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Literature

08 May 2013
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Berkeley resident Sascha Altman DuBrul has accomplished much as a community organizer and punk rocker, inspiring many who subscribe to the philosophies of Noam Chomsky or punk-rock ethics. And he’s done so despite struggles with bipolar disorder. In his book Maps to the Other Side, he offers a journey through his writings over the years, covering subjects such as train-hopping, political activism, community gardens and his struggles with mental illness. “The stories in this book are the personal maps through my jagged lands of brilliance and madness,” he writes in the introduction. DuBrul starts by talking about his childhood. He was raised in a chaotic home by two parents who consistently fought while he was being raised by the television. He talks about the Live Aid concert in 1985, saying he was disappointed by the much-anticipated concert, and calling it as a gathering of coked-out rock stars who got together…
03 May 2013
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In November 1971, a man traveling under the name Dan Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 flying between Portland and Seattle, demanded $200,000 from the FBI, and later parachuted from the plane into history, landing somewhere in the Northwestern wilds. The FBI has searched unsuccessfully for 42 years for any trace of either the man or the money; as recently as August 2011, agents were still investigating potential leads. Oregon author William L. Sullivan offers his own convoluted solution in The Case of D.B. Cooper's Parachute, a "What if?" novel set against a backdrop of international art theft, Oregon's community of Russian Old Believers and Portland's infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Sullivan can tell a riveting adventure tale. His middle-aged, guilt-racked police Lt. Neil Ferguson bicycles around Portland maintaining law and order, and keeping an eye on his autistic daughter. Reports that a "D.B. Cooper" is stealing paintings from a Russian Orthodox church…
19 Apr 2013
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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…
10 Apr 2013
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…
07 Apr 2013
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Richard Brautigan grew up in Oregon, convinced he'd be an influential writer. He rose to fame in San Francisco and later split his time between Bolinas, Calif.; Livingston, Mont.; and Japan. He published 10 poetry books and a dozen novels, including the once-banned 1967 classic Trout Fishing in America. As his work's popularity declined, his alcohol use escalated, and in 1984, at the age of 49, he committed suicide. While his distinctive, irreverent and illuminating work may have had its greatest impact on post-modern culture when first released, Trout Fishing in America became the moniker of an experimental school in Boston, a crater on the moon, a Grammy-nominated band and at least one baby. Brautigan continues to inspire scholarly dissertations, plays, songs, art, films, blogs and fansites today. Even if you're not a Brautigan fan, it's worth picking up novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg's definitive new biography, Jubilee Hitchhiker, for…
20 Mar 2013
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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…
08 Mar 2013
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Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's newest novel, Durango, is timely, as many Westerners agonize over drought and the energy industry's use and abuse of water. Hart's novel, however, takes us to another front in the water wars, the decades-long dispute over damming southern Colorado's Animas and La Plata rivers to provide more water for the growing town of Durango. Hart's historically accurate story begins in the pioneer era, as he explains Native-white relations and the role of water in their interactions. For the Utes, the major tribe in the region, "Water and existence could not be separated. Water itself had a spirit." But for the whites, comparatively recent immigrants, "They fought over it and more than a few times killed each other over it. This behavior gave rise to the saying known to all ranchers in the West: 'Whiskey is for drinkin'; water is for fightin'." More recently, the Utes—who…
31 Jan 2013
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To snatch a moment from the wild and capture it in words that pulse with life is quite a feat. Stephen Grace, author of the 2004 novel Under Cottonwoods, makes it seem effortless. When he describes sandhill cranes rising from the wetlands of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, the reader can almost hear the thunderous applause of their wings. It takes an entirely different kind of gift to comprehend and then explain the tortured sophistry of the policies that are destroying those cranes for the sake of alfalfa farms, feedlots, casinos, suburban lawns and swimming pools. But Grace can do that, too. In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy. It should be acknowledged that he does not accomplish this alone. Dam Nation's debt to Marc Reisner's 1986…
15 Jan 2013
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Dana Johnson's thoughtful and affecting first novel, Elsewhere, California, is narrated by a girl named Avery, whom we first meet as a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s. When her brother is threatened by gangs, their parents decide to move to the suburbs. Avery eagerly prepares for the "long journey" to West Covina. Her father responds: "Journey? It ain't but 30 minutes up the road." Avery learns that however short the distance, West Covina might as well be another planet. The chapters alternate between Avery's childhood and her life as an adult, when she has become an artist, living with Massimo, an older Italian man, in his swanky Hollywood house, and she's looking forward to an exhibition of her art at a Los Angeles gallery. Avery's language deftly evolves throughout the course of the book. Johnson writes the early chapters in the voice…
14 Dec 2012
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It seems everyone, including my mother-in-law, is reading badly written smut in plain view these days, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Let's do something to change that right now. Here are gift ideas that include well-written smut, a beautifully rendered history of summer camps and a deftly constructed horror novel about a drone pilot gone homicidal. Got a camper on your list? As winter takes hold, it helps to remember that summer inevitably returns. What better way to rekindle the heat of first love, lake water and chewy s'mores than with David Himmel's poignant A Camp Story: The History of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps (The History Press, $19.99)? Himmel eloquently relates the story of a summer camp in southwestern Michigan, which sprang up from the efforts of a Jewish orphan named Louis Greenberg. Eighty years later, the impact and legacy of this annual gathering remains strong.…