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Literature

07 Jun 2018
In her poignant memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky, Jenny Forrester unflinchingly shares the gritty details of what she calls her “American trailer trash Republican childhood” in rural Colorado, and the serpentine path she takes to escape the violence that defined her youth. Most other books on rural poverty published during the rise of Donald Trump have focused on Appalachia or the Deep South (J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash). But Forrester tackles life in the American West. Forrester was born in the Vail Valley, down valley from the famous ski resort, the daughter of a conservative ski-patroller father and a God-fearing teacher mother. She and her younger brother were frequently subjected to their father’s corporal punishment. Forrester was a delicate, sensitive child, deeply affected by the ruthless way her father dispatched problem kittens, problem birds … problem anything. Eventually, her…
08 Mar 2018
As a child in Los Angeles, I watched European starlings bathe in gutter puddles. I admired their gleaming feathers and quick bright eyes. Field guides and birdwatchers say starlings perch on the lowest rung of the ornithological ladder, thanks to their tendency to invade both cities and fragile habitats, pushing out native birds and decimating farmers’ crops. But I didn’t know that then. In ignorance, I marveled. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a starling, purchased for a few coins in a Viennese pet shop; he kept it as a companion and—possibly—a muse. The unlikely relationship between musical genius and avian pariah has been the subject of essays, public-radio features and now Mozart’s Starling, a work of literary nonfiction by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. A Seattle-based naturalist, Haupt tells three stories in her newest book—a trio of deftly interwoven tales that point toward a new way of seeing species we long ago learned…
08 Feb 2018
In June 1966, a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, warning readers: “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded … For Profit.” David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was blasting two proposed dams that would have backed up the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park. The attack sounds tame in our vitriolic era, but it triggered such an unprecedented wave of anti-dam letters to Congress that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the club’s tax-exempt status as a nonpolitical organization. When dam-backers argued that a reservoir would make it easier to admire the canyon, Brower’s next ad notoriously asked, “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?” By summer’s end, his public relations barrage had killed the huge project. In The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss details how Brower transformed the…
27 Dec 2017
In Idaho, the elegant, contemplative debut novel by Idaho-raised Boise State University assistant professor Emily Ruskovich, two sisters play a game in a meadow. If you “hold a buttercup under someone’s chin” and it “makes a yellow glow,” that indicates the person has a secret. “The chins always glow yellow,” Ruskovich writes. “That’s the trick: There’s always a secret. Everyone has something she doesn’t want told.” That’s certainly true of the characters in Ruskovich’s novel, as well as in Jon Raymond’s Freebird. Both books are set in the West and explore the aftermath of violence, though they do so in very different families. In Idaho, Ann, a piano teacher in the northern part of the state, tries to unravel the mystery behind her husband Wade’s first wife, Jenny, who had killed her youngest daughter nine years earlier. Her older daughter then fled into the woods, never to be found. Wade…
14 Dec 2017
At some point last August in Montana, Missoula County’s daily air quality updates—peppered with chatty jokes about the apocalyptic sky outside the windows and wry recommendations to avoid outdoor exercise—stopped being funny. The gray miasma that had covered the city lost its novelty, though the fantastic sunscapes—the sharp evening shadows by early afternoon, and the ominous beauty that the poetically inclined find in destruction—lingered. Unfortunately, the blanket of gritty air did, too. Many parts of Southern California have experienced similar air quality over the past few weeks … but you knew that already. All the commiserating small talk with grocery-store cashiers and detailed explanations of what we were breathing and where it came from could not lift the pall, figuratively or literally. Smoke—plumes of it streaking across satellite maps—became all too familiar, even as the fires that spouted it threatened evacuations and stressed budgets to breaking. Edward Struzik’s new book,…
06 Dec 2017
Stanley Crawford defies most of the stereotypes of a “Western American writer.” The Dixon, N.M.-based author is more likely to wear sandals than cowboy boots. He owns a pickup truck, but his automotive passion is for working on impractical yet dapper vintage European cars; his most recent project was the restoration of a 1984 Citroen Deux Chevaux. His latest aspiration is to compete in the 2018 Brompton World Championship, a decorous folding-bike race held every summer in St. James’ Park, in London, at which gentlemen are required to wear a jacket, shirt and tie. Despite, or perhaps because of, the glee he takes in flouting the usual image of a Western writer, Crawford has earned a reputation as one of the most original and incisive authors writing about the region today. His memoirs Mayordomo and A Garlic Testament are celebrated for their droll yet humane reflections on how their author’s…
16 Nov 2017
The tacos dorados, Francisco Cantú tells me as we push through the turnstiles into Nogales, Mexico, are some of the best he’s ever had. So we beeline through the bustling streets toward the small metal cart in search of the paper-wrapped stacks of crispy chicken tacos dripping spicy red salsa. Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, forthcoming this February from Riverhead Books. The book is a beautiful and brutal chronicle of the four years he spent working as a Border Patrol agent, and the years afterward, in which an immigrant friend, José, is deported to Mexico—and Cantú finds himself navigating border policy from the other end. The book, his first, is already generating buzz; Cantú has received a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize, and a section of the book recently aired on This American Life. On this Monday, we’ve…
07 Sep 2017
In his remarkable memoir Attending Others, Brian Volck reflects on his career as a pediatrician, including stints at inner-city hospitals in the Midwest; several volunteer missions to Honduras; and years on the Navajo Reservation. Through his practice, Volck has gained considerable wisdom—though he’s too humble to call it that. Attending Others is less a compendium of lessons learned than a gorgeous meditation on things that cannot be fully understood, such as the mysteries of the human condition. Volck focuses on how vulnerable we become through our bodies and our bonds with those we love, especially in the ties between parents and their children. His experiences with his own and other people’s children serve to perpetually reinforce what he calls “the first lesson of parenthood”: “You’re not in control.” The memoir’s structure is indicative of its overall humility. After an opening scene at a Navajo wedding, Volck goes into the stories…
14 Aug 2017
On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon will ride its elliptical orbit precisely between the Earth and the sun, plunging the land below into the crepuscule of a total solar eclipse. Beginning at around 10 a.m. Pacific Time, the dark path of totality will sweep northwest to southeast across the United States, casting its eerie gloom upon Western towns such as Madras, Ore.; Rexburg, Idaho; and Casper, Wyo. The sky will turn violet; shadows will sharpen; pigeons will roost; and owls will take wing. Millions of umbraphiles—eclipse chasers—will crane their necks to witness more than two minutes of lunar ecstasy, transfixed by an occluded sun that science writer David Baron describes as “an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris … the eye of the cosmos.” Although partial solar eclipses and lunar eclipses are relatively common, total solar eclipses are rarer beasts: When totality last traversed the entire width of the…
26 Jul 2017
Listen up, water-loving Westerners: We’ve got a problem—a trout problem. For decades, anglers have fetishized these silvery stream-dwellers, maniacally pursuing rainbows, browns and brookies to the neglect of other underwater life. Every year, obliging fish managers pump America’s waterways full of millions of hatchery-born trout, diluting gene pools and overwhelming native species. We fishermen consider ourselves enlightened stewards, but our trout myopia reveals our true self-centeredness. And let’s not even get started on bass. Fortunately, there are plenty more fish in the sea—to say nothing of rivers, creeks and lakes. For anyone seeking a deeper understanding of what lies beneath the surface of Western waterways, Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West offers a lively primer to the region’s aquatic biodiversity. Over the course of 11 chapters, Mark Spitzer, a writing professor at the University of Central Arkansas and a certified angling addict, travels the country seeking the kinds of…

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