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A wistful and at times mournful spirit permeates the 41 brief essays that make up Liz Stephens’ first book, The Days Are Gods.

The Oklahoma-born Stephens is a “card-carrying Choctaw tribal member” and recently earned a doctorate in creative nonfiction. Her multifaceted memoir is the 34th volume in the acclaimed “American Lives” series.

What is she mourning, exactly? The idea of home, of the West, of belonging somewhere and knowing a deep historical attachment to one place—the foundations she lacked growing up in the Midwest and later in California, where she worked for a decade in the entertainment industry: “Originally, I’d moved to Los Angeles for the same reason everyone does. I wanted excitement. I also wanted to officially join the club of the other people who’d been too weird for high school, but not weird enough to drop out.”

Smart and articulate, Stephens and her boyfriend prosper by serving snacks to crews who make TV commercials. “But now I wanted to be somewhere where what people did was what they did. I was tired of glib. I was tired of ironic. I was tired of feeling like life was going to start just as soon as I got an agent.”

In what seems an unlikely development for two tattooed, hip, self-created Angelenos, they move to Wellsville, Utah, so that Liz and Christopher, now her husband, can attend graduate school.

There, Liz truly falls in love: with the sky, mountains, clouds, snow—and even with rodeo. They buy a house, horses, chickens and goats, and before long, Liz is pregnant. In their Mormon neighborhood, despite their urban façades, the couple is invited to picnics and Founders’ Day celebrations. “It is the landscape that draws me and keeps me here, concurrently spare and breathtaking enough to empty my mind of chatter like hours of meditation I could never sit through.”

Eventually, Liz, Christopher and their daughter leave Utah, and their reluctant departure—back to the Midwest, so Liz can complete her doctorate—will sound a lament familiar to many Westerners who think they have finally found home after a lifetime of wandering, only to lose it.

The West has often played the role of a contemporary Garden of Eden; as soon as we found ourselves at home here, it seems that we’re forced to depart. And the place we leave will haunt us for the rest of our days.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Days Are Gods

By Liz Stephens

University of Nebraska

266 pages, $18.95

Published in Literature

Brandon R. Schrand’s second book, Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior, retraces the Idaho author’s life through his obsessive love of literature.

Each personal essay is paired with notes about a book that influenced that time in his life, with entries varying from passing references to detailed tributes. The first essay introduces us to a college-age Schrand as he’s arrested in Arizona while driving through red-rock canyons and smoking pot with his fraternity brothers. Schrand ends up missing out on a class discussion of Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, although he has a copy of the book in the car.

This beginning introduces four constants around which the memoir revolves: stunning Western landscapes, trouble with authority, a boy trying to become a man, and the books he fell in love with along the way.

Schrand first connects with the West —and his own family’s story of settling in the region—through Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Annie Proulx’s Close Range, and William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky. He leaves a working-class life to attend Southern Utah University, and it takes him seven years to graduate; his conservative, wealthy classmates mock his long hair and his ignorance of grammar. Graduate school rejects him the first time around, but he takes refuge in books: “On some afternoons when charcoal thunderheads crowded the horizon, throwing the brushy hills into shadow, and when yellow-headed blackbirds pecked in the gravel parking lot, I would read.”

Even as he gets married and starts a family, it is reading that ultimately helps him find his way to maturity and, eventually, a career as a writer and professor.

The flow of Works Cited is occasionally disorienting; rather than being chronologically organized, it is assembled alphabetically, using the name of each book’s author. Nevertheless, the structure functions as a creative way for Schrand to explore the emotional territory of his early adulthood.

Works Cited is a riveting story about literature’s potential to transform a life, as we watch an undisciplined teenager with vague ambitions slowly become a self-aware and loving father, husband and author.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior

By Brandon R. Schrand

University of Nebraska

221 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

In 13 sharp, witty stories, Spokane, Wash.’s Jess Walter captures the gritty, quirky and heartbreaking lives of a variety of Pacific Northwesterners.

