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Literature

09 Jan 2020
My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees. It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley—the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing; agribusiness is expanding; the earth is sinking; aquifers are emptying; rivers run dry; and laborers toil for a pittance. In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of the current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of…
03 Jan 2020
In her brilliant fourth novel, The Other Americans, Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami paints an unsparing portrait of the American West, deliberately rejecting the familiar frontier stories of redemptive violence or restorative wilderness. Instead, Lalami’s West is a place where outcasts and immigrants struggle to co-exist in a desert that sprawls between a national park and a military base—yes, we’re talking about our local high desert. Simultaneously lyrical and accessible, The Other Americans is both an engaging whodunit and a profound meditation on identity and community in the contemporary American West. The Arabic word for Morocco, “Al-Maghrib,” also means “the West.” American literary expatriates such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, who made Morocco their home during the middle of the 20th century, drew mythological connections between Al-Maghrib and the American West, imagining Morocco as a new frontier on which they were countercultural pioneers. Lalami has long been a trenchant critic…
05 Dec 2019
In The Grave on the Wall, poet and essayist Brandon Shimoda focuses on what remains after great loss. In this work of lyric nonfiction, he writes about his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, who died after years of memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease. Midori was one of more than 110,000 American residents, most of them U.S. citizens, who were forcibly incarcerated by the federal government during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. Shimoda travels to places from Midori’s life to tell not just the story of his grandfather, but also of himself and the racist history that, then as now, has damaged families and excluded many from citizenship. Along the way, he sees much that has been irredeemably ground to dust. His book is a memorable and memorializing work that depicts the pain of trying to recover what can never be regained, from lost lives to a lost sense of…
10 Oct 2019
The American West is a region that has been conscripted into the service of the nation’s frontier myth. Nowhere are the absurdities and tragedies of this myth more apparent than in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. From the hackneyed re-enactments of Tombstone’s Gunfight at the OK Corral to the real-life vigilantes and outlaws who haunt the deserts along the borderline, the violence of the frontier is alive in the borderlands in a way that feels simultaneously anachronistic and immediate. New York University historian Greg Grandin explores this strange affinity between the frontier stockade and the border wall in The End of The Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. The scope of Grandin’s frontier history extends far beyond the borderlands or even the American West, ranging from the genocidal Indian wars of the 13 colonies to recent interventions into the affairs of the Central American nations…
05 Sep 2019
Rowdy Burns doesn’t look like much when he first meets ranch hand Wendell Newman. He’s a silent slip of a boy, 7 years old, hollow-cheeked and hollowed-out by trauma—a mother struggling with drugs, and days spent alone in an empty apartment. He’s “the tiniest little thing for miles,” Wendell thinks. And yet Rowdy becomes the gravitational force that draws together two families long torn apart by rural class and political divisions that ultimately erupted in murder. Joe Wilkins’ gripping debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, opens soon after Rowdy’s arrival in Wendell’s care, in a trailer in a hardscrabble corner of eastern Montana, during the first year of the Obama administration. Wendell is just 24 himself, a bookish former high school basketball star who now works for the wealthy rancher leasing his family’s land, struggling to pay down back taxes and his dead mother’s medical bills. Rowdy is…
08 Aug 2019
Many of the young female protagonists in Sabrina and Corina, Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s poised, rich debut story collection, grow up in fractured families—in which one parent leaves, dies or simply fails at the job. But these families’ roots run generations deep in Colorado, and a grandmother often brings stability through her staunch love and practical caregiving, offering simple remedies derived from a Mexican-American or indigenous heritage: garlic for warts, potato slices on temples for headaches, herbs instead of brain-addling fentanyl for the pain of cancer patients, and for “a cold or a broken heart … a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.” Although these women demonstrate abundant love, they are far from stereotypical or saccharine characters. One, armed with a gun, defends her home from an intruder, and all of them tell it like is. The grandmother in the title story says her granddaughter’s absentee father…
18 Jul 2019
Who hasn’t wondered what a favorite writer might have bestowed on the world if not silenced too soon? What fan doesn’t long for more—letters, a journal, unpublished fragments, even an annotated grocery list? Devotees of the late southern Utah essayist Ellen Meloy need no longer wait. The sketches gathered in Seasons predate her untimely 2004 death by up to 10 years and are not, strictly speaking, last words. For those who haven’t yet discovered Meloy, they can serve as a gateway drug to her profound, sometimes deceptively breezy work. Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an…
03 Jul 2019
When she discovered that she was pregnant, Stephanie Land ripped up her application for the University of Montana’s creative-writing program. Yet her dream of being a writer in Missoula endured, shining like a beacon above the daily grind of poverty she now found herself trapped in as a single mother. She yearned for Missoula, a laid-back, picturesque college town, but knew that good-paying jobs there were hard to come by, and housing costs were disproportionately high. She told herself that, once in Montana, she could reinvent herself and set an example for her daughter by becoming “the person I expected myself to be.” But it would be years before Land managed to escape. Her debut memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, takes place mostly in Washington’s Skagit County, a rural area north of Seattle. Like many of its Western counterparts, it suffers from the…
13 Jun 2019
When your homestead in the Colorado Rockies is threatened by wildfire, it’s easy to believe you have a front-row seat at the Apocalypse. In her recent memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, novelist and essayist Pam Houston sees the disaster of climate change already unfolding at her ranch, but finds strength and solace in the practical work involved in protecting her land, her animals and the wild landscape they share. Houston—the author of several books, including the short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness and the novels Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound—is an acerbic and self-deprecating writer. She often focuses on women who are competent in navigating the natural world but can’t handle romance with the hard-earned skill they bring to, say, white-water rafting. The essays in Deep Creek examine the life Houston has created at her 120-acre southern Colorado homestead at the headwaters of the…
16 May 2019
At a 1969 celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, 2,000 miles of track that linked the Central Pacific Railroad to the Eastern rail network, Transportation Secretary John Volpe crowed: “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” Volpe was apparently unaware that the Chinese workers who actually did the drilling were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship. A new book from Stanford University historian Gordon Chang confronts this amnesia. Ghosts of Gold Mountain seeks to give long-overdue acknowledgement to the 20,000 Chinese laborers who built the railroad’s Western section. Thousands died crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the railroad companies paid the Chinese workers far less than their white counterparts. Released earlier this month, days before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion—which occurred May 10, 1869—the book is the most comprehensive account to date of the lives of the Chinese workers who built the railroad. An…

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