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Books & Writers

Dark Prairies

SHERIFF PRUETT toed the edge of the obsidian, geometric opening in the earth. Approximately four feet by two, and shallow. The big man ached all over. He’d cried, shut himself up, and cried again. His heart felt so worn down it did not beat so much as murmur; a utilitarian thing without feeling or sound. The loss consumed him, and his will would not rise—muted by a damp, negative space swallowing his physical being. Pruett was shattered; broken in ways he might never fix. He did not know loneliness, or at least he had no memory of it. Now this singularity encased him—an invisible, merciless force threatening to erase all he was or ever would be. Like the victim of a holocaust. Sorrow made the old man feel weak. Exposed to the emotional elements. But, like everything else, he made room for it. A man got good at tamping emotions down—one here, one there—or at least Pruett had. The problem arose when there was no more room for packing. And this last tragedy was far too oversized for his soul to bear. Even were his stowaway places clean and emptied, he’d still never have figured a way to subjugate this much devastation—at least not for long. What reconciliation could stand up to a fate as twisted as this? Pruett occupied a world now where all the songbirds had flown and only carrion remained. Elemental tasks tested him: waking, standing, breathing. He was a sheriff! How did he go forward from here? Just how did the balance sheets get equaled on all sides?

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Book Festivals of the West 2011

Each year readers and writers gather to celebrate the written word at book festivals, fairs, and writing conferences throughout the West. Although there are a few spring festivals, everything really begins to pick up in June, and the schedule remains busy through November. The offerings vary from those that concentrate on helping writers improve their craft, such as the Lighthouse Writers Workshop's retreat in Grand Lake, Colo. (July 10th-15th), to those that introduce writers to readers through panels, readings, and book signings, such as the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula (October 5th-7th). Some, such as the Aspen Summer Words Festival (June 19th-24th), combine workshops and readings. The workshops charge fees, but plenty of the festivals are free to attend, including the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula and the Equality State Book Fair in Casper. Most workshops are already accepting applications for this year. I've updated the Book Festivals of the West map with this year's information when it was available. Please let me know if there are any more events to add or update—I'll even throw this open for events in California and Texas. New West will run reports from the festivals again this year—we already have correspondents lined up for the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, Aspen Summer Words, and the Montana Festival of the Book, and are looking for more contributors.

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‘The Sisters Brothers’ Updates A Classic Western Novel Scenario

The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 328 pages, $24.99), the second novel by Oregon's Patrick DeWitt, is an update on a classic Western scenario, featuring hired killers on horseback out to get their man, traveling through hard-bitten frontier outposts in 1851. DeWitt has invigorated this well-worn path with wit, style, and imagination. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are hit men working for a mysterious wealthy Oregon man named the Commodore. As the book opens, the Commodore has dispatched the Sisters brothers to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, who is currently being watched by Henry Morris, another of Commodore's men, in California. The Sisters brothers move across the country in a welter of violence, but the carnage goes down easily through the endearing narration of Eli, the younger, fatter, and more reluctant killer of the two. Eli narrates in a humorous, formal sort of diction that several critics have compared to that of Mattie Ross in True Grit, but Eli is more of a softie than Mattie ever was, collecting his half of the money whenever he and his brother kill someone for profit, but then giving it away to prostitutes and other women who sway his sensitive heart before he's had a chance to spend any of it. Patrick DeWitt will discuss The Sisters Brothers at University Bookstore in Seattle (4326 University Way) on May 18, at Powell's Bookstore in Portland on May 19, and in Denver at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on May 24.

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Where the Bison Roam: ‘Hard Grass’ by Mary Zeiss Stange

Mary Zeiss Stange opens her book, Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (University of New Mexico Press, 256 pages, $27.95), with a description of how many ranching women also work “off the place” to help make ends meet. She is no exception. Except that she is. While most wives work in the closest town at the bank or hardware store, Zeiss Stange is a professor of women’s studies and religion at Skidmore College in upstate New York, two thousand miles from the ranch she and her husband, Doug, own in eastern Montana. When commenting on her particular situation, she states, “More recently I have noted the structural likenesses between the pecking order of a buffalo herd and power arrangements on a college campus.” When Zeiss Stange and her husband, two academics from nonagricultural backgrounds, buy their approximately 4500 acre ranch in 1988, their neighbors immediately label them as “differnt,” which Zeiss Stange points out, isn’t exactly complimentary. When they decide not to raise cattle in the midst of cattle country, but rather to restore the land to its natural ecological state, their reputation extends beyond their neighbors to residents in all of Carter County.

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Two Montana Residents File Suit Against Greg Mortenson, While Others Defend Him

The rather dispiriting saga of Montana writer and philanthropist Greg Mortenson continues this week, with two Montana residents, Jena Price of Great Falls, and Missoula Rep. Michele Reinhart, filing suit against the author of Three Cups of Tea in the wake of allegations on the news program "60 Minutes" that he fictionalized some aspects of the book and misused funds intended for his charity, the Central Asia Institute. According to the AP, the suit "claims Mortenson and CAI [his nonprofit, Central Asia Institute] committed fraud by inducing them to donate and buy his book." The Missoula Independent reports Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock is investigating Mortenson and CAI. Kim Murphy of The Los Angeles Times interviewed Bozeman residents about the controversy ("With philanthropist under attack, hometown comes to his defense"), and found most people still support Mortenson, including the owner of the Country Bookshelf. Also in the Roundup: Regional book prize news.

