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Set in modern times, in a small “passing-over place” in northern Utah, the debut novel by Idaho author Braden Hepner, Pale Harvest, follows Jack Selvedge, a 20-year-old dairy farmer working his grandfather’s land, struggling against his own indifference.

Young Rebekah Rainsford shakes things up when she returns to town, fleeing her abusive father. She becomes Selvedge’s obsession, a symbol of hope. “She had brought with her an essence. … It was a sullen thing she carried, in some ways frightening and in some ways appealing and in all ways maddening. It was something he needed but could never get in the remote and meager collection of houses.” As their relationship forms, her dark history forces him to confront the chasm between his ideals and reality, while two major betrayals threaten everything.

Hepner captures the nuances of the dramatic landscape of the Cache Valley, where cultivated fields give way to desert, and mountains rise up against open skies. He employs a meditative language drawn from the land, delivering the richness of Selvedge’s inner life: “On the gentle hillside bones stood from the sand and yellow grass like ruins, the white architecture of death. How to describe what flowers grew from those bones in the springtime. Of deep purple and yellow, blue and red and white. Each one a marvel worth contemplation. How many times had he stopped to watch them tremble in the wind among the white bones.”

Pale Harvest is a dark novel by a deft storyteller, a modern retelling of the legend of Adam and Eve. It explores tensions between good and evil, ignorance and knowledge, and hope and belief. The occasional appearance of phrases like “primitive and beautiful squaw” does nothing to further the characters; Hepner does a superb job of making them full and authentic, and doesn’t need to resort to language of exoticism and conquest. Pale Harvest walks the reader into the liminal spaces between life and death, and shows how a human being can be made anew: “Hope was his faith, his religion. It was the consequential vestige of maturity, of knowledge, a remnant product of adult sin. In the end they had nothing more than a hope commensurate with their fear, and in this way they were purified and set free.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Pale Harvest

By Braden Hepner

Torrey House

360 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Fourth of July Creek, the robust debut of Portland, Ore.-based novelist Smith Henderson, follows the life of Pete Snow, a state social worker in the fictional town of Tenmile, Mont.

At work, Snow is steady and skillful, able to calm frightened children and parse messy domestic situations. But after hours, he’s an alcoholic prone to unbridled benders, alienated from his own land-baron dad and fugitive brother. He has lived in an isolated cabin ever since he left his cheating wife.

One day in the early 1980s, a disheveled child named Benjamin wanders into the town, west of Glacier National Park. Pete buys Benjamin new clothes and medicine for giardia and scurvy, and returns him to the remote spot the boy calls home. Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah, a wild-bearded, scripture-quoting, shotgun-toting survivalist, collects his son while threatening Pete with a “fatal wrath.” But Pete refuses to give up on this odd family, gradually befriending them as you might a pair of skittish wild animals.

Meanwhile, after Pete’s hard-partying wife moves to Texas, their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, runs away. Pete, who blames himself for neglecting his daughter, takes off on a cross-country mission to rescue her. As he tells his estranged wife, “I take kids away from people like us.” We learn what’s happening to Rachel through question-and-answer sessions interspersed throughout the novel, in which she details all she endures as she drifts.

Fourth of July Creek is rife with painfully honest, hard-won insights about kids out on the street or caught up in the system; the author once worked at a group home for juveniles in Missoula, and his experience brings a unique authenticity to the story.

At times, the novel is so bleak that only the precision and beauty of Henderson’s language keep you from flinching away: “Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them.” But keep reading, and you’ll find yourself caring about the wounded people who stagger through this book too much to ever want to leave them.

It seems as if Henderson felt the same way—he ends the book in mid-sentence, the fate of one character not fully revealed. Expect the praise for this rich, heartbreaking novel to continue for years to come.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Fourth of July Creek

By Smith Henderson


480 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

In her debut novel, Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom draws on her own childhood in eastern Washington and current life in Northern California to share the tale of a shy Sacramento teenager inhabiting those same locales. Bergstrom offers a riveting story of first love entwined with faith, family tragedy and the power of place.

Steal the North begins with 16-year-old Emmy reluctantly heading north to Washington to spend the summer with an aunt, Bethany, about whose existence she has just learned. Emmy’s mother, Kate, had always insisted that she had no living relatives. Now married and expecting a baby, Bethany tracks down her estranged sister and begs her to send Emmy to Moses Lake, Wash.—because Bethany has suffered earlier miscarriages and believes that she needs Emmy’s help, along with a special faith healing ceremony, to carry this child to term.

