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Literature

31 Aug 2013
Brandon R. Schrand’s second book, Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior, retraces the Idaho author’s life through his obsessive love of literature. Each personal essay is paired with notes about a book that influenced that time in his life, with entries varying from passing references to detailed tributes. The first essay introduces us to a college-age Schrand as he’s arrested in Arizona while driving through red-rock canyons and smoking pot with his fraternity brothers. Schrand ends up missing out on a class discussion of Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, although he has a copy of the book in the car. This beginning introduces four constants around which the memoir revolves: stunning Western landscapes, trouble with authority, a boy trying to become a man, and the books he fell in love with along the way. Schrand first connects with the West —and his own family’s story of settling in…
24 Aug 2013
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In 13 sharp, witty stories, Spokane, Wash.’s Jess Walter captures the gritty, quirky and heartbreaking lives of a variety of Pacific Northwesterners. Walter convincingly inhabits each character he creates, from a hungry meth addict wheeling an enormous TV toward a hoped-for pawnshop payout, to a blue-collar dad trying to figure out which of his kids is stealing from the jar of pocket change that holds the family’s vacation fund. Much like his previous books, We Live in Water is alive with junkies, gamblers, scammers, drunks, down-and-outers and white-collar criminals, all of them too complex and endearing for the reader to easily judge or dismiss. Many of these stories delve deeply into the relationships between fathers and sons, particularly “Anything Helps,” which gets its name from the phrase that Bit, its homeless protagonist, inks on a cardboard sign. With $20 from a Mercedes driver, he buys a Harry Potter book for…
10 Aug 2013
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When Esther Chambers moves to central Oregon from Chicago in 1896, she finds herself caught in a range war between cattle-ranchers and sheepherders. Anna Keesey's elegant debut novel, Little Century, resurrects the complex West of those early days, in prose that captures the rhythms and diction of 100 years ago. Esther's mother died a few months earlier, and her only surviving relative is a distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, known as Pick, who owns the Two Forks ranch outside of Century, Ore. Pick persuades the 18-year-old to swear she is 21 in order to file a claim on a plot of land that includes a playa lake called Half-a-Mind. Water is scarce in this arid country, and Pick wants to graze his cattle at Half-a-Mind, although sheep-ranchers also use the free-range land nearby. “You've had a hard time,” Pick tells Esther. “But this is a good country for someone alone. We're…
03 Aug 2013
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Halfway through Marisa Silver's crystalline new novel, Mary Coin, two women's lives converge near a frost-blighted field of peas in Depression-era California. Vera Dare, a government photographer, aims her camera at a rumpled migrant family. Her thoughts drift to her own children: two young boys sent to a boardinghouse, because she cannot afford to take care of them. The woman on the other side of the lens is Mary Coin, a single mother with seven hungry children who is barely scraping by as a migrant farmworker. In the photos, she cradles a sick infant and looks considerably older than her 32 years. You might pause to take a long look at the book's dust jacket and let Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother” (cropped close and colorized) meld with the story. Lange documented farm-laborers for the Farm Security Administration, which sought to draw national attention to rural poverty. Lange's iconic photo of…
19 Jul 2013
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When it comes to modern poetry, Mira Gonzalez is an invigorating force. She recently released her first collection of poems, I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together, through Sorry House Publishing. Originally from Venice, Calif., Gonzalez is the daughter of visual artist and singer Lora Norton, and the stepdaughter of Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Her mother, stepfather and brother, Milo, are also members of the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. While her family is known for music, Mira has made writing her creative outlet of choice. She lists Haruki Murakami, Tao Lin, and Virginia Woolf as her writing influences. “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, or at least since I was very young,” Gonzalez said. “I guess I started focusing on writing poetry specifically sometime in early high school. I have always enjoyed reading and read a lot of books, which is what…
13 Jul 2013
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San Francisco-based writer Susan Steinberg experiments with form and structure in her arresting story collection, Spectacle, as she examines the roles men and women play. “The woman,” she writes, “is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” An unnamed woman narrates these 13 first-person stories, revisiting certain touchstones—her relationships with her brother and divorced parents, especially her father, an addict; the memory of a friend’s death in an airplane accident; the shifting balance of power between men and women in relationships, especially in tense situations. In the story “Superstar,” for example, the narrator accidentally scrapes a man’s car with her own. He screams at her and belittles her, “calling (her) certain names reserved for women,” until another man intervenes, taking over the fight, recasting her as “some sweet thing” he must protect. Steinberg captures charged incidents in sharp and nervy prose, questioning common euphemisms.…
06 Jul 2013
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Death hovers over Benediction, the latest of novelist Kent Haruf’s books about the eastern Colorado town of Holt. Two earlier works are called Plainsong and Eventide, and the liturgical nuances of the titles seem fitting as this benevolent Colorado novelist bids farewell to a dying world. A definition serves as the book’s epigraph: “Benediction—the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.” As with Haruf’s previous work, Benediction offers a nonjudgmental study of ordinary lives in a mundane rural environment, replete with the troubles and joys all humans encounter. Holt might appear uneventful, even boring, but Haruf’s sensitive portraits of its residents make readers empathize with their problems, from family strife to homophobia to money troubles to suicide. “Dad” Lewis, a new character in the trilogy, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis on Page 1; the reader accompanies him through his last summer in this quiet, yet rich and isolated agricultural…
29 Jun 2013
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Arizona author Martin Etchart’s compelling second novel takes readers to the heart of a Basque family, originally from the French Pyrenees, that has been whittled down to two: a father and a son. Mathieu Etcheberri, the son of Basque shepherds who built a hardscrabble life in the mountains above Phoenix, wants nothing to do with the family ranch or its “boring sheep.” He’d rather attend a university and find a new future. But when his father dies in a truck accident, caused by a monsoon storm that “tightened into a fist that crushed my world,” he finds himself alone, facing a perplexing situation. It turns out that the ranch is not his to sell; it belongs to an aunt in Urebel, France, a woman he has never met, and who has always returned, unopened, any letters sent to her. Declining an offer by a crooked attorney who wants the land…
22 Jun 2013
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One of the happy consequences of reading Kim Stafford’s work is that he makes you want to become a better person. The Portland, Ore.-based author of 12 books of poetry and prose writes with a quiet gentleness, intimacy and kindness. 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is a personal and introspective memoir chronicling Stafford’s relationship with his older brother, Bret, who took his own life at the age of 40, with very little warning. In 82 chapters, some only a few paragraphs in length—”sippings,” as Stafford has called them elsewhere—the writer searches his “tunnel of memory” for clues to the painful mystery that still haunts him. “For the work of memoir,” Stafford writes, “is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others.” For Stafford, most memories are consoling, and 100 Tricks shows us a man—who just happens to be a…
15 Jun 2013
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In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Timothy Egan—who also won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Worst Hard Time—chronicles the life story of photographer Edward Curtis in engrossing detail. Curtis, famous in the late 1890s for his Seattle society portraits, began a 30-year adventure the day he saw Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, walking the mudflats in search of clams. In Angeline, Curtis saw “a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged.” These first images inspired an ambitious plan: In 1900, Curtis abandoned his successful studio career to wander the country and “photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared.” Egan vividly conveys the sense of urgency Curtis felt as he raced to record the customs of more than 80 tribes. Curtis spent years among…