Walter convincingly inhabits each character he creates, from a hungry meth addict wheeling an enormous TV toward a hoped-for pawnshop payout, to a blue-collar dad trying to figure out which of his kids is stealing from the jar of pocket change that holds the family’s vacation fund.

Much like his previous books, We Live in Water is alive with junkies, gamblers, scammers, drunks, down-and-outers and white-collar criminals, all of them too complex and endearing for the reader to easily judge or dismiss.

Many of these stories delve deeply into the relationships between fathers and sons, particularly “Anything Helps,” which gets its name from the phrase that Bit, its homeless protagonist, inks on a cardboard sign. With $20 from a Mercedes driver, he buys a Harry Potter book for his son, whose fundamentalist foster family has banned it as sacrilegious. You find yourself yearning for Bit to straighten out his life, against all odds, and win his son back.

Hope is the common element in these stories. Walter excels at keeping alive the ghost of a chance that these people will somehow reform themselves and avert disaster.

The writer investigates the complex mingling of love, loathing, respect and disdain he feels for Spokane in the final story, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington,” a series of 50 observations that begin simply with the town’s population and blossom into vignettes about the city the narrator has wanted to leave since he was 13. But, Walter writes, “I’m still here.” Spokane appears as a complicated place, home to drug abuse and chronic bicycle theft, where “more adult men per capita (ride) children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world,” but at the same time as a town that’s free of pretension, where decent people help one another when necessary.

There is a huge difference between snarky, mean-spirited wit, and rich, full-hearted humor that rejoices in the source of its own laughter. It’s the latter that Walter achieves in We Live in Water, and it’s why he earns more fans with every book he writes.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

We Live in Water

By Jess Walter

Harper Perennial

192 pages, $14.99

Published in Literature

When Esther Chambers moves to central Oregon from Chicago in 1896, she finds herself caught in a range war between cattle-ranchers and sheepherders. Anna Keesey's elegant debut novel, Little Century, resurrects the complex West of those early days, in prose that captures the rhythms and diction of 100 years ago.

Esther's mother died a few months earlier, and her only surviving relative is a distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, known as Pick, who owns the Two Forks ranch outside of Century, Ore. Pick persuades the 18-year-old to swear she is 21 in order to file a claim on a plot of land that includes a playa lake called Half-a-Mind. Water is scarce in this arid country, and Pick wants to graze his cattle at Half-a-Mind, although sheep-ranchers also use the free-range land nearby. “You've had a hard time,” Pick tells Esther. “But this is a good country for someone alone. We're all equal out here, and everyone makes his own luck.”

Esther settles down on her claim and begins to adapt to her new life. She befriends a few of the locals, including Century's shopkeeper, Joe Peasley, who loans her books and the use of his typewriter; and its schoolteacher, Jane Fremont, who also lives on a claim. Esther is initially perplexed by the tensions and alliances between the townspeople. But before long, she realizes that those who behave coldly to her often do so because she has unwittingly thwarted their hopes or ambitions.

Pick is the community's most-respected member, and when he asks Esther to consent to “an understanding” that they will one day marry, she agrees. But expedience has a way of trumping morality on the frontier, and the conflict with the sheepherders escalates into wagon-burnings, livestock-killings and murder. Even the upright-seeming Jane and Pick have secrets. Liberated by her own claim's isolation, Esther indulges in a forbidden friendship with a young sheepherder.

“Justice is hard to come by,” Esther thinks, and the plot of Little Century echoes this notion.

Keesey has fashioned an authentic story out of the moral compromises Western settlers made in order to live and work with one another.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Little Century

By Anna Keesey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Picador

336 pages, $16

Published in Literature

Halfway through Marisa Silver's crystalline new novel, Mary Coin, two women's lives converge near a frost-blighted field of peas in Depression-era California.

Vera Dare, a government photographer, aims her camera at a rumpled migrant family. Her thoughts drift to her own children: two young boys sent to a boardinghouse, because she cannot afford to take care of them. The woman on the other side of the lens is Mary Coin, a single mother with seven hungry children who is barely scraping by as a migrant farmworker. In the photos, she cradles a sick infant and looks considerably older than her 32 years.