Staying at her aunt’s trailer park, Emmy meets Reuben, the beautiful, athletic boy next door. As their friendship grows, the socially awkward Emmy begins to feel at home for the first time in her life. Reuben, who is Native American, shares his spiritual connection to the windswept scablands and rivers. The first time she touched the Columbia River, Emmy says, “He told me to close my eyes so I could feel the river’s pulse. It was faint under all that backwater, but it was definitely there.”

As the family drama unfolds, Emmy discovers more about her mother’s secret past and begins to bond with her aunt. Unfortunately, Bergstrom’s narrative strategy occasionally gets in the way; she lets different characters take turns telling parts of the story, and some of those characters are simply not as well-realized as her young leads.

The novel’s strong sense of place prevents Steal the North from becoming just another tangled melodrama. Emmy learns that the rugged eastern Washington landscape is central to her identity. Walking into a wheat field “in the land of my father,” she says, “the land pulled on the bones of my feet. I kept my hands in the dry, rustling wheat and just breathed.”

Bergstrom reminds us that the landscape is more than just a scenic backdrop; it is also the thing that anchors us to our lives.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Steal the North

By Heather Brittain Bergstrom


336 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

Jervey Tervalon adores Los Angeles—and he wants you to adore it, too.

The author, who also teaches literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, challenges the notion that New York City is the cultural center of the cosmos. “Los Angeles is wonderfully diverse,” he says. “I’ve been dedicating myself to creating a model in which L.A. never has to take a back seat to New York.”

Born in New Orleans, Tervalon grew up in South Central Los Angeles and earned his MFA at UC Irvine. He taught high school in L.A. and co-founded Literature for Life—a nonprofit online literary salon and journal dedicated to bringing the work of multi-ethnic local writers and artists into area schools.

His sixth and latest novel, Monster’s Chef, tells the story of a former drug addict who lands a job as personal chef to a wealthy but suspiciously reclusive hip-hop artist. It’s a thriller (with recipes included) that pays homage to Tervalon’s New Orleans roots while casting a critical eye on L.A.’s celebrity culture.

Melissa Hart recently interviewed Tervalon.

The author Héctor Tobar once wrote that you’ve been “engaged in a 20-year battle to be taken seriously as a writer who also happens to be African American and who most often writes about black people.”

My first book, Understand This, got great reviews and was taken seriously here in California when it came out in 1994, but The New York Times barely mentioned it, and I’ve not been mentioned again in the NYT. People in the literary world can be snobby—they think of themselves as post-racial, but 90 percent of The New York Times book reviews don’t represent authors of color.

Thankfully, there are West Coast institutions that are very helpful—Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation multi-genre workshop, Squaw Valley Writers Conference, and PEN Center USA’s emerging writers program are embracing diversity and open-mindedness in a way that smaller presses, in particular, have not.

Why should we wait for New York publishing to have some kind of revelation? Instead, we’ve gone out to find the best-quality literature we can to put into Literature for Life that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles. We’re going to offer an award for a short story or some other kind of writing that best shows Los Angeles at its core.

How have you adapted—or refused to adapt—to the literary world as an African-American writer?

I try not to listen to what people say about my work. A woman in a writing workshop once said she didn’t think my black dialogue was “authentic enough.” I was stunned. I write out of anger when I feel like I’m underestimated or when I feel someone’s been high-handed with me.

My newest book, Monster’s Chef, is all about issues of identity—what it means to be sexually ambiguous and racially compromised or identity compromised. People are constantly misleading the reader and each other about who they are. My own identity is pretty complex. I come from New Orleans, where I’m considered black, but my mother was Irish. We moved to a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I became a big strapping kid, so no one ever challenged me. I think of myself as a “pootbutt”—it means you’re a nerd. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. Now, I think of my tribe as being a tribe of nerds of color. And that tribe is getting larger and larger.

You’ve been instrumental in organizing literary events in and around Los Angeles. Why is it so important to talk about writing and literature?

At Locke High School, where students are largely African American and Latino, I’d teach American literature and photocopy work by Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda. One day, I brought a fictional story about a girl being raped and a guy getting shot, and this one black kid read it, and he said, “This isn’t a real story, is it?” He thought it wasn’t legitimate because it was interesting. That was the ultimate compliment for what I was trying to do—circumvent textbooks by bringing in stories that create a sense of immediacy.

