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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 and displayed the typical masculinity of a teenage boy, but would find ways to be home alone so she could wear women’s clothing. She later got married and was a devoted husband and father—but Riordan drank, straining the relationship with her wife and children. She was in management at a Philip Morris production plant, but secrets in the workplace eventually forced her into early retirement.

A key moment in Riordan’s life occurred when she started a relationship with a female co-worker who had no problem with Riordan’s love of dressing in women’s clothing; that woman would go on to become Riordan’s second wife. Meanwhile, Riordan started to reach out to others who were dealing with gender-identity struggles, including a support group who sought to embrace and encourage members to come as their “true gender.”

Riordan eventually found the support and the courage to go through the process of transitioning from male to female. She also confronted her alcoholism at Michael’s House in Palm Springs in 2008, after which she returned home and went through with her gender-reassignment surgery.

It’s obviously been a long road for Riordan, and she shows great courage in telling her story. She details the ridicule that many transgendered people suffer through, as well as the struggles one goes through while in the process of transitioning—including problems with friends and family, and the interpersonal issues one deals with while going through the many preparations. In the end, Riordan has emerged as a stronger, happier person.

While the book is quite descriptive, it exhibits flaws that are all too common with books that are self-published: There are grammar and punctuation errors, and several of the chapters should be split. When I asked Riordan about these flaws, and she said she is working with an editor on a second edition which she hopes to have out soon.

Those errors aside, Bondage of Self is a book that not only someone who is going through transgenderism will appreciate; it’s also a great read for people who want to better understand the trials endured by men and women struggling with gender-identity issues.

Bondage of Self

By Kaitlin Sine Riordan

Purple Books Publishing

370 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

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 work. Moore offers 10 fairly lengthy examples, presented chronologically, drawn directly from her experience with the nonprofit conflict-resolution firm Western Network, and her own firm, Lucy Moore Associates. In each story, she digs into her memory and walks the reader through each stage of the mediation, recounting the sometimes slow and difficult steps toward resolution.

It’s her job, she writes, to provide the space, “physical and emotional, where those in conflict can tell their stories,” listen to each other, and forge some human connection. This means that everyone involved “must be honest, vulnerable, open and respectful.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. Physical space at meetings may be scarce; distrust is often rampant; and the presence of “outsiders” may rankle locals. But Moore believes in using what might be described as a form of alchemy, transforming conflict into mutual respect, trust and eventually a path to a collective decision—something that comes not from her, she insists, but from the opposing parties.

Moore’s examples are varied and compelling, and offer instructive lessons on resolving the critical issues that face the West as population and mobility increase, and resources dwindle. Her voice is passionate, reasoned and articulate, yet seasoned throughout with the vulnerability she deems so essential to conflict resolution. Common Ground powerfully supports the art of mediation and the notion that consensus solutions are faster and fairer—and, ultimately, far cheaper—than legally imposed ones.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories From an Environmental Mediator

By Lucy Moore

Island

216 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

“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 one live as pure spirit?” he wonders. “Is she lost? Or am I the lost one?” Perhaps most heart-wrenchingly, he asks the unanswerable: “Why?”

But the author reaches beyond the story of an old man losing his soulmate. Within this lyrical volume, there’s a romantic love story with a beginning (“She Anglo and he a nuevo mexicano. Will the marriage last, family wondered”) and a middle (“Both taught school, so summers were for traveling”), as well as the inevitable end. Set against the landscapes of Mexico and New Mexico, the book delves into Chicano history, Mexican folktales, philosophical discourse on homelessness, hedge funds and even the war in Afghanistan. “The old man bowed his head and prayed,” Anaya writes. “He lived in reality, and reality smelled really bad.”

The Old Man’s Love Story offers an alternative to grief and nihilism. By its conclusion, a second romance emerges in the narrator’s unquenchable passion for life. Salvation comes not in the form of an awkward rendezvous with a new “lady friend,” but in his realization that he is still very much alive, nourished by both current events and his joyful memories.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

The Old Man’s Love Story

By Rudolfo Anaya

University of Oklahoma

184 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

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 spectacle for park visitors.” If it weren’t for David Brower and the Sierra Club, Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument would have been inundated by the massive Echo Park dam. But they could not stop the Park Service from punching through a network of new roads to facilitate tourism.

Brower, in fact, captured the dichotomy of all national parks: “part schoolroom and part playground and part—the best part—sanctuary from a world paved with concrete, jet-propelled, smog-blanketed, sterilized, over-insured (and) aseptic … with every natural beautiful thing endangered by the raw engineering power of the 20th century.”

