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Literature

10 Aug 2013
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When Esther Chambers moves to central Oregon from Chicago in 1896, she finds herself caught in a range war between cattle-ranchers and sheepherders. Anna Keesey's elegant debut novel, Little Century, resurrects the complex West of those early days, in prose that captures the rhythms and diction of 100 years ago. Esther's mother died a few months earlier, and her only surviving relative is a distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, known as Pick, who owns the Two Forks ranch outside of Century, Ore. Pick persuades the 18-year-old to swear she is 21 in order to file a claim on a plot of land that includes a playa lake called Half-a-Mind. Water is scarce in this arid country, and Pick wants to graze his cattle at Half-a-Mind, although sheep-ranchers also use the free-range land nearby. “You've had a hard time,” Pick tells Esther. “But this is a good country for someone alone. We're…
03 Aug 2013
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Halfway through Marisa Silver's crystalline new novel, Mary Coin, two women's lives converge near a frost-blighted field of peas in Depression-era California. Vera Dare, a government photographer, aims her camera at a rumpled migrant family. Her thoughts drift to her own children: two young boys sent to a boardinghouse, because she cannot afford to take care of them. The woman on the other side of the lens is Mary Coin, a single mother with seven hungry children who is barely scraping by as a migrant farmworker. In the photos, she cradles a sick infant and looks considerably older than her 32 years. You might pause to take a long look at the book's dust jacket and let Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother” (cropped close and colorized) meld with the story. Lange documented farm-laborers for the Farm Security Administration, which sought to draw national attention to rural poverty. Lange's iconic photo of…
19 Jul 2013
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When it comes to modern poetry, Mira Gonzalez is an invigorating force. She recently released her first collection of poems, I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together, through Sorry House Publishing. Originally from Venice, Calif., Gonzalez is the daughter of visual artist and singer Lora Norton, and the stepdaughter of Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Her mother, stepfather and brother, Milo, are also members of the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. While her family is known for music, Mira has made writing her creative outlet of choice. She lists Haruki Murakami, Tao Lin, and Virginia Woolf as her writing influences. “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, or at least since I was very young,” Gonzalez said. “I guess I started focusing on writing poetry specifically sometime in early high school. I have always enjoyed reading and read a lot of books, which is what…
13 Jul 2013
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San Francisco-based writer Susan Steinberg experiments with form and structure in her arresting story collection, Spectacle, as she examines the roles men and women play. “The woman,” she writes, “is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” An unnamed woman narrates these 13 first-person stories, revisiting certain touchstones—her relationships with her brother and divorced parents, especially her father, an addict; the memory of a friend’s death in an airplane accident; the shifting balance of power between men and women in relationships, especially in tense situations. In the story “Superstar,” for example, the narrator accidentally scrapes a man’s car with her own. He screams at her and belittles her, “calling (her) certain names reserved for women,” until another man intervenes, taking over the fight, recasting her as “some sweet thing” he must protect. Steinberg captures charged incidents in sharp and nervy prose, questioning common euphemisms.…
06 Jul 2013
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Death hovers over Benediction, the latest of novelist Kent Haruf’s books about the eastern Colorado town of Holt. Two earlier works are called Plainsong and Eventide, and the liturgical nuances of the titles seem fitting as this benevolent Colorado novelist bids farewell to a dying world. A definition serves as the book’s epigraph: “Benediction—the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.” As with Haruf’s previous work, Benediction offers a nonjudgmental study of ordinary lives in a mundane rural environment, replete with the troubles and joys all humans encounter. Holt might appear uneventful, even boring, but Haruf’s sensitive portraits of its residents make readers empathize with their problems, from family strife to homophobia to money troubles to suicide. “Dad” Lewis, a new character in the trilogy, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis on Page 1; the reader accompanies him through his last summer in this quiet, yet rich and isolated agricultural…
29 Jun 2013
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Arizona author Martin Etchart’s compelling second novel takes readers to the heart of a Basque family, originally from the French Pyrenees, that has been whittled down to two: a father and a son. Mathieu Etcheberri, the son of Basque shepherds who built a hardscrabble life in the mountains above Phoenix, wants nothing to do with the family ranch or its “boring sheep.” He’d rather attend a university and find a new future. But when his father dies in a truck accident, caused by a monsoon storm that “tightened into a fist that crushed my world,” he finds himself alone, facing a perplexing situation. It turns out that the ranch is not his to sell; it belongs to an aunt in Urebel, France, a woman he has never met, and who has always returned, unopened, any letters sent to her. Declining an offer by a crooked attorney who wants the land…
22 Jun 2013
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One of the happy consequences of reading Kim Stafford’s work is that he makes you want to become a better person. The Portland, Ore.-based author of 12 books of poetry and prose writes with a quiet gentleness, intimacy and kindness. 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is a personal and introspective memoir chronicling Stafford’s relationship with his older brother, Bret, who took his own life at the age of 40, with very little warning. In 82 chapters, some only a few paragraphs in length—”sippings,” as Stafford has called them elsewhere—the writer searches his “tunnel of memory” for clues to the painful mystery that still haunts him. “For the work of memoir,” Stafford writes, “is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others.” For Stafford, most memories are consoling, and 100 Tricks shows us a man—who just happens to be a…
15 Jun 2013
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In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Timothy Egan—who also won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Worst Hard Time—chronicles the life story of photographer Edward Curtis in engrossing detail. Curtis, famous in the late 1890s for his Seattle society portraits, began a 30-year adventure the day he saw Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, walking the mudflats in search of clams. In Angeline, Curtis saw “a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged.” These first images inspired an ambitious plan: In 1900, Curtis abandoned his successful studio career to wander the country and “photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared.” Egan vividly conveys the sense of urgency Curtis felt as he raced to record the customs of more than 80 tribes. Curtis spent years among…
08 Jun 2013
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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.…
24 May 2013
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Arizona is known for the five C's—cattle, cotton, climate, citrus and the king of them all, copper. Bill Carter's book Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World, is more than just an academic foray into the complexities of global copper supply and demand. As copper mining threatens to resume near his home in Bisbee, Ariz., Carter's concern for his family's welfare grows. Bisbee, from the turn of the century through the mid-1970s, was the "Queen of the Copper Camps," until operations ceased in 1975. Now a thriving alternative-culture community, Bisbee still bears the scars of its copper mining heyday, including soil tainted by fallout from the smelter used to melt copper ore. Carter's personal experience with arsenic-poisoning from vegetables he grew in his own yard is the impetus behind his investigation. This well-researched narrative describes how copper is found in all corners of the…