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Literature

19 Oct 2015
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At the age of 6, Bryce Andrews sat at his family’s kitchen table in Seattle, listening to rancher/artist Pat Zentz talk about building sculptures—and pulling spotted knapweed. Art and agriculture went together, the boy assumed. The next year, curators at the University of Washington’s art museum installed “The Myth of the West,” an exhibit his father organized. Young Andrews stood wide-eyed before Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Yellowstone Falls,” then turned and practiced his quick draw facing Warhol’s “Double Elvis.” That same year, his family visited the Zentz Ranch in Montana, in a pilgrimage that would become an annual event. Sixteen years later, Andrews himself began living the myth of the West, when he became an assistant livestock manager on a different ranch. Andrews’ first book, his award-winning 2014 memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, begins with his journey from the “damp claustrophobia” of Seattle to…
13 Oct 2015
The Spirit Bird: Stories, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, is Kent Nelson’s latest collection of short fiction. Nelson’s stories feature diverse protagonists—a young single mother, a rabble-rousing Southern lawyer, a restless empty-nester—as well as an unusually vivid sense of place—the chile fields of New Mexico, the resort towns of Colorado, suburban Seattle—that establishes the land as an essential character in the stories. The people in Spirit Bird are trying to break out of their lives, and they share one major trait: dissatisfaction. They’re exploring, pushing boundaries, looking seriously at their own lives and asking, “Really? What now?” In “Race,” Hakim, a Kansan of Egyptian heritage, is a glassblower living in Colorado. He is middle-aged and divorced; he misses his daughter, uses his talent to make tourist baubles and is viewed with suspicion by many locals, even though he’s been a member in good standing of the local chamber…
12 Oct 2015
Winds may blow, o’er the icy sea I’ll take with me the warmth of thee A taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine. Music aficionados 40 and older are probably familiar with the haunting, Grammy-winning tune “A Taste of Honey,” made famous by Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, and The Beatles, among others. However, those music aficionados may not know the guy who penned it: desert resident Ric Marlow. He recently released a compilation of poetry and song lyrics, with a theme of love, called Tastes of Honey. Born in the Bronx on Dec. 21, 1925, Marlow grew up on Long Island. As he sang, Marlow took other jobs to survive, including hauling cement, building tennis courts and driving a cab. He says his best non-musical job was demonstrating pogo sticks in the toy department at Macy’s. He claims he once sold $17,000 of pogo sticks in one month.…
09 Oct 2015
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Just a block off a busy intersection in Albuquerque’s North Valley, a tile-covered two-story house stands like a poem. Mosaic flowers spring from its base, and pueblo-style rainclouds grace the front gable. For 11 years, Bev Magennis added one ceramic tile after another to her home, not intending from the start to cover the entire building. “I just get on a track,” she says today from her new home, which is tile-less and about a mile away. “I love a long-term project.” In more than three decades as a visual artist, Magennis created life-sized figures—even a “dome lady” large enough to sleep a family for the night. (At one point, she considered building a series of dome women and creating a sort of motel. Her then-husband was less enthusiastic about the idea.) In 1993, she left Albuquerque for rural southwestern New Mexico. Catron County is home to Mexican gray wolves,…
21 Sep 2015
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On the surface, California author Ruth Galm’s debut novel Into the Valley is a sidelong, Didion-esque glance into a 30-something woman’s unaccountable unraveling. Beneath the surface, it is skillfully whispered social commentary. Caught between the counterculture of late 1960s San Francisco and her mother’s conservative past, B. (as the main character calls herself) is inflicted with a strange malaise, one she calls “the carsickness,” which can only be soothed by cashing counterfeit checks. In desperation, B. drives aimlessly through the Central Valley, hoping that “its bareness would reveal something, provide an answer she had failed to acquire.” The premise of Into the Valley does more than provide a pleasing nostalgia. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you wrote a physical check?) Galm’s B. finds comfort in bank lobbies, “the right angles of the teller windows, the teller’s movements like a soothingport de bras.” These precise, clean moments give her…
18 Sep 2015
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You’re hiking alone along a steep switchback trail in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, when suddenly, you turn a corner and see a massive mountain goat, its black eyes trained upon you. A few years ago, a goat attacked and killed a man in this very park, and, at the thought, a trickle of sweat wends its way from your hairline to your collar. The goat is still looking at you. Then you remember that mountain goats aren’t native to these mountains, meaning that both it and you are relative newcomers here. But does that—should that—knowledge do anything to diminish the wildness of this encounter? Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, but every wilderness-lover has his or her own definition of “wild.” A few purists would see the non-native goat as a deal-breaker, but increasingly, many people do not base their definition of wilderness on whether a particular landscape is…
11 Sep 2015
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Every day in Tombstone, Ariz., actors re-create the famous gunfight of October 1881, when the Earp brothers—Virgil, Morgan and the legendary Wyatt—along with their friend, Doc Holliday, confronted a gang of local troublemakers known as the “Cow Boys,” in a shootout that wounded several and left three dead. The battle lasted a mere 30 seconds, though in modern cinematic slow-motion, it goes on forever. In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell goes beyond the bloody melodrama, turning painstaking historical research into an absorbing 600-page novel that seeks to understand these men and the context in which they lived and fought. Russell writes of the participants, “Whether you live another five minutes or another 50 years, those awful 30 seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.” Russell ended her terrific 2011 novel, Doc, before Holliday’s brief stint in Tombstone, largely because she felt the O.K.…
07 Sep 2015
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In “Mountains Without Numbers,” the first short story in Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest collection, The Water Museum, a middle-age woman pages through her high school yearbook before heading into work. Frankie, as the locals call her, owns the only diner left in her washed-up uranium town. “The sky feels like it’s on fire as she drives into town,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist writes. “Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people in the West.” When she can, she keeps her back to the butte where, for decades, the most daring high school seniors had scaled the cliffs to paint their graduation date. The dates, the stories—all serve as memento mori, painful reminders of better times. “Is a town dead,” she wonders, “when the old men die, or when the children leave?” The stories in The Water Museum stretch from South…
24 Aug 2015
Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland. Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from being an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to being the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story. Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked…
07 Aug 2015
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Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider. A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.” That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.…