You might pause to take a long look at the book's dust jacket and let Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother” (cropped close and colorized) meld with the story. Lange documented farm-laborers for the Farm Security Administration, which sought to draw national attention to rural poverty. Lange's iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson, taken in 1936 near a California pea field, grounds Silver's fictionalized account. Improvising on cues plucked from history, she fills in the emotional lives of the two women with carefully distilled details of survival, love and loss.

How do Vera and Mary inhabit the biographical outlines of Lange and Thompson? Silver gracefully conjures Mary's Oklahoma childhood, as well a one-room sod house with centipedes inside the walls, and an earlier encounter with a traveling photographer who, struck by her Cherokee features, paid her to pose as a “real Indian princess.” She is seen as an idealized mother despite her desperate circumstances. “When she looked at her children playing their game of chase,” Silver writes, “she thought of them as a fist held up to fate.”

In contrast, the driven photographer is depicted as guilt-ridden, a woman who “felt her ambition as a disfigurement, something deeply unfeminine and not worthy of a mother.” The novel's preoccupation with the exploitive, selective nature of photography invites an examination of its own pastiche of fact and fiction.

When, late in the novel, Mary comes face to face with her portrait hanging in a gallery, someone in the crowd says, “You can see it all in her face.” Mary wonders exactly what it is they see.

Hardship? Dignity? Courage? Mary Coin is Silver's meditation on that question.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Mary Coin

By Marisa Silver

Blue Rider

336 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

When it comes to modern poetry, Mira Gonzalez is an invigorating force.

She recently released her first collection of poems, I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together, through Sorry House Publishing.

Originally from Venice, Calif., Gonzalez is the daughter of visual artist and singer Lora Norton, and the stepdaughter of Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Her mother, stepfather and brother, Milo, are also members of the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. While her family is known for music, Mira has made writing her creative outlet of choice. She lists Haruki Murakami, Tao Lin, and Virginia Woolf as her writing influences.

“I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, or at least since I was very young,” Gonzalez said. “I guess I started focusing on writing poetry specifically sometime in early high school. I have always enjoyed reading and read a lot of books, which is what inspired me to start writing in general. What draws me specifically to poetry is how easily accessible it is for people who have a hard time or don’t enjoy reading full length novels.”

Gonzalez’s poems often focus on dating struggles, odd ex-boyfriends, depression and social angst, and the poems sometimes feature strange twists and turns. “Secular Humanist” is about a man named Stephen who is obsessed with naked women: “He wants to find every bone in your body, all two hundred and six of them. He wants to feel them through your naked skin with his fingertips. He wants to name them as he finds them.”

After she describes Stephen’s fantasies, Gonzalez ends the poem with, “He feels like a grain of sand, on a beach, that isn’t a real grain of sand, but is actually a very tiny piece of a clamshell from a clam that died 10 years ago.”

Gonzalez said much of her poem-writing process actually involves editing.

“When I write a poem, I usually sit down and type everything that comes to mind, which can sometimes be two to three pages or more,” Gonzalez said. “Once I have all of that out in front of me, I edit it down to only the best lines; then I edit each sentence to say what I mean to say in the most succinct way possible.”

The almost Zen-like simplicity of her poems stands out. They are deep, yet simple and powerful. She said her unique writing style didn’t come naturally to her.

“I don’t think doing that ‘comes naturally’ to anyone, really,” Gonzalez said. “I guess certain people could be more skilled at crafting sentences so that they express ‘big’ ideas in not very many words, but nobody can just sit down in front of a computer and write a sentence like that, no problem. For me, at least, it comes with a lot of careful thought and a lot of time spent editing. I will spend hours on one sentence sometimes, and if I feel that sentence isn’t expressing exactly what I want it to express, I will delete the sentence entirely. I think it takes a lot of precision and tedious work, and I’m still not entirely sure if I’m able to express things the way I want to express them”

The response to the book has been promising. The initial printing of 500 copies sold out very quickly, and Sorry House Publishing did a second printing. Gonzalez says that she’s very surprised by the book’s success.

