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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 R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways—sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle—are still being fought over in the West.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,…
24 Oct 2013
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Gang wars, drive-by shootings, drug sales, poverty—San Bernardino County was, as Keenan Norris explains in his debut novel, Brother and the Dancer, “one of the most violent places in America at the millennium. The area surrounding his hometown of Highland, Calif.—50 miles northwest of Palm Springs—he notes ruefully, was “an hour east of a city that actually mattered.” Into this fraught setting, he places two African-American children, Erycha and Touissant, separated by the severe economic and class delineations of West Highland and East Highland. He weaves their coming-of-age stories into a gripping meditation on isolation, society and history. Erycha “needed to talk to somebody about these things,” he writes, “to speak on what she wanted and how that agreed and disagreed with what her community wanted, and about the smallness of youth culture and the wild troublesome loveliness of black culture ... .” Brother and the Dancer won the 2012…
14 Oct 2013
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The young-adult book genre is dominated by romantic stories featuring vampires or high school life (or, sometimes, both). Local author David Rothmiller is definitely bucking the trend. His recent book, Curious Shorts: A Creepy Collection of Terrible Tales, feels like a throwback to the days of Alvin Schwartz’s renowned Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Rothmiller’s Curious Shorts has some very creepy tales indeed, including one called “Something’s Eating Sara.” It made me want to throw my Frappuccino away as I read it. The story is about a junior high school girl who also happens to be a hypochondriac. She is convinced that she is sick; her mother and the school nurse don’t believe her, since she has faked illnesses before. When she becomes very ill, the story takes a bizarre, disgusting twist that will make you question each and every processed food that you eat for at least…
12 Oct 2013
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Richard Rodriguez grew up with Mexican immigrant parents, “a scholarship boy in Sacramento.” His new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography (Viking, released Oct. 3), is dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy nuns who taught him to speak English. Rodriguez’s autobiographical essay collections include Hunger of Memory; Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. “I’m not interested in writing a memoir to tell you what I did that year,” he says. “I’m interested always in writing a biography of my ideas, of how I came to think about those things.” In Darling, Rodriguez examines his faith, particularly what it means that three of the world’s major religions were founded in the desert. At the same time, he ponders the state of American consciousness today, looking at Las Vegas, California and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands.…