I read recently that black kids see themselves in textbooks 3 percent of the time, while Latino kids see themselves 1 percent of the time. That needs to be addressed. Publishing houses are extremely white, which creates a self-perpetuating machine. Every so often, a Junot Diaz or a Sandra Cisneros breaks through, but textbooks haven’t changed substantially.

When you hear about indifference to literary cultures at the school level, that reflects teaching that says you don’t need to make stuff come alive—what you need is a prompt so that computers can grade an essay. If you want kids to be passionate about poetry, show them Pablo Neruda. Have an actor inhabit the persona of Maxine Hong Kingston. Kids will always remember this and respond positively. But if you chain them to a desk and tell them to study for an exam, you’re killing whatever spark they have to become passionate readers.

If you’re not a passionate reader, I’m not sure how civilized you are.

Published in Literature

Something about Michelle Huneven’s novel, Off Course, makes people want to talk about themselves. Women, especially.

I sit down at her wide, rough-hewn kitchen table, vowing not to be one of them. Her 14-year-old terrier mix, Piper, cuddles unabashedly at my feet; a black cat nuzzles my elbow. My resolve topples. While Huneven pours lemon-verbena ice tea into two large juice-jar glasses—“Is it sweet enough?” she asks—I let it slip that I, like Cressida, the novel’s protagonist, lost years of early adulthood to a love affair destined to fail. “Years I wish I could rewrite,” I confess. Then I catch myself. Stop. Talking.

Huneven narrows her eyes behind her fashionable glasses and pushes a fine dark-blond wisp of hair off her forehead. She listens more than tolerantly. “It’s good,” she says, the way her novel draws out personal stories. “It’s really good.” In fact, she says she wrote it for young women who might be stuck in that very place—transitioning awkwardly from years of schooling into career and adulthood, casting about in search of their life’s work, dangerously vulnerable to distraction. Especially the distraction of romance.

“I wrote it because I felt like if I’d had this book (at that age)—well, I don’t know that anything would have been different,” she confides. “But I wouldn’t have felt so alone.”

Cressida Hartley is in her late 20s when Off Course begins, in 1982. She has holed up at her parents’ A-frame in the Sierra Nevada mountains to finish her dissertation on the economics of art. It is a time of profound transition: The Reagan administration is introducing trickle-down economics, with Interior Secretary James Watt applying budget principles to land management. Cress sees evidence of their political handiwork all around her, in the “raw stumps and debris piles” accumulating at the edge of the forest, in the local men “grateful and defiantly happy for work,” even if it means decimating their beloved childhood woods.

But she is more concerned with love: the longing for it, the tantalizing promise of it, the wild cycles of vertiginous joy and wretched despair that accompany every mercurial affair. “She gets addicted,” Huneven says. “And that addiction completely structures her life.”

Place matters intensely to Huneven. Her other three novels document a California that is palpably part of the inland West: The foothill communities abutting the citrus groves, the raggedy mountains, the smoggy inland neighborhoods that seekers, carpenters and less-affluent artists transform. Huneven lives in such a place herself—West Altadena, where she grew up, a 107-mile drive from Palm Springs—in an airy, radically fixed-up ranch house with her husband, environmental lawyer Jim Potter. Fuerte avocado tree No. 19, “the tree from which 99 percent of all Fuerte avocados have been cultivated,” once grew on their half-acre property. It’s the kind of detail only someone like Huneven, with her deep feel for California history and the natural world that informs it, would even know, let alone consider spectacular.

The mountains that rise above California cities figure heavily in Off Course, mountains full of towns like the fictional Sawyer, “funny little enclaves that sit independently outside of real life,” Huneven says, “where oddballs and soreheads go to carve out little lives for themselves.” Bears come to the door in Sawyer, leaving their nose slime on the glass. Woodpeckers rattle the forest; Cress watches in amazement as a deer eats a fish.

“It’s like a picture postcard all the time,” says Huneven. “The autumn is like heaven. When it snows, it would still rise into the 60s and 70s.” It’s the perfect setting for a young woman to procrastinate before capitulating to adulthood, with all its responsibilities and ethical challenges. “Cress doesn’t have the tools to enter fully into life yet,” Huneven says. “She’s still working out how to get her father’s attention.

“We’re patterning beasts,” she adds. “We tend to act things out. Freud says that childhood is always a catastrophe. How do you deal with that catastrophe?”

