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Literature

17 Jul 2015
Montana-based author David Allan Cates plunges us into the raw grief of a recently widowed doctor in his latest novel, Tom Connor’s Gift. Janine has walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and driven to a friend’s empty cabin in the Rocky Mountains to confront the emptiness of life without her husband, Mark. She hopes that “the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind.” A stray puppy appears to keep her company as she revisits her past, reliving her marriage and reading old letters from a man named Tommy Connor, who was her first love, 30 years ago. Meanwhile, outside the cabin, a curious grizzly bear lurks. This tautly written book, which the Independent Publisher Book Awards just named the year’s best fiction from the Mountain West Region, explores the continuum of human experience, from ecstasy to bone-deep…
14 Jul 2015
Gripping beginnings are said to be a key to successful short stories—but it’s the endings in Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair that make this collection stand out. Punchy, surprising, nebulous and even shattering conclusions mark these stories, with finales that can be as spectacular as explosions. McGuane has authored more than a dozen other books, but he hasn’t published a story collection since the acclaimed Gallatin Canyon appeared nine years ago. In Crow Fair, the longtime Montana resident writes from his home state, pursuing the themes you’d expect to find in such a sparsely populated region: isolation, loneliness and rugged individualism. In “River Camp,” for example, two childhood friends who take a fishing trip to confront their faltering friendship end up facing grave dangers, including a lunatic guide, ravenous bears and death-trap rapids. The differences between the two men become starkly apparent in their reactions as they float away from their…
10 Jul 2015
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In 2004, four low-income Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix built an ingenious robot for a science competition that pitted them against teams from top colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The story sounds almost too “Hollywood” to be true, and in fact, it has already inspired a documentary and a feature film. But seasoned journalist Joshua Davis sticks to the facts in his original book, Spare Parts, carefully reconstructing how these ESL students, “caught in the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations,” became one of the top underwater-robot teams in the country. Davis opens with officials from the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition, sponsored by NASA and the Navy, grilling the team members. “These kids had shown up with a garishly painted plastic robot that was partially assembled from scrap parts,” Davis writes. “They called their creation Stinky because it smelled so bad when they glued…
03 Jul 2015
John Vaillant, the Canadian author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce—two nonfiction books that delved into the darker aspects of our relationship with nature—now delivers an unflinching novel, his first. The Jaguar’s Children opens in the back of an empty water truck, where Hector, an undocumented immigrant, languishes with his injured friend César and 13 other crossers just north of the border in Arizona. They’ve been smuggled into the U.S., only to be abandoned between Sonoita and Nogales, sealed inside a tanker by shifty “coyotes,” young machos who “were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes.” Using Hector’s cell phone, César repeatedly, but in vain, tries to contact a gringo friend. The situation only gets worse as everyone runs out of water. Within days, the migrants’ strange prison resembles “the intestine of some animal,” digesting its inmates. The reader suffers along with the tanker’s…
26 Jun 2015
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The classic Western frontier story is an archetype of the hero’s journey: A young man, off to seek his fortune in the West, enters the wilderness to prove himself—and emerges both stronger and wiser. Into the Savage Country follows this pattern, but charismatic characters, good humor, lively language and nail-biting scenes make Shannon Burke’s novel feel as fresh and thrilling as the first time this kind of story was told. In 1826, 22-year-old William Wyeth is a hunter selling furs in St. Louis. He and the eventual love of his life, Alene Chevalier, meet cute, frontier fashion, when he hires her to brain-tan some hides. Wyeth isn’t the only one sweet on Alene—so is Henry Layton, a hot-headed braggart who “could buy you a drink and do a good deed, but he could not do it without others knowing he’d done it.” William embarks on a fur-trapping expedition, because, he…
20 Jun 2015
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“Unless you’re into meth or having sex with people you’re related to, you’ll find shit’s pretty boring here” in Idaho Springs, says 16-year-old Margaritte, matter-of-factly, as she introduces a boy to the downtrodden Rocky Mountain town just west of Denver. Margaritte is the protagonist of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, the debut novel by Colorado native Erika Wurth, a poet who teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University. Funny, tough, realistic and heartbreakingly foolish, Margaritte is a high school drug dealer on the fast track to teenage motherhood and welfare; her dad, a white man, is drunk and abusive, while her Indian mother ceaselessly forgives and enables him. Like the author, Margaritte is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee; her best friend is her adopted cousin, Jake. “He’s Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and black. And big.” Margaritte talks tough and acts superior to the other impoverished residents of her town: “I knew where that kind of thinking…
15 Jun 2015
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Paolo Bacigalupi grew up in Paonia, Colo., where he was on staff at High Country News. He has won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for his writing, and was HCN’s first online editor. His new book, The Water Knife, grew from a short story he wrote for HCN, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” In his latest novel, Bacigalupi has written a near-future thriller, set in a world where water is scarce, and law is scarcer. Much of humanity is holed up in efficient towers called arcologies; a man named Angel Valasquez, the henchman for a Las Vegas water czar, brutally cuts people away from their water rights. We spoke as we walked along an irrigation ditch above Paonia, its water high from recent rains. In your future world, what does Paonia look like? The way I look at Paonia is that it’s built on engineered water. There are a couple of…
09 Jun 2015
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As The High Divide opens in 1886, Gretta Pope’s husband, Ulysses, a U.S. Army veteran, has been missing for six weeks. She’s left with two sons to raise, past-due rent, and no idea about where he might have gone—or when he’ll be back. An odious landlord begins to circle Gretta, demanding payment in more than money. Then Gretta’s son, 16-year-old Eli, intercepts a letter to his father from a woman in Bismarck, suggesting that Ulysses recently visited her. Eli sneaks out of the family home in Sloan’s Crossing, Minn., and hops a freight train heading west to find his father—but his sickly 9-year-old brother guesses his plan and follows. Meanwhile, Gretta embarks on her own travels and investigations. Minnesota novelist Lin Enger switches to the perspective of a different family member in each chapter, updating us on their individual odysseys and making it clear that the members of this family…
05 Jun 2015
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First published in 1886, The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jefferies, is a slim, mystical volume—a nature-writer’s exploration of his own soul. Three years ago, well-known naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams and her writer husband, Brooke, stumbled upon an old copy of the book in an independent bookstore in Maine. They were immediately caught by its stunning prose. “My heart was dusty,” Jefferies writes in the opening paragraph, “parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge.” Who was this eloquent writer from another century, they wondered? Their search for the answer would lead the pair to England and then France and the Louvre, as well as on a journey into their own hearts. Jefferies, it turns out, was an English nature writer, essayist and…
19 May 2015
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Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is a wide-ranging, obsessively detailed and oddly inspiring book—an intriguing tapestry of scientific exploration and natural history that also takes turns as a eulogy, a love letter, a poem and ultimately a plea. In Relicts, Christopher Norment—a professor of environmental science and biology—sets out to consider the nonmonetary value of six “relatively obscure” Great Basin and Mojave desert species that we can’t eat, hunt or sell: black toads, Inyo slender salamanders and four species of pupfishes. Why these six species? In part because of their obscurity: Due to their small sizes and relative inaccessibility, Norment writes, they “carry little of the innate appeal” of charismatic megafauna such as grey wolves or whooping cranes, nor do they play much of an economic role. That obscurity allows us to ponder their worth without immediately reaching for our wallets. They are also, however, aquatic species restricted to tiny…