The challenge of conserving those “beautiful things” looms even larger today, as we face the pressures of climate change and ever more people and development. One can’t help but wonder whether the legal mandate governing park management, the Organic Act of 1916, is adaptable enough to endure. In fact, the Park Service’s management ethos did begin to change in the 1960s with the influential Leopold report—by legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold—which recommended that parks be managed to represent a “vignette of primitive America” with minimal human intervention into natural processes.

Keiter shows how the Organic Act can continue to accommodate changing views of the national parks while ensuring that conservation comes first. He points the way toward conserving the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the law specifies, through science collaboration, and a heightened sense of social justice, connectivity and diversity, both human and ecological. Yet, as Keiter concludes, “The parks will always be confronted with new demands and threats, testing our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying the hallowed notion of conserving nature in an unimpaired condition.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea

By Robert B. Keiter

Island Press

368 pages, $35

Published in Literature

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 on Hammett’s life.

“The Black Falcon Affair of 1922” in San Francisco is portrayed in the novel as a true story, even though the real Maltese Falcon is based on the Kniphausen Hawk (a centuries-old ceremonial pouring vessel). The mysterious statuette of a falcon with a jewel on it was said to offer the person who owned it various powers. It’s the sort of archeological artifact you’d expect to see in an Indiana Jones film. Hammett Unwritten depicts the story of the falcon as real, and suggests that Hammett was both blessed and cursed by it—and that the story itself consumed him.

As Hammett recalls his most infamous case—which also went on to be the subject of his masterpiece novel—he goes down memory lane after one of the scam artists he was involved with while cracking the original case arrives in his office. Other real-life people—including Lillian Hellman, with whom Hammett had a decades-long love affair—get worked into the plot as well. The book also has Hammett cracking his final case in the days after the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with him and blacklisted him for his refusal to cooperate—something that really happened.

While Hammett Unwritten is well-written, the overly complex story is hard to follow at times. The book jumps around various eras of Hammett’s career, the numerous women with whom Hammett was involved, the characters related to The Maltese Falcon, and so on; at times, it’s hard to determine the era in which a particular scene is set. There are also bits and pieces of interviews that Hammett did throughout his career worked in, which muddles things even more.

Did having the mysterious falcon in his possession give the fictional Hammett the fortune and fame he enjoyed as a writer? When the fictional author gave away the falcon, did that lead to his string of bad luck? How much of this novel happened in real life, and how much of it is pure fiction? These are all questions you’ll be asking yourself after reading Hammett Unwritten.

Hammett Unwritten

By Owen Fitzstephen

Seventh Street,

160 pages, $13.95

Published in Literature

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 releasing biblical volumes of water, an eccentric, massively talented, hugely energetic, obsessive-compulsive river guide named Kenton Grua and two of his friends risked jail and death by sneaking the Emerald Mile—their wooden dory—into the maelstrom, just to see if they could row the 277-mile canyon in less than 48 hours.

As with many great stories, the actual subject is largely metaphor. The book is about much bigger things: gigantic acts of human creation, such as Glen Canyon Dam—an engineering marvel that, love it or hate it, marked the heyday of ambitious infrastructure in the U.S.—and even more tremendous natural landscapes, like the Grand Canyon itself: a mile deep, and so large that you could dump the Pyrenees into it, and no peaks would rise above the rim. Ultimately, the book is about the extent of human dreams and madness, including Grua’s secret plan to launch into the biggest flood in 30 years.

As Grua and crew blasted into Crystal Rapid, a ranger named John Thomas saw them. Their trip was illegal, and the National Park Service had closed that rapid due to an extremely dangerous “explosion wave”—the very one for which they were headed. But although Thomas was a ranger, he was an old-school boatman, too, and he “knew exactly who it was and what they were doing.” Thomas wondered: “Was it possible that a measure of what had been lost—the thing that had defined the essence of this place,” the canyon’s unconstrained freedom and self-expression—was happening right in front of his eyes? In those few seconds, he was in moral whitewater: Should he honor the act and the canyon, and thereby breach his obligations as a ranger? Or should he stop the run? Thomas walked away, a grand gesture in itself. It makes a reader wonder: When was my last grand gesture? When was the last time I hung everything on the line for the sake of a shaky and hopeful vision?