In 1997, when Huneven published her first novel, Round Rock, she was freelancing as a restaurant critic around Los Angeles, including at the LA Weekly, where I worked as an editor. I saw her slender, congenial face around the office from time to time—I always think of her as smiling—and looked forward to her effervescent, vulnerable columns. (“I love bread,” she once wrote in a paean to the staff of life. “I’m drawn to it the way a love-starved child is drawn to anyone remotely kind.”)

“I liked her food writing for the same reason I love her fiction writing,” says her editor back from then, Sue Horton, who now edits the opinion page at the Los Angeles Times. “She always got that food had to be put in context—where you’re eating it, and with whom and how it’s served. And she likes nuance, which means she was always looking for the odd but important small things that make food delicious or not quite.”

Huneven had already won a prestigious James Beard award for food writing in 1995; still, none of us who knew her peripherally suspected she had great fiction in her. Then one day, a fellow staffer came in, waving Round Rock in the air—“Michelle’s written a novel, and it’s really good!” he crowed. A story as much about the California foothill landscape as it was about its wayward alcoholics and the recovering one who counsels them, Round Rock described people so vivid that we worried and grieved about them as if they worked in the building with us.

It wasn’t easy to create that world. “It took me 20 years to write Round Rock,” Huneven says now. She’d submitted it as a short story when she applied to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, back in the late ’70s, where one of her teachers persuaded her it was a novel. “I kind of agreed with him,” she says. “So I kept starting it. But I’d get 100 pages in and be all snarled up. So I’d start it again and then stop.”

After she graduated from Iowa with an MFA, she tried on and off for more than a decade. Then she gave up. “It was the early ’90s by then, and I thought, you know, this is heartbreaking. I’ve been trying to be a writer for so many years. I’ve been out of the workshop for 12, 13 years now; I’ve sold one story. It’s just not happening for me.” So she enrolled at seminary to study to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. “Then I was sitting in class one day, in seminary, and all of sudden, it occurred to me that I’d been starting the novel in the wrong place.”

After the revelation, she rewrote the book. “Now, when you open Round Rock, the place where I started, lo those many years, is now exactly in the middle of the book. Literally to the page.”

Round Rock earned a place on The New York Times notable book list for 1997 and a Los Angeles Times book-award nomination. It also broke down whatever barrier kept Huneven from producing. Jamesland, a novel that captures Southern California’s culture of spiritual questing, came out just six years later; her third novel, Blame, about the aftermath of a drunk-driving tragedy, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 2009.

Off Course is the first of her books to draw heavily from her own life. “I had to make it all much more dramatic and intense,” she says. “But I did write about my love life, about this period of my life that I really thought of as my lost years, when I was living up in the mountains.” She began writing it in 2008—another time, like the early Reagan era, of economic upheaval.

“It really mirrored the time when I got out of graduate school, when you’re ready and up and willing to join the marketplace, and there’s no place for you. You’re stuck in this sort of nether adolescence, where you’re living at home or someplace rent-free to get your feet on the ground and get going, and, really, one wrong step can throw you,” well ... off course.

So did writing get easier, or did Huneven just figure out how to work? “I think that you get smarter, and I have a lot more help,” she says. “I got out of Iowa, and I had this thing where no one could tell me what to do. My mother was like, ‘Why don’t you join a writing group?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been in a writers’ group; it’s called the Iowa Writers’ Workshop! I do not need a writing group.’”

She found one anyway, albeit a very small one. These days, she swaps pages with novelist Mona Simpson (Anywhere But Here) and a few other writers and friends. She is writing another “church novel,” she says, “in the sense that Jamesland is a church novel,” but also has ambitions to do for Altadena what Anthony Trollope did for his imaginary Barsetshire: “A long series of books,” she says, “that take place around here. I mean, why not?”

Some readers might find the books too narrow, but Huneven’s content with sometimes just thrilling a happy few. Off Course, she realizes, “is really a book that cuts down the line. Half the people who read it say that I took Cress too far down; the other half say that what they liked about the book is that I took her so far down.

“I wrote it for those people who understand it,” she says. “For those of us who never saw ourselves in literature.” And now do.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Off Course: A Novel

By Michelle Huneven

Sarah Crichton

304 pages, $26

Published in Literature

Growing up on a farm outside Prescott, Arizona, writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade learned how to survive in rough country. At age 12, she dropped out of school to work on a nearby ranch; at 14, she began attending college classes at night.

Since then, de Grenade has traveled to more than 30 countries, worked on construction crews and fishing boats, worked as a field botanist, and earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing and a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her Fulbright Fellowship took her to Baja California, where she studied the cultural and conservation role of desert oases. At the Tucson Desert Oasis Initiative, she helped city and county government collaborate with nonprofits on projects to make Tucson a “model of sustainable desert living.”

