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Literature

14 Nov 2014
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California author Armistead Maupin has returned with the ninth and final volume in his much-loved Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal. Maupin, who has long refused to be pigeonholed as a “gay writer,” writes about contemporary San Francisco and the love lives of both gays and straights in an era confronted with a dramatic reassessment of the ways in which people choose to love. In this standalone novel, Anna, a 92-year-old transgender pioneer, realizes her last days are filling with small surrenders: “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as simplification.” And she feels compelled to attend to unfinished business in her childhood hometown of Winnemucca, Nev. “It’s something old people do. … Old ghosts.” Inspired by Christine Jorgensen, once George Jorgensen, a real-life former Army private who scandalized the nation in the early 1950s with a sex change, Maupin’s protagonist…
07 Nov 2014
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In 1876, a woman named Jeanne Bonnet, who made her living catching and selling frogs to San Francisco restaurants—and was repeatedly arrested for wearing trousers in public—was shot to death. A mention of Bonnet in a book on unconventional women intrigued the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, and she’s spun the few available facts into a rollicking story of post-gold rush San Francisco. Frog Music is told from the perspective of Bonnet’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who witnessed the murder. Blanche is a smart, resourceful woman who is a well-known burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute. In France, she performed in circuses, dazzling audiences with her equestrian act, while her lover, Arthur, flew on the trapeze. But after Arthur injured his back in a fall, and the Franco-Prussian War broke out, hitting Paris hard, the couple fled to California in search of better fortune. Frog Music moves…
09 Oct 2014
Too hefty to be carried in a hip pocket or even a daypack, William Wyckoff’s How to Read the American West is a field guide unlike any other, with a focus on patterns, variations and the distribution of landscape features. Inspired by Peterson’s glorious bird books, How to Read the American West draws attention to eco-tones, watersheds, settlement patterns and corridors of connection (such as interstates or historic trails), and to questions of use, scale and control. Ultimately, it considers our grip on the land—and the land’s grip on us. Cross-referenced and studded with photos and maps, this guide invites us to browse, linking waypoints by topic more often than by region. It capably leads the reader through 100 entries arranged by theme. Much as birders learn to distinguish dozens of sparrows, we learn to read the nuances of the West. Wyckoff teaches earth sciences at Montana State University, and…
27 Sep 2014
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For 25 years, Peter Essick traveled the globe as a National Geographic photographer, and he was recently named one of the world’s 40 most-influential nature photographers. In 2010, Essick began “a potentially controversial” project in his native California: shooting in Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada—and in Adams’ signature black-and-white style. Paying homage to a master without imitating the work is a delicate balance to strike. Essick’s results, though, are stunning. In The Ansel Adams Wilderness, he captures groves of shimmering aspen trees and alpine lakes, whose calm surfaces perfectly mirror the granite formations and pine trees above. Quotes from Emerson, Thomas Cole and others, plus Essick’s own notes, round out the book. Essick, like Adams, conveys a deep respect for his subject matter. And he defends his use of digital technology: If Adams were working today, he says, “He would have a similar model” of the latest camera—although “his would probably…
16 Sep 2014
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In her deft debut novel, Colorado writer TaraShea Nesbit imagines the lives of the wives of the men who were stationed in New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Nesbit writes in the collective voices of the women, whose physicist husbands suddenly announced, “We are going to the desert,” without offering too many details. The women cannot even tell their relatives exactly where they are headed. “Our mothers understood,” Nesbit writes. “Our mothers had kept great secrets.” The collective narration gives the prose an incantatory rhythm that suits the story, once the reader becomes accustomed to the frequent contradictions within a sentence. For example: “We arrived in New Mexico and thought we had come to the end of the earth, or we thought we had come home.” Out of the threads of each woman’s experiences, a tapestry is woven, revealing a peculiar,…
05 Sep 2014
If it’s possible to paint in words alone—to create a wildly colorful story of grief in sentences layered like one of van Gogh’s swirling night scenes—Colorado author Peter Heller accomplishes it in his second novel, The Painter, narrated by artist Jim Stegner. A fly fisherman with a violent streak, Stegner is determined to overcome his tragic past, but he can’t seem to avoid causing more pain for himself and others. When Stegner moves from Taos, N.M., to an off-the-grid cabin tucked into the mountains near Paonia, Colo., he finally finds himself in a landscape he considers “a good place … to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.” But not long after he’s settled in, his dark side resurfaces, and he kills a man in an unpremeditated act. Instead of spending his days as he had hoped—painting canvases and fly-fishing as the sun dips below the horizon—Stegner packs…
27 Aug 2014
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You’ve heard of The Horse Whisperer. Now, meet The Horse Lover, a cowboy on a mission to save wild mustangs—1,500 of them, all nickering and snorting at the Mustang Meadows Ranch in South Dakota. “When my brother told me he’d agreed to keep hundreds of wild mustangs on his ranch, I thought he’d temporarily lost his common sense,” writes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author’s sister, in the foreword to H. Alan Day’s memoir. The 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act dictated that thousands of mustangs on public land be rounded up, corralled and offered for adoption—something for which many of the animals proved utterly unsuitable. That gave Day the idea for his project: a refuge for wild horses. Already a cattle-rancher who owned and managed two ranches—totaling 250,000 acres, in two states—Day bought a third, a 35,000-acre property in South Dakota, just to provide…
15 Aug 2014
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After nearly two decades of literary silence, former mystery writer Bernard Schopen is back with Calamity Jane, a new novel that asks serious questions about the West. His protagonist, independent filmmaker Jane Harmon, returns triumphantly from Hollywood to Blue Lake, Nev., to showcase The Last Roundup, a documentary she’s made about the townspeople’s lives. Jane’s received “bouquets of encomium and accolades for her assessment of the rural West and the American desert, of what should be done in it and who should do it.” The Last Roundup even aired on PBS. Winnifred Westrom, the book’s narrator, is a former schoolmarm and closet poet who reassembles the story of Jane’s one-year sojourn in Blue Lake and tries to come to terms with this modern-day Calamity Jane (as the locals call her), who’s wreaked havoc on their lives at every turn. Winnifred has sympathy for the realities that Jane’s film portrays, but…
08 Aug 2014
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In Katie Gale, anthropologist Llyn De Danaan chronicles the life of a 19th century Salish (Pacific Northwest Native American) woman who married a white man, gave birth to four children, became a successful oysterwoman, suffered greatly in a divorce settlement, and watched two of her children die of tuberculosis before succumbing to the disease herself. An extraordinary life? Not really. An exemplary one? No. But Katie Gale represents more than an individual: She stands in for an entire generation of Native American women trampled under the boots of white expansion. “Of this I am certain: Katie Gale was a refugee, a person displaced by war and threats of war from her country of origin,” argues De Danaan. Katie’s tribe lived on the oyster-rich Washington coast “before the first non-Indian oystermen arrived in Oyster Bay with their values, dreams and aspirations that rapidly turned a largely subsistence harvest to one based…
27 Jul 2014
Jerry D. Mathes’ second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, portrays the day-to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet’s sense of language, Mathes describes his experiences as a rookie, gaining knowledge as he rises through the ranks. Mathes works mostly for the Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He performs a variety of jobs—not just sliding down ropes into remote fires, but also pitching in on hand crews to build fire lines, working as a sawyer, and traveling to fill in on other crews throughout the West. Although the landscape and environment change, the physical routine and the danger of the work do not. Mathes introduces us to a range of characters—perhaps too many to keep track of—but he gives us vivid portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous and sometimes tedious job. What emerges…