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Lights, Camera, Action: Manuel Muñoz’s Novel Reimagines ‘Psycho’ Filming

In Manuel Muñoz's entrancing first novel What You See in the Dark (Algonquin Books, 251 pages, $23.95), a character called The Director, based on Alfred Hitchcock, observes, "Small towns are filled with people who notice every little detail." Muñoz, who teaches at the University of Arizona, has paid utmost attention to detail in this novel that reimagines the filming of Psycho in the sleepy town of Bakersfield, California in 1960. Muñoz sets the filming of that classic movie against the murder of a young woman that occurs at the same time. Muñoz writes with exquisite control of atmosphere, mood, perspective, and image—not unlike Hitchcock's technique—as he builds the moving story of the murder of Teresa, a young Mexican woman, at the hands of her white lover. The narrative switches between several perspectives, beginning with a skillful second-person collective voice that we come to learn speaks for the town of Bakersfield in 1960 as a whole, and also for Candy, Teresa's jealous co-worker at the shoe store. Manuel Muñoz will discuss What You See in the Dark at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on May 11 at 7:30 p.m.

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Our Weekend Fiction Series Continues in May

The beginning of a new month gives us the chance to introduce a new batch of fine fiction from all over the West. This month we feature an interesting variety of stories, starting with “The New Sister,” by acclaimed New Mexico novelist Lynn Stegner. Stegner, who won the 2007 Faulkner Award for her novel Because a Fire Was in My Head, takes us into the unsettling experience of Louisa Parker, an eight-year-old girl who has just found out that she has a step-sister, thanks to her father 'stubbing his toe' (her mother's explanation) nine years ago. As hard as Louisa tries to adjust to this disruption in her family, the intrusion of this young girl becomes a catalyst for an unfortunate act. Stegner resolves this story brilliantly with a meeting between the two as young women. The second story we'll feature this month is by David Kranes, who is an accomplished Utah playwright as well as a fine fiction writer. Kranes starts his story with the age-old line “Man Walks into a Bar” (also the title), and from there spins a fascinating tale of overnight success for Scott Elias, a frustrated painter who suddenly finds himself starring in a major motion picture. Kranes presents an insightful exploration of the perils and challenges of success as Scott tries to retain his friendship with his roommate while hobnobbing with Brad Pitt and Hilary Swank.

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The New Sister

It was almost noon as the children walked up Orchard Lane, the shadows cowering into small gray blots that seeped out from under the backs of their tennies, like sweat stains. They passed Mrs. Myer’s house, the third grade teacher who cooked the strangest sorts of foods, including artichokes, huge and barbaric things, and if you swallowed any of the soft prickles at their base, why, you could die. That was what she had told them and from such knowledge they had made a stupid song: “Arty choked on his artichoke and couldn’t get up in the morning.” Then came the yellow house where Ronald and Donald lived, identical twins who went to a private academy up the peninsula during the week, not the new public school three blocks over with its tetherball courts and walls checkered in brightly colored construction paper. The Decker twins were nice boys, clean and round-eyed as marionettes; their mother used something in their hair that transformed the tufts and cowlicks into a surface that resembled grooved plastic. Ronald was just then returning home, having gone somewhere on his bike, and when he saw them, he coasted down his driveway to join up, making lazy loops in the street to slow his wheeling pace to their Saturday drifting and dawdling. In front of the adjacent house stood Mr. Kesselman, hosing off the sidewalk. Louisa squinted down at the nearly white cement, scoured under the noonday sun, and remembered not to step on the cracks, but really, it was too hot to be that good about anything. And Louisa was a good girl, everyone agreed on that. But not so many thought so after what happened that day. “Off to the pool, kids?” Mr. Kesselman held the hose to the side, letting the water plash with heavy flaccid clarity into the lawn as they shuffled by. The smell of grassy mud sagged down toward them, warm and vaguely sickening. “Yeah,” one of them mechanically intoned.

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How Straw and Grit Built the Best Small Library in America

In November of 2004, the voters of the Montrose, Colorado, Regional Library District told us they were happy with the way we had operated the new Montrose Regional Library and gave us permission to double our property tax rate (known here as a mill levy). They voted to raise taxes from $1.5 to $3 per $1,000 of assessed property value (1.5 mils to 3.0 mils). Before receiving this operating money, the district had not been able to consider expanding any services to our branch libraries. But with this good news, we began to plan for expansion where we felt it was most critically needed, in Naturita. Naturita, Colorado, is a two-hour drive from the main library in Montrose. Its local library had been housed in a facility of less than 500 square feet, so tiny that any program or service for more than six people had to be held outside. Also, the Naturita library was situated on the edge of town, out of sight and out of mind.

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Four Unforgettable Western Women Writers

When we did the Western Literature Association survey of Most Important Authors, very few women made the list. Willa Cather got her fair share of votes. Mari Sandoz was the next favorite, followed by Leslie Silko and Mary Austin. After that came such names as Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Pam Houston, Terry Tempest Williams and Ann Zwinger. With the exception of Cather, none had sufficient support to be called “important.” For my list of significant Western women writers, I chose the four I find most unforgettable, four women I have spent many evenings with and who belong in the library of any well-read Westerner. 1. Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903) will not tempt you to hoist the family bungalow onto a flatbed truck and move to the Mojave Basin; however, Austin can lead you to wonder why you live where you live. The Mojave hills, the colors, the seasons of the place “trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.” Austin treats individuals—the Basket Maker, the Pocket Hunter, the Mule Driver on the borax wagons—as the equals of the coyotes, the scrawny rabbits, the soaring hawks and cruising vultures.

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