Her memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback, was released in June, and traces her season on a cattle-mustering crew in a remote corner of Australia’s Outback.

“The place was as far as one could go without falling into the sea,” says de Grenade, “the ragtag and rugged crew almost a parody of the cowboy myth.” De Grenade examines how humans forge both communities and themselves in challenging landscapes—the way we push against land, and the land pushes back.

Kati Standefer caught up with de Grenade recently in her office at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, where she is beginning post-doctoral research.

How did your upbringing in Arizona help you adapt to life on the other side of the world?

The American West is very similar in ways to Australia. I think the only reason I was able to make the transition over to Australia and the cattle station was because I had been raised in the American West and formed on a ranch in north-central Arizona. It was a mountainous, very rugged ranch, full of granite boulders and oak brush and wild cattle. We rode all day, every day, and we didn’t carry water, and we didn’t carry food, and I was treated as an adult. I learned how to shoe horses and pack salt on mules, to put in irrigation systems and fix fence and fix vehicles—the entire range of ranch work. We spent years, literally, in the saddle.

That kind of multifaceted ability to step into a problem and understand what’s going on and then use your mental and physical capacities to address the problem—that carried across easily to Australia. There’s almost no difference, in the sense that cattle cultures in one part of the world or another part of the world are based on the same animal. And animals have certain instincts and work in certain ways.

You write in Stilwater of the people you worked with: “Most of those Outback characters had a fighting sense still in them, born of wide spaces and the struggle for existence, a certain hardness built up in layers over time.” Do you think this sort of “hard” personality is inevitable as a way to adapt to a gritty, challenging landscape?

I think work shapes us, and places shape us. Being involved in work that is close to the land tends to erase the gap between romanticism and reality. The day-to-day experience of being involved in intense, physical work that was very dangerous didn’t allow much space for tenderness.

And yet tenderness emerged everywhere. Like the crew members that would take in orphaned calves. And though we all had some degree of callousness, one of the fascinating elements of this story is that we were all very compassionate beings. You see that in the complexities of peoples’ characters. It’s not on the surface. But perhaps working with animals, on a day-to-day basis, creates more tenderness than working in an office day-to-day. So even though you have to be very coarse on the outside, perhaps it fosters more compassion on the inside.

In addition to being a writer, you are a qualitative and quantitative researcher. How do you see these crafts working together?

For me, science and writing are not even two sides of the coin; they are just two different ways to know more about this place we live in. Writing is seeing and thinking and being creative—pondering, working with images, with ideas. Writing is a way of questioning, stepping into mystery. And science, at its basic level, requires some of the same elements. Science is a way of understanding mystery, and quantitative and qualitative methods within science are simply a structure by which one asks questions.

The level of creativity and imagination that writing can take is also a key to effective science. Science, I believe, sometimes is seen as more credible, and we do have millions of researchers around the world, and a system of peer review, where your work is always put out before other scientists, and they make sure that you’re staying on track. Perhaps there’s less of that feedback in writing, and so in a sense writing can be more daring, can be more dangerous.

Writing is a form of taking, and science can also be a form of taking. And we don’t necessarily compensate those from whom we take the data or from whom we take the stories. So both require tremendous sensitivity. I’m hoping that I can continue to pursue both equally. Science does pay better!

You’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how communities live in arid landscapes. As an Arizona native, has your work changed the way you view your home?

Living in the desert is a bit of a quandary. Cultures have lived in arid environments for millennia, and have done so brilliantly. They have not only survived, but thrived. And the innovation and creativity that people used to gather water, to collect water from remote sources and transport it to where there’s fertile soil—it’s kind of a positive-feedback mechanism. If you live in arid lands, water is everywhere. It’s in small quantities, and yet it can host tribes, villages, even cities.

The difference is that today, we can live in the desert and forget that we live in the desert. We use water as if we lived where it rained. We contaminate the water as if it were not a limited resource. I do think it’s possible to live in the desert in a sustainable manner. But at the scale of the urban areas that we have today, we’re going to need every solution that we can find. And that would include traditional techniques like water-harvesting and agriculture that uses desert-adapted varieties. It’s also going to have to incorporate science and technology.

The situation, especially in the context of global climate change, is going to be pressing. Already is. And yet we’ve been denying this to some degree. We are going to have to reallocate our water; we’re going to have to reprioritize what we need water for. Food is one of those. Drinking is another. Our sewer systems? I’m not so sure that that’s necessary. In the same way, growing crops which are shipped out of state, or growing food for animals—we’re going to have to re-think how we use this water.

