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Literature

24 Dec 2013
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I’ll be honest: I’ve pooh-poohed e-books for years, primarily for sensual reasons. A cold plastic Kindle or iPad doesn’t offer the same experience as paper and glue—the tactile sensation and distinct smell of bound literature. Well, all that changed this month when I found myself buried under a teaching load of six college composition classes—enough to make Socrates beg for hemlock. I mean, have you ever graded 150 research papers? For two weeks, I self-administered a transfusion, replacing my blood with black coffee and whatever’s in those 5-Hour Energy vials. Despite December’s stress, I managed to read a number of great tomes this year—many available as e-books. Now, some of you Luddites are saying, So? You can’t send an e-book as a gift. Actually, you can if you have a Kindle account, and the process is simpler than Stephenie Meyer’s prose. Just go online to the Kindle Store, and choose…
23 Dec 2013
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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…
22 Dec 2013
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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…
08 Dec 2013
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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…
07 Dec 2013
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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,…
21 Nov 2013
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Tyson Wrensch approached me at the Independent’s booth at the Palm Springs Pride festival and told me about a book he’s co-authored about the murder of a Palm Springs man, and the crazy happenings both before and after the murder. I knew exactly what case he was talking about. Until Someone Gets Hurt, written by Sherrie Lueder and Wrensch, offers the dizzying details about the cast of players in the well-publicized 2008 murder of Clifford Lambert, a 74-year-old Palm Springs retiree. The book begins well before the murder, while Wrensch was on a month-long South America vacation. While in an Internet café, Wrensch discovered fraudulent activity in his bank accounts and on his credit cards. He panicked and quickly returned home to San Francisco. Daniel Garcia, a former friend of Wrensch, was involved. Garcia, originally from San Francisco, was quite the man about town. He befriended wealthy gay men, stole…
16 Nov 2013
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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,…
12 Nov 2013
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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…
10 Nov 2013
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Loss—real and potential—casts a shadow over the lives of the characters in Spokane, Wash., writer Nance Van Winckel’s poignant, deeply interconnected short stories. At the center of Boneland: Linked Stories is Lynette, who seems as trouble-prone as she is resilient. In the opening story, we meet her at age 40, reflecting on the nature of memory while attempting to recover from laser-eye surgery that has left her vision blurry and her thoughts jumbled. “Memory grows sharper, brighter. That’s what the sightless are told by the sighted,” she thinks, establishing twin themes—memory and vision—that recur throughout. In another piece, teenage Lynette prepares for a different surgery—this one for her “humped, crooked old woman’s” scoliotic back. She fears the operation will turn her to “worm food” and is haunted by thoughts of her friend Nickki, who died when her family’s car was struck by a logging truck. “Blindsided” is the word Lynette…
08 Nov 2013
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She was murdered in her trailer just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sensationalized on TV news, and labeled a “black widow” by a marshal: Justin St. Germain’s mother was judged for her lifestyle both in life and in death. A “serial divorcée” prone to involvement with abusive men, the former paratrooper is the elusive central figure in St. Germain’s unsparing debut. The author, a former Wallace Stegner fellow and now a professor at the University of New Mexico, avoids whitewashing his family’s flaws while revealing his conflicted yet undeniable love for his strong-minded mother, who died when he was 20. Hoping to understand how a capable single parent ended up in such a volatile relationship, St. Germain explores his childhood memories while remembering the funeral, its aftermath and his stepfather—the main suspect, who later committed suicide. He revisits Tucson, where he was living when she was killed; Tombstone,…