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Literature

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…
08 Jun 2013
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Leland Stanford appeared to have it all: As president of the Big Four (The Associates), who built the Western half of the transcontinental railroad, the tycoon became one of 19th century San Francisco’s most-influential entrepreneurs. He served as California’s eighth governor, and founded the university that bears his name. “Newspapers were soaked with ink about the Stanfords’ outsized lives,” writes award-winning author Edward Ball in The Inventor and the Tycoon, which tells the story of Stanford’s most-bewildering partnership: his work with photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Stanford had the time and money to cultivate an unusual obsession: He wanted to know if all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time. Artists had long painted horses galloping in just that fashion, but who in the days before motion pictures could demonstrate the truth? Stanford found an answer, thanks to the eccentric English immigrant he met in 1872.…
24 May 2013
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Arizona is known for the five C's—cattle, cotton, climate, citrus and the king of them all, copper. Bill Carter's book Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World, is more than just an academic foray into the complexities of global copper supply and demand. As copper mining threatens to resume near his home in Bisbee, Ariz., Carter's concern for his family's welfare grows. Bisbee, from the turn of the century through the mid-1970s, was the "Queen of the Copper Camps," until operations ceased in 1975. Now a thriving alternative-culture community, Bisbee still bears the scars of its copper mining heyday, including soil tainted by fallout from the smelter used to melt copper ore. Carter's personal experience with arsenic-poisoning from vegetables he grew in his own yard is the impetus behind his investigation. This well-researched narrative describes how copper is found in all corners of the…
08 May 2013
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Berkeley resident Sascha Altman DuBrul has accomplished much as a community organizer and punk rocker, inspiring many who subscribe to the philosophies of Noam Chomsky or punk-rock ethics. And he’s done so despite struggles with bipolar disorder. In his book Maps to the Other Side, he offers a journey through his writings over the years, covering subjects such as train-hopping, political activism, community gardens and his struggles with mental illness. “The stories in this book are the personal maps through my jagged lands of brilliance and madness,” he writes in the introduction. DuBrul starts by talking about his childhood. He was raised in a chaotic home by two parents who consistently fought while he was being raised by the television. He talks about the Live Aid concert in 1985, saying he was disappointed by the much-anticipated concert, and calling it as a gathering of coked-out rock stars who got together…
03 May 2013
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In November 1971, a man traveling under the name Dan Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 flying between Portland and Seattle, demanded $200,000 from the FBI, and later parachuted from the plane into history, landing somewhere in the Northwestern wilds. The FBI has searched unsuccessfully for 42 years for any trace of either the man or the money; as recently as August 2011, agents were still investigating potential leads. Oregon author William L. Sullivan offers his own convoluted solution in The Case of D.B. Cooper's Parachute, a "What if?" novel set against a backdrop of international art theft, Oregon's community of Russian Old Believers and Portland's infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Sullivan can tell a riveting adventure tale. His middle-aged, guilt-racked police Lt. Neil Ferguson bicycles around Portland maintaining law and order, and keeping an eye on his autistic daughter. Reports that a "D.B. Cooper" is stealing paintings from a Russian Orthodox church…
19 Apr 2013
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Eowyn Ivey's surefooted and captivating debut novel, The Snow Child, begins in 1920, as Mabel and Jack—middle-aged homesteaders in Alaska—try to rough it through their second winter there. They'd moved West to escape painful memories of their only child, stillborn 10 years earlier, and the crush of nearby family that reminded them of their loss. The brutal Alaskan winters batter them with isolation and relentless cold, and they nearly starve. Eventually, with the help of friendly neighbors, the new landscape helps Mabel and Jack remember why they loved each other in the first place, and in a fit of playfulness, they build a snowman, shaping it like a girl and dressing it with a red scarf. The snow girl vanishes, and Mabel and Jack begin to catch glimpses of a child in the woods, "a red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A…
10 Apr 2013
In a career that spans five decades, New Mexico author John Nichols has written more books and screenplays than he can count on his fingers and toes. His first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo, was published when he was in his mid-20s, and The Milagro Beanfield War—the first book in his New Mexico trilogy—remains a classic of Southwestern literature. In his latest novel, On Top of Spoon Mountain, Nichols revisits the landscape he knows best: high desert plains and jagged peaks. Protagonist Jonathan Kepler decides he wants to climb a 13,000-foot mountain on his 65th birthday. Never mind that he's only 48 hours out of the emergency room following a heart-attack scare, or that he's got asthma. Or that he's got a whole slew of other reasons to simply stay home. Kepler is determined to climb Spoon Mountain, and he's doing it in three weeks. Kepler, a thrice-divorced curmudgeon, knows he…