Your new post-doctoral position involves studying “water towers” in the South American Andes. Why are these high-mountain water sources important to the conversation about global climate change,  and what does this mean for the American West?

Climate change never has a straightforward impact. The snowfall and glaciers in high-altitude mountains, like the Andes, supply rivers, and the river then supplies an entire series of communities on its way to the coast. Change at the top has great ramifications everywhere downstream. The mountains are complicated—they’re being affected in all these ways—and then you have these societal responses to the changing weather, changing water. You can look at how people are acting together, working with others—or not—on policy, all types of decision-making.

I think that parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies could also be thought of as water towers, especially since many people in the American West depend on those faraway water sources. None of us are truly independent. And the greater that distance, the more vulnerable we are to disruptions, both environmental and social. I think both will be exacerbated in the future. Our hope really lies in focusing closer to home, while keeping an eye on global challenges.

How do we make decisions about the challenges we’re facing so we don’t continue to have this gap between rich and poor, people who will be more affected by climate change than others? Water towers, I think, are just one way of looking at these permutations of change. By shifting our focus to make sure that the water we drink, the food we eat, the people we interact with, and where we spend our money are closest to us, we can begin to take responsibility for our actions, and seek longer-lasting solutions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

By Rafael de Grenade


256 pages, $16

Published in Literature

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production scrutinizes a host of today’s commonly held assumptions about the cattle industry. Red meat isn’t making Americans unhealthy, writes author Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental attorney turned California rancher. Nor should cows be so vehemently blamed for drought and climate change. Cattle-ranching, she writes, can be extremely beneficial to the land.

At the height of Hahn Niman’s legal career, she was hired by Bobby Kennedy Jr. to start a national campaign to reform meat-industry pollution. A few years later, she got into the ranching life when she married Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California. The natural meat company is well-known for traditional husbandry methods, no hormone use, and environmental land stewardship. In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman, who happens to be a long-time vegetarian, seeks to add nuance to what she considers to be an oversimplified public discussion about beef's environmental and health impacts in the U.S.

She explained some of these nuances in a recent conversation.

Will you elaborate on your claim that, while there are slightly more cattle, there are overall fewer large animals on farms in the U.S. than there were a century ago?

It’s commonly perceived that numbers of all livestock have increased exponentially over the past century. But if you add up all large farm animals, the number is actually lower now. Red meat is eaten less, and there are fewer animals on the landscape. Of course, part of this is that the animals are killed when they’re younger. This country used to slaughter at 5 (years old); they now do it at 18 months. So you end up getting more meat with fewer animals on the land.

Let’s talk about methane. It’s commonly accepted that cows emit a lot of methane and, therefore, contribute significantly to global climate change. But, as you say in your book, there are far fewer ruminant mammals roaming around now than there were prior to European colonization.

The methane thing has captured people’s imagination. The number of ruminants in the globe—animals like cows, elk, deer, buffalo—is lower today than it was historically. … The single biggest cause of human-generated methane in the 1980s was from rice-farming, and because that became known, and because there were concerns about global warming, there was pressure on the rice industry to reduce their methane emissions. To me, the same rationale should be applied to cattle and beef. Is methane from cattle an intractable problem? No. There are easy methodologies for reducing the amount of gas. Putting small weights in the cow’s rumen (the first of several compartments in a cow’s stomach) can bring gas production down by 25 percent.

Can you talk about how we’ve learned to blame cattle for deforestation, and why that’s not necessarily true?

There are parts of the developing world—Brazil, Sudan, Indonesia—where fairly major deforestation is happening. In Brazil, the leading trigger really is the creation of fields for soy-cultivation. There are a variety of causes of deforestation; raising cattle is one of them. But my point is that (deforestation) is not intrinsically related to cattle-production. People shouldn’t be doing that to raise cattle; that’s a very bad human decision. But if it’s not inherently a part of it, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute (deforestation) to (cattle-ranching).

In your book, you acknowledge that soil-erosion and desertification are happening at such a rate that the world will run out of topsoil in little more than a century—and yet this isn’t a result of too many cattle. You argue that it’s a matter of managing cattle properly: Close, dense herds that are consistently on the move. Will you explain? 