“Any time copies of my book sell, I’m completely shocked,” Gonzalez said. “I didn't expect it to have anywhere near as much success as it did. I think a lot of credit for that can go to my editor, Spencer, who has done a great job marketing the book through Sorry House.”

I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together

By Mira Gonzalez

Sorry House

56 pages, $12.95, available at www.sorryhouse.com

Published in Literature

San Francisco-based writer Susan Steinberg experiments with form and structure in her arresting story collection, Spectacle, as she examines the roles men and women play.

“The woman,” she writes, “is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” An unnamed woman narrates these 13 first-person stories, revisiting certain touchstones—her relationships with her brother and divorced parents, especially her father, an addict; the memory of a friend’s death in an airplane accident; the shifting balance of power between men and women in relationships, especially in tense situations.

In the story “Superstar,” for example, the narrator accidentally scrapes a man’s car with her own. He screams at her and belittles her, “calling (her) certain names reserved for women,” until another man intervenes, taking over the fight, recasting her as “some sweet thing” he must protect.

Steinberg captures charged incidents in sharp and nervy prose, questioning common euphemisms. When the narrator must decide whether to discontinue life support for her father, she writes bluntly: “There are some who say I did not kill my father. Not technically they mean.”

The doctor who advises her “did not, of course, use the word kill. He had another word, a series of words, a more technical way of wording.” The woman feels pressured by the doctor and by her brother to make this decision over the phone at 4 a.m. In this story and throughout the collection, the narrator stands outside the heat of the moment and speaks from a cool, rational remove. When the doctor sighs, frustrated with her hesitancy, Steinberg writes, “The sigh applies pressure to the woman. Then the woman is supposed to give them what they want.”

She takes this emotional distance even further in the story “Universe,” in which the narrator’s unborn child dies, and Steinberg writes, “One could now drink heavily. One could now eat shark.” Sometimes, this technique makes the narrator seem callous, but in most of the stories, this flinty stance toward personal loss simply underscores its horror.

Steinberg applies the same intense analysis to lighter moments, as when the narrator agrees to hike with various boyfriends who love nature, as she does not. Steinberg writes, “I’d hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn’t averse to dirt; I was averse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star.”

Spectacle is a penetrating collection, and although the narrator is sometimes powerless, the author never is. Steinberg masterfully controls language to convey her stark insights about unbalanced relationships, in which one person always has the upper hand over another.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Spectacle: Stories

By Susan Steinberg

Graywolf

$14, 160 pages

Published in Literature

Death hovers over Benediction, the latest of novelist Kent Haruf’s books about the eastern Colorado town of Holt.

Two earlier works are called Plainsong and Eventide, and the liturgical nuances of the titles seem fitting as this benevolent Colorado novelist bids farewell to a dying world. A definition serves as the book’s epigraph: “Benediction—the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.”

As with Haruf’s previous work, Benediction offers a nonjudgmental study of ordinary lives in a mundane rural environment, replete with the troubles and joys all humans encounter. Holt might appear uneventful, even boring, but Haruf’s sensitive portraits of its residents make readers empathize with their problems, from family strife to homophobia to money troubles to suicide.

“Dad” Lewis, a new character in the trilogy, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis on Page 1; the reader accompanies him through his last summer in this quiet, yet rich and isolated agricultural community. Dad was one of Holt’s eminent citizens, the owner of the hardware store; he ends his days surrounded by his wife, Mary; their middle-aged daughter, Lorraine; and the animated memories of a lifetime.

Other townspeople linger around him, some of them visitors from the wider world, others the ghosts of Holt’s outcasts, like his absent yet ever-present gay son, Frank, long estranged from his father and the conservative mores of a place that seems to have been bypassed by the 21st century.

Not only are the older townspeople of Holt fading away; even the young succumb. Lorraine’s daughter is killed in a car crash. Next door, Lorraine’s contemporary has died of breast cancer, leaving a daughter, Alice, to be raised by her grandmother, who rises to this unexpected responsibility with tough stoicism.

