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Literature

19 Apr 2016
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“My god that you could walk through such a landscape. My god that such a landscape existed anywhere but in your dreams. And yet here it was.” California-based novelist Christian Kiefer creates a gorgeous, desolate tableau in which his characters are bewitched by natural beauty, even as they’re betrayed by human actions—especially their own. Wildlife-rescuer Bill Reed and his unofficial Idaho sanctuary are in peril as The Animals begins, when the district game warden threatens to close the place down, citing federal environmental rules and regulations. Meanwhile, Bill’s nightmarish past catches up with him when Rick, who was once his closest friend, is released from a long stretch in prison. The two were inseparable during their bleak childhoods in Battle Mountain, Nev., enduring family tragedies and alcoholic parents. Together, they later escaped to Reno, only to get lost in dead-end jobs, drugs and trouble with the law. Now Rick has…
05 Apr 2016
The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories is the first collection of short fiction from Denver-based writer Manuel Ramos, often called the “Godfather of Chicano Noir.” The stories’ settings range from El Paso to rural Colorado and the megalopolis of Los Angeles, and from the Mexican Revolution to the 1950s and the present. The mostly Chicano characters include lawyers, veterans and a prostitute, with a guest appearance by Jack Kerouac. Written between 1986 and 2014, the stories reflect the stylistic development of Ramos, author of the Edgar Award-nominatedThe Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, among other acclaimed crime novels. Standouts include the eponymous “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” in which the skull, nicknamed “Panchito,” that supposedly belonged to the “Robin Hood of Mexico,” is stolen in an act of revenge. In “Bad Haircut Day,” an ambitious but heretofore ethical Denver attorney finds himself covering up a murder. A wheelchair-bound former baseball…
23 Mar 2016
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Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is not intended for readers with delicate sensibilities. Jon Krakauer’s newest book investigates, in great detail, several rapes perpetrated between 2008 and 2012 by members of the University of Montana. In Missoula, the “Griz” are hometown heroes—and those who cast aspersions on the celebrated players’ reputations had better be prepared to face the consequences. The rapists and their victims receive equal treatment here, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and detectives. Krakauer allows all of them to speak for themselves; no one emerges untainted. The “justice” in Krakauer’s title remains elusive at best and is tarnished throughout, due to clumsy cops, politicized prosecutors and a widespread lack of empathy for the few women willing to confront their attackers—always a minority among rape victims. Rape, says one prosecutor, “is the only crime in which the victim is presumed to be…
15 Mar 2016
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In my hometown of Mentor, Ohio, it seemed like everyone around town knew Joe Biel. He was a few years older than me, and was known for selling “zines” at punk shows in Cleveland. Those zines eventually led to Biel starting Microcosm Publishing—an independent publishing and distribution company—in 1996; in 1999, Biel relocated to Portland, Ore. On the 20th anniversary of his company, Biel has now released a book that’s quite personal—Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s. During a recent phone interview from Portland, Biel discussed his upbringing in Ohio, and his discovery of punk rock. “My family life was pretty bad as a kid. My dad was disabled, and my mom was really violent,” Biel said. “Between those things, when I found punk rock around 1992, it helped me find a moral compass and find a more productive use of my energy and my time.…
08 Mar 2016
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The National Park Service’s 2016 centennial got off to a rocky start. On Jan. 2, militants occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a sustained attack on the very legality of public land—the philosophical and political foundation upon which the national parks and other reserves (including wildlife refuges) are built. Then in mid-January came the galling announcement that one of the system’s flagships, Yosemite, is changing the names of well-loved landmarks in response to a legal dispute with a concessions company that managed to trademark park imagery and institutions for its own marketing purposes. Neither is the sort of publicity that the agency hoped to receive from this anniversary, which was supposed to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the American public in a yearlong campaign called “Find Your Park.” More in line with the message, surely, are two well-timed new books. A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks is an…
03 Mar 2016
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In December 1951, a nuclear power plant outside Atomic City, Idaho, sent electricity through four 200-watt bulbs, in the first use of a nuclear plant for that purpose. The flickering lights were a promising sign for the high-desert community, situated next to the world’s largest concentration of reactors. Less than 15 years and a couple of nuclear accidents later, the plant was decommissioned, leaving the town to wither into a historical footnote. Photographer David T. Hanson uses Atomic City as one of many settings in his book Wilderness to Wasteland. In images made during the early and mid-’80s, Hanson captures large-scale energy and mining production sites and the “poisoned landscape” they left behind. Those scars, Hanson writes, will be industrialized society’s legacy. “Indeed, it seems likely that the most enduring monuments that Western civilization will leave for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or the cathedral…
23 Feb 2016
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The Northern Rockies are America’s epic mountains, a bastion of grizzlies and other wildlife, and the awe-inspiring terrain that Lewis and Clark explored and chronicled two centuries ago. In Travels With Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck called Montana “a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.” It’s a landscape whose wild spirit draws backpackers, hunters and anglers—and that spirit appears on every page of Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies, Frederick Swanson’s history of wilderness-preservation in the region. The book is scrupulously footnoted, yet accessible to the general reader, with maps to show where the writer is taking us. When you love a place, you want to save it—not just for yourself,…
10 Feb 2016
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Whither the U.S. Forest Service? Jim Furnish, whose 34-year career with the agency culminated in one of the most important public-lands protection measures in the nation’s history, has grappled with this question throughout much of his life. In his engaging new memoir,Toward a Natural Forest, Furnish outlines how the Forest Service transitioned from a can-do operation with a clear mission—getting out the cut—to an agency striving, and largely failing, to find new reasons to justify its existence. He also chronicles his own transformation, from gung-ho young forester to passionate advocate for responsible environmental stewardship. Furnish portrays an agency that grew increasingly at odds with public sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s, as it outstripped the ecological limits of the land it managed. But those in charge insisted on staying the course. The Forest Service sold more timber in 1989—a year racked with litigation and controversy—than in any other year in…
03 Feb 2016
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Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years. For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.” The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken…
28 Jan 2016
When 26-year-old Megan Kimble became intrigued by the idea of unprocessed eating, she wasn’t entirely sure what the term meant. After all, she writes, nearly all food is processed by the time we eat it—chopped, sautéed, fermented or folded into batter—“and often it is the better for it.” But she also knew that some of our food is too processed, organic or not—and so she set out to discover where, exactly, the line should be drawn. It took her a whole year. Her debut book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food, documents Kimble’s shifting definitions, as she grinds wheat berries into flour, brews mead in a bucket, harvests salt from the ocean, and tries her hand at slaughtering sheep. Along the way, she explores all kinds of topics—from the preservatives that give industrially produced food a longer shelf life, to the planned obsolescence of our food gadgets; from the…