I do not deny that cattle can have an impact on the land that is negative. I dispute the characterization of this damage as “overgrazing.” What people are seeing in the American West is not overgrazing; it’s improper grazing. It mostly has to do with allowing the cattle to be too dispersed and not tightly managing them. … In 1800, there were 70 million bison on the land. Our whole global ecosystem evolved with these enormous herds.

Much of the western U.S. has experienced drought for three years in a row now. How do you respond to critics of the cattle industry who say that grazing exacerbates the drought?

The overall understanding of how much water it takes to produce beef is misunderstood and exaggerated. A pound of beef and a pound of rice (are) not that much different as far as how much water it takes to produce it. When you look at the actual figures, (beef) is not that different than a lot of other foods. Chocolate, coffee, sugar—these are all water-intensive foods.

When you have an area of degraded land, whether it’s been poorly grazed, or it’s abandoned, you have very little water retained. The total number of inches of rain you get annually is a far less important figure than how much is held in the ground. That’s what actually needs to be the focus. Well-managed cattle-raising that keeps a dense vegetative cover on the ground might be the optimal way … to create ground that holds onto water. It just kind of flips this whole issue on its head.

Cattle-grazing, when it’s done right, has an incredibly beneficial effect as far as how water works in our ecosystem. It could actually be a really good counter-drought strategy. And I don’t think that anyone really knows how exactly to do that. It’s an idea that people are beginning to realize … you do this correctly, and you’re actually going to be using water a great deal more effectively, and therefore, maybe we should actually be doing this in drought-stricken areas.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

By Nicolette Hahn Niman

Chelsea Green

288 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

On Oct. 8, 2008, several elite leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as the LDS or Mormon Church—went on the air and urged members in California to boost their involvement in defeating the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

The LDS Church was one of the last to join the Protect Marriage Coalition—mostly composed of conservative religious groups, including Catholics and Orthodox Jews—but they were certainly not the least. Elder M. Russell Ballard’s call to action was clear. “Many of you will text message, blog, make phone calls, walk your neighborhoods,” said the then-80-year-old on camera. “These methods of engaging will be major elements of informing people of the issues and of the coalition’s position.”

The Protect Marriage Coalition claimed victory on Election Day: Proposition 8 passed with 52.2 percent of the vote, and gay marriage in California was temporarily eliminated. According to some estimates, Mormons made up an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts. On Voting Day, there were 100,000 volunteers staffing get-out-the-vote efforts, a sizable portion of whom were LDS. Financial contributions from Mormons in and out of state made up as much as half of the nearly $40 million raised on behalf of the measure in a state where they account for 2 percent of the population.

A new book, Seeking the Promised Land, examines Mormon political behavior by looking, among several points of inquiry, into their responsiveness to church leaders. The authors are professors: Notre Dame’s David Campbell, J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University—both of whom are Mormon—and John Green of the University of Akron, who is Protestant. Calls to action from LDS leadership are infrequent, so when the leaders speak uniformly with specific directions on political issues, the authors argue, most Mormons follow their leaders. Of course, Mormons are overwhelmingly aligned with the GOP, much like the African American vote is Democratic, which is not always the most desirable political situation to be in.

The Mormon vote, while thought to be a lost cause for Democrats, could just as easily be taken for granted by Republicans. The Mormon constituency, in other words, could easily find themselves overlooked and marginalized in the political sphere. Furthermore, Monson, of BYU, cautions that the imbalanced Mormon Republicanism “ought to be concerning, because (it) has potentially some negative consequences for the church as an institution.” If the church is perceived as partisan, missionaries proselytizing among non-Republicans could face a tarnished reputation among groups of possible converts.

Why are Mormons so overwhelmingly Republican? The short answer is that they, as voters, look to protect their traditional values, the authors argue. They are a communal and homogenous group that exhibits a high level of faith in their everyday lives—abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, etc.— making them distinctive. Their belief and culture are heavily focused on the family, and this can bleed over into politics with issues they see as “moral,” such as gay marriage and abortion.

This is not to say Mormons have always been predisposed toward the Republican Party. After Utah was granted statehood in 1896, Mormons were largely Democrats, because the Republicans of that era, in addition to being against slavery, were against polygamy. Mormons eventually became bipartisan; their values were not so at odds with the greater culture as a whole. The 1960s, however, brought with it a sexual revolution and significant cultural change that caused disruption. During this time, Monson says, “you see Mormons gravitating toward the Republican Party for the similar reasons that evangelicals did”: a defense of traditional values. The ensuing culture war pushed Mormon voters further to the right.