Even as Grua plunged into the river, engineers at Glen Canyon were struggling to prevent an overflow that would flood the powerhouses. The discharge was destroying the outlet channels, which were spitting out car-sized chunks from the sandstone walls that supported the dam; it was a huge problem. But then again, everyone in this book is under duress: physical, legal, existential, moral. Sort of like many of us today.

The gateway to Dante’s Inferno famously reads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Grua pitched himself into a literal hell as an act of grace, all for a deeper connection to the place he loved. Was that place hell to Grua? A more recent translation of Dante better describes his mission: “Forget your hopes; they are what brought you here.” When the time came, Grua could only act. Fedarko says that “only by steering himself unflinchingly into those places he most fervently wished to avoid … could a man hope to arrive at the place he truly needed to be.”

Can we meet the challenges of our time? It’s just a question of our willingness to throw ourselves unconditionally into the maw, into our own personal Emerald Mile.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

By Kevin Fedarko

Scribner

432 pages, $30

Published in Literature

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 as This Car Will Go,” for example, follows a young man’s descent into criminality under the guidance of his ex-con father—his stories soar when he frees them from the normal cosmic rules.

In “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” there’s not much for the deceased to do but relive their own lives. “Now that it’s gone, your life is the only thing you have left. Ransack it, top to bottom. Find whatever you can in there, because it’s all there is.” This story starts out comical but becomes increasingly moving and melancholy as the narrator tries to reconnect with people from his past.

The harrowing “Opposition in All Things” proposes a different possibility for the afterlife. A crusty 1880s Idaho pioneer wakes from his death to find his spirit possessing Rulon Warren, a World War I veteran having difficulty meeting the expectations of his small Mormon town. Rulon’s bored possessor urges him to more or less re-enact the pioneer’s own life; he ultimately behaves like a lunatic, with violent repercussions.

In whatever century these stories are set, they are united in their emphasis on family, and in their exploration of what we owe to and can expect from the people who share our blood—in this life and beyond.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Godforsaken Idaho: Stories

By Shawn Vestal

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

224 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

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, national parks and monuments, and wilderness study areas.

Into this expensive, litigious mess bravely comes the young historian Jedediah S. Rogers. With Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country, Rogers attempts to connect two warring ways of life. He asks us to look at roads not only as physical structures, but as symbols of culture and history. In Rogers’ telling, the Mormons of southern Utah regard the primitive roads their ancestors pioneered as comparable to the naves of medieval cathedrals. To interfere with the public’s ability to travel them amounts to sacrilege. But to those who favor wilderness, the sacrilege is motorized travel through red-rock canyons and riparian areas.

Rogers humanizes the conflict over wilderness by portraying some of the people most involved. He is sympathetic both toward Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and toward nemesis, uranium miner and Lake Powell resort developer Calvin Black, immortalized by Abbey as the character “Bishop Love.”

Abbey hated roads—the better the road, the more he hated it—and the reservoir he called Lake Foul. Black appreciated Lake Powell because it also served as a highway, and so loved roads, writes Rogers, that he assumed the 1960s slogan “Black Is Beautiful” referred to pavement.

Given the area’s bitter history—which includes the Grand County commissioners repeatedly, and feloniously, sending bulldozers into Moab’s Negro Bill Canyon to “refresh” the disappearing road—what could bring the two sides to the table now?

Partly, it is the passing of generations; both Black and Abbey are gone, for example. And partly it is exhaustion from decades of expensive struggle. But it may also be fear of the future: Utah could win its R.S. 2477 cases, or President Barack Obama might unleash the 1906 Antiquities Act, as President Clinton did at Grand Staircase-Escalante, and create de facto wilderness. Or both events might happen, further complicating what is already a mess.

Rogers’ book is both perfectly timed and a sign of the times, appearing as Utah Congressman Rob Bishop seems to be progressing toward a compromise solution in Utah, with some public land being protected, and some now-protected land being opened to development.

Although the book is well-timed, it isn’t always well-written, and it lacks clear maps to illustrate chapters about the road wars in places like Arch Canyon and the Book Cliffs.

While Rogers lacks the partisan passion of an Abbey or Black, he has passions appropriate to this time: for compromise and the merging of interests. He believes that if the two sides were to bend a little, each would win more than they could by defeating the other in Congress or the White House or the courts.

He urges environmentalists to see desert homesteads, mine shafts, abandoned orchards and even roads as part of a landscape shaped by humans, but still dominated by nature. He quotes environmental historian Bill Cronon, who has written that the exclusion of man’s works from nature is dehumanizing.