Alice is the only young person in Holt, it seems, who brings light and life to the older generations surrounding her. When Alice and the elderly women swim naked in the stock tank on a scorching day, joy reigns. “The women climbed into the tank with her and squatted down and lay back and floated and stood streaming. Their faces and bodies shining. Later they got out and dried off. … Their hair was still damp. It felt heavy and cool on the backs of their necks.”

It is a benediction, of sorts.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Benediction: A Novel

By Kent Haruf

Knopf

272 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

One of the happy consequences of reading Kim Stafford’s work is that he makes you want to become a better person. The Portland, Ore.-based author of 12 books of poetry and prose writes with a quiet gentleness, intimacy and kindness.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is a personal and introspective memoir chronicling Stafford’s relationship with his older brother, Bret, who took his own life at the age of 40, with very little warning. In 82 chapters, some only a few paragraphs in length—”sippings,” as Stafford has called them elsewhere—the writer searches his “tunnel of memory” for clues to the painful mystery that still haunts him.

“For the work of memoir,” Stafford writes, “is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others.”

For Stafford, most memories are consoling, and 100 Tricks shows us a man—who just happens to be a gifted writer—looking back, struggling to make sense of tragedy. “I have written in this book what the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset called ‘salvations’—short narratives that seek to apprehend and save essential stories and discoveries: a moment, a fleeting glimpse, any episodic evidence toward understanding.”

Stafford’s economic and deft use of language is one of the book’s strengths. This comes as no surprise: Like his famous father, former U.S. Poet Laureate William Stafford, Kim Stafford is first and foremost a poet. “My soul has pockets,” the younger Stafford writes, “and into these pockets gather the places and moments that mutter my brother’s life.”

Stafford also has a history of offering wisdom with Zen-like simplicity, and 100 Tricks does not disappoint: “Happiness is born in struggle and even in failure,” and, “Each story will seek the right listener.”

Ultimately, many of Stafford’s questions remain unanswerable. Though 100 Tricks centers on his brother’s suicide, it is neither glum nor depressing. Instead, it’s a heartwarming and touching investigation into family and memory—a book about love and living well above all else.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared

By Kim Stafford

Trinity University

256 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Leland Stanford appeared to have it all: As president of the Big Four (The Associates), who built the Western half of the transcontinental railroad, the tycoon became one of 19th century San Francisco’s most-influential entrepreneurs. He served as California’s eighth governor, and founded the university that bears his name.

“Newspapers were soaked with ink about the Stanfords’ outsized lives,” writes award-winning author Edward Ball in The Inventor and the Tycoon, which tells the story of Stanford’s most-bewildering partnership: his work with photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Stanford had the time and money to cultivate an unusual obsession: He wanted to know if all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time. Artists had long painted horses galloping in just that fashion, but who in the days before motion pictures could demonstrate the truth?

Stanford found an answer, thanks to the eccentric English immigrant he met in 1872. Muybridge, renowned for his Yosemite landscapes, doubted that he could capture the necessary images. But he was certainly willing to try.

Using 12 cameras, Muybridge took a series of photographs at Stanford’s Palo Alto horse farm, which showed an airborne galloping steed, its four feet suspended briefly above the earth. Some years later, Muybridge invented what is sometimes considered the first movie projector, a spinning device called a zoopraxiscope.

Despite his technical genius, Muybridge was a deeply troubled man. In 1874, he shot and killed his wife’s lover. The defense argued that Muybridge’s flirtatious young bride drove him to insanity. Others saw him as a cold-blooded murderer, shrouded in secrecy and protected by a powerful patron. Muybridge was never convicted, but his reputation was forever tarnished.

An artful shape-shifter, Muybridge frequently changed professions, style of dress, and even the spelling of his name. But Ball’s thoroughly researched biography parts the clouds of Muybridge’s past, and examines both his and Stanford’s vices and virtues through the lens of the times they lived in, revealing them as avatars of Gilded Age excess, sinister collaboration—and the kind of world-changing inventiveness to which we owe contemporary cinema.

This book review originally appeared High Country News.

The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures

By Edward Ball

Doubleday

464 pages, $29.95

Published in Literature