than 25 years, dealing with hot-button issues such as water rights, toxic waste, Indian education, grazing issues and reservoir management. Her new book, Common Ground on Hostile Turf, is both a memoir and a primer on how mediation can…
07 Feb 2014
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“Letting go of one’s soul mate is not easy.” So writes award-winning author and retired University of New Mexico professor Rudolfo Anaya in his latest novel,The Old Man’s Love Story. Inspired by the death of his beloved wife, Patricia, in 2010, the book is so poignant, and so powerful in its intimate exploration of grief, that readers may find themselves pausing after each chapter to sit quietly with their own experience of loss. They may also find themselves chuckling at the narrator’s wry observations on the persistence of lust, and at his foil, Ernesto, an oversexed jock who struts about in a Speedo at the pool where the elderly narrator does aerobics “in the water, returning to my fish nature.” The best books on grief—whether fiction or nonfiction—examine death and the concerns of the survivors with uncompromising candor. Anaya’s “old man” can’t stop asking questions after his wife dies. “Could…
19 Jan 2014
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In To Conserve Unimpaired, University of Utah professor Robert Keiter provides an unvarnished view of “America’s best idea”: the National Park System. Keiter, the country’s pre-eminent legal expert on the subject, tackles the question: Why does the park idea still evoke so much controversy when its value is so widely acknowledged? For one thing, as he explains, it’s not just about parks. “As highly valued and visible public places, the national parks are inherently political entities … reflecting our larger dialogue about nature conservation and its role in our civic life.” Keiter traces the evolution of each major idea that has shaped our vision of the national parks. In the early days, the Park Service actively sought to improve visitor experiences by attempting to control nature. Not only did the agency suppress wildfires; it also eradicated wolves to protect more “desirable” wildlife, and fed bears garbage “to create an evening…
24 Dec 2013
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I’ll be honest: I’ve pooh-poohed e-books for years, primarily for sensual reasons. A cold plastic Kindle or iPad doesn’t offer the same experience as paper and glue—the tactile sensation and distinct smell of bound literature. Well, all that changed this month when I found myself buried under a teaching load of six college composition classes—enough to make Socrates beg for hemlock. I mean, have you ever graded 150 research papers? For two weeks, I self-administered a transfusion, replacing my blood with black coffee and whatever’s in those 5-Hour Energy vials. Despite December’s stress, I managed to read a number of great tomes this year—many available as e-books. Now, some of you Luddites are saying, So? You can’t send an e-book as a gift. Actually, you can if you have a Kindle account, and the process is simpler than Stephenie Meyer’s prose. Just go online to the Kindle Store, and choose…
23 Dec 2013
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Dashiell Hammett is a name that’s familiar to fans of mystery novels; the prolific noir-era writer penned numerous renowned books, including several that became legendary big-screen successes. Now Hammett is himself the subject of a novel. Hammett Unwritten, by Owen Fitzstephen (aka Gordon McAlpine), a Southern California resident, is a fictionalized account based on the late author’s life surrounding The Maltese Falcon. The book starts out on New Year’s Eve 1959 in Long Island. At that time, it had been almost 30 years since Hammett had written a new story; he was in the midst of health issues he would not discuss. He is reviewing the obituary that he wrote for himself; we see how troubled he is over divorcing his first wife in San Francisco, and only keeping in contact with his children through support payments and the occasional phone call. Booze, smoking and women definitely had an impact…
22 Dec 2013
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When did we get so petty? At a time when we’re faced with huge issues—a changing climate, a health-care crisis, a democracy threatened by money in politics, the legacy of unpunished deception on Wall Street—we keep going small: denying science, attacking reproductive rights, manufacturing fiscal crises, etc. When did we give up? And more important: How can we become big again? A time-honored way to reset one’s worldview is to look for inspiration in tales of heroism—what writer Cormac McCarthy calls “old stories of courage and justice.” I found such a tale in Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. On its surface, it’s about 1983, the year when so much snowmelt swamped the Colorado River Basin that it threatened to overrun Glen Canyon Dam. Yet even as that catastrophe was brewing, and the dam was…
08 Dec 2013
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Shawn Vestal sets the stories in his focused yet far-reaching debut collection among regular Mormon folks who live in Idaho, touching on their lives in the past, the present and even the afterworld. Most of his characters have fallen away from their faith or are struggling with doubts, and Vestal, a columnist for Spokane’s The Spokesman-Review, skillfully mixes those serious subjects with dry humor. In one story, the narrator meets his ex-wife in the afterlife. “Are the kids all right?” he asks her. “You got used to not knowing that,” she replies. “Come on,” the narrator says, “I’ve been dead.” In another story, a man travels with his girlfriend to Rupert, Idaho, to visit her Mormon parents. There, they find “a hand-painted sign, done up with curlicues: FAMILIES ARE FOREVER! Which sounded like a threat.” Although Vestal can also craft compelling stories in the vein of straightforward realism—“About as Fast…
07 Dec 2013
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Some fear that we will saddle our children with trillions of dollars in federal debt. That would be too bad, but it would be a minor inconvenience compared to what our forefathers cursed us with: the 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477. Like other such gifts—including the 1872 Mining Law—R.S. 2477 lays a heavy, destructive, expensive hand on the present. The statute’s 19 words said that anyone could build a public “highway” across the West’s public land. That highway could not be extinguished by the later creation of a homestead, a national park or even a wilderness. R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways—sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle—are still being fought over in the West. That is especially true in Utah, where the state has launched 30 federal lawsuits to establish 36,000 miles of mechanized rights of way through existing wilderness,…