And he asks southern Utah’s Mormon residents to acknowledge that the heroic pioneer days, when wagon trains were lowered to the Colorado River by rope down the Hole in the Rock notch, are over. We have blasted an interstate highway through the San Rafael Swell and turned parts of the Colorado, San Juan and Escalante rivers into ponds. Progress now, Rogers argues, is not demonstrated by how much more nature we can bulldoze, but by how much we can refrain from conquering: “In a country—a world—that is increasingly developed one acre at a time, we need these places to keep us rooted. The (Colorado Plateau) region is one of the few places where large tracts of wildlands exist.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country

By Jedediah S. Rogers

University of Utah

250 pages, $39.95 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback)

Published in Literature

Reno, the 22-year-old protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, makes her first appearance as she flies across Nevada on her way to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1970s. “The land was drained of color and specificity,” she observes. “The faster I went, the more connected I felt to the map.”

A native of the city for which she’s named, Reno had moved to New York City several months earlier to try to become a successful artist. Now she’s returning home for two weeks to make and photograph motorcycle tracks.

The novel—recently named a finalist for the National Book Award—moves from Nevada and Bonneville to New York’s Lower East Side and across the Atlantic to Italy, but because it is all seen through Reno’s working-class Western lens, the reader never loses sight of the highway and unbroken sky where the novel begins. Kushner deftly connects the disparate locations, using parallel encounters with motorcycles, guns, art and films to subtly link events across time and space.

Events that happen elsewhere in the world illuminate those that take place in the West: For instance, as we follow the founder of the Moto Valera company, who finds beauty in the chaos of urban Milan through the sleekness of his motorcycles, we understand why protagonist Reno quotes one of the land artist Robert Smithson’s more controversial statements: Constructing his famous “Spiral Jetty” in a red algae-filled portion of the Great Salt Lake, Smithson remarked that “pollution and industry could be beautiful.”

The Flamethrowers embraces the Western penchant for speed, and the exhilaration of driving fast through empty landscapes. At the same time, the novel questions who is entitled to represent the West. Reno points out that it is “an irony but a fact” that to become a respected Western artist, she has to move to New York first. A homegrown land artist would be accused of being provincial and naive. And yet, as she says early on, “The question itself is evidence of not belonging.” Once someone is conscious of deliberately representing the West, he or she ceases to effortlessly belong to it.

Between these tense and provocative layers lies an expansive, irresistible story that plays out with action almost as gripping as racing a motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Flamethrowers

By Rachel Kushner

Scribner

400 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

In her captivating debut story collection, Casper-raised author Nina McConigley examines with wit and empathy what it means to be “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” Although prejudice and ignorance surface, there are few bad guys in this game of cowboys and Indians—only complicated human beings.

The characters in Cowboys and East Indians must explain themselves frequently—they are never quite what those who encounter them expect. In the story “Dot or Feather,” a foreign-exchange student from India tells a Wyoming kid dressed up as a Native American, “There are two kinds of Indians. Some wear dots; others wear feathers. You’re a feather Indian. I wear a dot.”

A gnawing sense of never-belonging troubles many of McConigley’s characters. In the title story, Faith Henderson, a “dot Indian” adopted at age 2, remembers how she and an Arapaho classmate, the only other non-white student at her school, took turns portraying Mary “in various school Christmas pageants, since Mary was Middle Eastern.” While attending college in Laramie, Faith tries to befriend a group of East Indian graduate students, hoping they will invite her to share their lives and culture. Instead, they take advantage of her, asking her to drive them places in her minivan.

In the delightful, surprising “Pomp and Circumstances,” Chitra is an Indian immigrant whose husband’s job brings them to Casper. At an office Christmas party, she tells an anecdote about a “hijra,” a traditional Indian transvestite, and soon her husband’s boss, Richard Larson, invites her for tea with his wife. While there, Richard asks if she can help him try on a sari—and introduces Chitra to his elaborate cross-dressing wardrobe hidden in his gun locker. A weird and wonderful secret understanding develops between the three people. “It is unspoken between them,” McConigley writes. “This kind of thing can get you killed in Wyoming.”

But despite Wyoming’s harsh social rules, abundant oil derricks, and scrappy towns that aren’t “the West people were expecting,” the characters in Cowboys and East Indians love their state, and the state’s wildlife and landscape color the way they experience the world. These people are as skinny as a “lodgepole pine” or as unpredictable as a prairie dog poised on the edge of the highway—and they belong to Wyoming.

McConigley has delved into the particular and emerged with genuine stories that touch the universal.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Cowboys and East Indians

Nina McConigley

FiveChapters

195 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature