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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


464 pages, $29.95

Published in Literature

Eowyn Ivey's surefooted and captivating debut novel, The Snow Child, begins in 1920, as Mabel and Jack—middle-aged homesteaders in Alaska—try to rough it through their second winter there.

They'd moved West to escape painful memories of their only child, stillborn 10 years earlier, and the crush of nearby family that reminded them of their loss. The brutal Alaskan winters batter them with isolation and relentless cold, and they nearly starve. Eventually, with the help of friendly neighbors, the new landscape helps Mabel and Jack remember why they loved each other in the first place, and in a fit of playfulness, they build a snowman, shaping it like a girl and dressing it with a red scarf.

The snow girl vanishes, and Mabel and Jack begin to catch glimpses of a child in the woods, "a red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees."

They leave gifts for the girl, who approaches them cautiously. Her name is Faina, and she gradually becomes a mysterious, seasonal daughter to them, eating at their table, accompanying them on chores, and always disappearing into the wilderness at the first signs of snowmelt.

The Russian fairy tale of the Snow Maiden ("Snegurochka") inspired Ivey, and she weaves it throughout The Snow Child, as Mabel consults the different versions of the story to try to account for the behavior of their surrogate child. Ivey takes a fantastical premise and runs with it, playing it two ways, creating a novel that is both realistic and magical.

Jack discovers that Faina was the child of a local drunk who died in the wilderness, leaving her to grow up alone and feral. Yet no one else has ever seen her, and there are odd parallels between the girl's life and the folktale Mabel studies; for instance, both Faina and the Snow Maiden have a red fox as a companion.

Ivey's prose has the lulling quality of a fairy tale, and the native Alaskan's portraits of the state's fierce winters and singular inhabitants are convincing enough to make readers believe in Faina.

At one point, Mabel thinks, "To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers."

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey

Reagan Arthur

416 pages, $14.99

Published in Literature

In a career that spans five decades, New Mexico author John Nichols has written more books and screenplays than he can count on his fingers and toes. His first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo, was published when he was in his mid-20s, and The Milagro Beanfield War—the first book in his New Mexico trilogy—remains a classic of Southwestern literature.

In his latest novel, On Top of Spoon Mountain, Nichols revisits the landscape he knows best: high desert plains and jagged peaks.

Protagonist Jonathan Kepler decides he wants to climb a 13,000-foot mountain on his 65th birthday. Never mind that he's only 48 hours out of the emergency room following a heart-attack scare, or that he's got asthma. Or that he's got a whole slew of other reasons to simply stay home. Kepler is determined to climb Spoon Mountain, and he's doing it in three weeks.

Kepler, a thrice-divorced curmudgeon, knows he hasn't been exactly a model father or husband, and his current relationship, with a real estate agent, is tenuous, at best. He's on the waning edge of his writing career, and he envisions climbing Spoon Mountain with his two grown children, hoping to reconnect with them in a place they once enjoyed together. Perhaps the climb will somehow redeem his mistakes, or restore and heal the time he's already wasted. The souls in Dante's Purgatorio shed their sins as they struggle up steep and rugged terrain. Why shouldn't Spoon Mountain do the same for Jonathan Kepler?

Spoon Mountain, however, is no holy ground. And Kepler, outspoken and proud, proves to be more of a self-absorbed jerk than a contrite soul seeking a better life. On Top of Spoon Mountain showcases its author's sensitivity to the natural world, but unfortunately, this novel's characters are as predictable as its ending. Some too-sensational moments, along with a protagonist who speaks in clichés, also threaten the book's believability.

For those willing to forgive such shortcomings, On Top of Spoon Mountain will provide an entertaining and humorous read. There is something compelling in the story of a man who is seeking to conquer a mountain—and himself. Even though Kepler fails to conquer much of anything, his quest reveals that reaching a summit may be less important than the struggle to get there.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

On Top of Spoon Mountain

By John Nichols

University of New Mexico

232 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Khosi Saqr Clark, the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi's funny and winsome second novel, Evel Knievel Days, isn't a typical native of Butte.

Sure, he loves Montana and enjoys the annual Evel Knievel Days spectacle, complete with its "American Motordome Wall of Death," but his neurotic nature ("the obsessive-compulsive's worst fear: the world infinitesimally askew") and his singular heritage set him apart.

Khosi is the only child of an eccentric single mother, Amy Clark, a caterer specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine using recipes she learned from her husband, Khosi's Coptic Christian Egyptian father. Khosi's father left when he was 3 and made no effort to keep in touch, leaving behind only unanswered questions—and a garden full of invasive Egyptian walking onions.

Khosi works as a tour guide in his great-great-grandfather's Copper King Mansion. "He was a copper king," Khosi explains, "a second-generation Irish immigrant turned vest-wearing frontier industrialist."

Meanwhile, Khosi lives at home and keeps watch over his mother, who suffers from Wilson's disease, an ailment that makes her unable to process copper, and requires her to take "an army of pastel pharmaceuticals daily." Missed pills make her behave in odd ways; at times, Khosi finds her sitting on the roof.

"I was a card-carrying member of Mensa," Khosi explains, "but the problem was this: I hated leaving Butte. Butte was home. Butte was comfort. Butte was order." So Khosi never left for college, unlike his lifelong best friend and secret love interest, Natasha, who returned from college with a fiancé.

A crisis over Natasha and Khosi's desire to find out about the other half of his identity prompt him to travel to Egypt and seek his father. In the second half of the book, we experience Cairo through the perspective of a native Montanan who has never traveled. Khosi is often bewildered and in unexpected peril. He believes he's receiving advice from the ghost of his great-great-grandfather and learns his dad is even more of a shyster than he'd expected.

Khosi finally finds the personal order he's always craved by plunging himself into the disorder of Cairo in the conclusion of this quirky and heartfelt novel.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Evel Knievel Days

By Pauls Toutonghi


304 pages, $24

Published in Literature

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