That rightward drift has continued. The authors found that young Mormons are more likely to be Republican than older ones. Mormons growing up in the ’80s and ’90s aged in a cultural environment where their faith and politics tightly aligned, something that their parents and grandparents wouldn’t have seen so definitively, Monson says.

Fealty to the GOP may not end any time soon. However, Mormons contradict their partisanship on certain key issues. “When LDS teachings are out of step with conservative orthodoxy,” the authors write, “Mormons generally follow their church over their party.” In 2013, for example, Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, was among other faith leaders who met with President Obama about immigration reform that would have created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama’s policy, Uchtdorf said, “was totally in line with our values.”

What this means for the future of Mormons in American politics is not entirely clear. There seems to be no sign of strong Mormon Republicanism waning. But many Mormons are, above all, faithful to their church.

“When those messages from the church hierarchy are consistent and repeated over time,” Monson says, “the members respond.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Seeking the Promised Land

By David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson


312 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

California author Armistead Maupin has returned with the ninth and final volume in his much-loved Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal. Maupin, who has long refused to be pigeonholed as a “gay writer,” writes about contemporary San Francisco and the love lives of both gays and straights in an era confronted with a dramatic reassessment of the ways in which people choose to love.

In this standalone novel, Anna, a 92-year-old transgender pioneer, realizes her last days are filling with small surrenders: “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as simplification.” And she feels compelled to attend to unfinished business in her childhood hometown of Winnemucca, Nev. “It’s something old people do. … Old ghosts.”

Inspired by Christine Jorgensen, once George Jorgensen, a real-life former Army private who scandalized the nation in the early 1950s with a sex change, Maupin’s protagonist followed suit in the ’60s and became an activist who inspired others who struggle with sexual identity. Born Andy Ramsey, son of a Winnemucca madam, Anna Madrigal has transformed herself into a gentrified landlady, a citizen at the vital heart of her city, San Francisco, rescuer of stray cats and other wanderers, and a revered symbol for the LGBT community.

She also struggles with the knowledge that she, herself, has been a bigot. Decades ago, she’d thrown verbal poison at a Basque teenager who’d made advances to her when she was still a boy. In a moving interior metamorphosis at the climax of this novel, one that resonates with her earlier physical changes, Anna finally comes to terms with her confusion as a young man who was afraid of departing from the norm, while hiding a deep desire for lingerie and painted toenails. Owning her humanity in all its complexity, she returns to the gravesite of the young Basque boy in search of forgiveness.

The book is a fitting end to the Tales of the City and shines with Maupin’s uncanny ability to reveal people and their innermost secrets to themselves.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Days of Anna Madrigal

By Armistead Maupin


288 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

In 1876, a woman named Jeanne Bonnet, who made her living catching and selling frogs to San Francisco restaurants—and was repeatedly arrested for wearing trousers in public—was shot to death.

A mention of Bonnet in a book on unconventional women intrigued the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, and she’s spun the few available facts into a rollicking story of post-gold rush San Francisco.

Frog Music is told from the perspective of Bonnet’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who witnessed the murder. Blanche is a smart, resourceful woman who is a well-known burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute. In France, she performed in circuses, dazzling audiences with her equestrian act, while her lover, Arthur, flew on the trapeze. But after Arthur injured his back in a fall, and the Franco-Prussian War broke out, hitting Paris hard, the couple fled to California in search of better fortune.

Frog Music moves back and forth in time between the shooting of Bonnet, whom Donoghue calls Jenny, and the story of Blanche and Jenny’s friendship, which begins when Jenny, riding a pilfered high-wheeled bicycle, collides with Blanche on the street.

Jenny Bonnet is a remarkable literary creation, a fierce free spirit who “wears her bruises like parade gear” and speaks in a charming Western patois. Jenny’s probing questions about who is taking care of Blanche’s baby son lead Blanche to retrieve the child from a horrifying child-care mill for working mothers, but she then has trouble caring for him and complains about it. “Keep him or don’t, is what I say,” Jenny tells Blanche. “Fish or cut bait, but don’t gripe.”

Jenny causes Blanche to rethink her entire way of living. After Jenny’s death, Blanche upends everything to try to catch the killer.

Although Bonnet was born in France, in Donoghue’s telling, she embodies the spirit of the West in the 1800s, with her disregard for conventional morality, inexhaustible gumption and determination to pursue life according to her own template. Frog Music is a rich historical whodunit that gives readers much to relish.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Frog Music

By Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown and Company

416 pages, $27

Published in Literature