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New West Best Books in the West 2009, Part 2

Today I bring you the second half of the third annual New West Best Books in the West list, with notable books of 2009 from New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states.

New Mexico

The Colorado writer John Vernon is the latest to try his hand at capturing the quicksilver Billy the Kid in his novel Lucky Billy (Houghton Mifflin, 294 pages, $24), which displays the famous outlaw from a variety of angles, and creates a sympathetic though not simplistic portrait of a man who felt beset and compelled to fight back from his earliest days as a poor, small-for-his-age urchin on the streets of New York. Vernon sets his story in Lincoln, New Mexico, site of the Lincoln county war, the events of which Vernon posits sent Billy down his outlaw path. The literature of Billy the Kid is extensive, but there will always be room for another book on the subject that is as finely written as is Lucky Billy, a novel that ultimately rewards a reader’s attention, and delivers a convincing, human portrait of the legendary outlaw.

A much quieter but equally engrossing New Mexico novel is Rick Collingon’s Madewell Brown (Unbridled Books, 213 pages, $23.95). The title character is a mystery man, long gone, who turns out to have been a talented pitcher for a Negro league team out of Illinois. Brown lived for seven years in a shack on the outskirts of Guadalupe, New Mexico, barely interacting with the townspeople, before he disappeared without leaving much of a trace. Guadalupe is a town that keeps its secrets, counts family loyalty above all else, and doesn’t welcome newcomers, so if Cipriano Trujillo is to uncover the truth behind the ancient canvas bag stamped “Madewell Brown” that he finds after the death of his father, he’s going to have to overcome the congenital reticence of the older townspeople who might know something. This year Unbridled Books also released a new edition of Collignon’s first Guadalupe novel, The Journal of Antonio Montoya (214 pages, $15.95).


I read a lot of books, but there always seems to be one state in my annual lineup that I haven’t managed to cover during the year. Two years ago it was Utah, and this year it’s Oregon. If anyone has read a good book set in Oregon this year, please mention it in the comments. I do know of a promising Oregon book set to come out next year: central Oregon native Benjamin Percy’s first novel, The Wilding, is due out from Graywolf Press in the fall of 2010. In the meantime, check out Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel version of Benjamin Percy’s prize-winning short story Refresh, Refresh (First Second, 138 pages, $17.99).


New West book reviewer Traci J. MacNamara said The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (Tarcher/Penguin, 528 pages, $27.95), by Utah’s Chris Cokinos, is one of her favorite books of the year. MacNamara wrote, reading The Fallen Sky “is like taking an adventurous romp into the realm of meteorites and their hunters. Passion, science, dreams, and desire are all brought together in this book, which makes it an exciting study of the human psyche as well as an in-depth exploration of nature and science.”


Two books that I thoroughly enjoyed from Washington writers in 2009 both have to do with marijuana, and the authors thank each other in their acknowledgements. Coincidence or conspiracy? If it was a conspiracy, I hope Jim Lynch and Jess Walter will cook up another one soon, because their books were two of the funniest, most original novels I read this year.

Strange things are going on around the border between Washington state and British Columbia in Jim Lynch’s rich, imaginative novel Border Songs (Alfred A. Knopf, 291 pages, $25.95). On the Canadian side, retired professor Wayne Rousseau enjoys flaunting his access to medical marijuana treatment for his MS and decrying the follies of the U.S. government, and his daughter Madeline falls in with some pot smugglers, leaving a job at a nursery to become the drug operation’s head grower. Across the ditch on the U.S. side, Norm Vanderkool’s dairy is in dire straights, his wife is losing her memory, and the cows are succumbing to mysterious ailments. At Norm’s insistence, the Vanderkools’ son Brandon has just joined the Border Patrol, and he’s an odd duck: six-foot-eight and dyslexic, he has trouble stringing words together in the proper order and has never fit in with regular people. But his careful observations of the land and birds cause him to be attuned to anything amiss, and he begins to discover droves of people of all nationalities trying to illegally cross the border into the U.S., many of them smuggling pot, guns, or worse. After a string of serendipitous busts, Brandon earns a nickname on the B.P.: “shit magnet.” Quirky, funny, fresh, and lyrical, Border Songs will win over just about any reader.

In his hilarious and timely novel The Financial Lives of the Poets (Harper, 290 pages, $25.99) Spokane’s Jess Walter tells the story of laid-off newspaper reporter turned pot dealer Matt Prior. Several years before the novel begins, Matt was a business reporter for a daily newspaper and he decided to pursue his ill-conceived dream: starting a website that reports business news in poetry form. When tanked before it was even launched, something that everyone but Matt could see coming, Matt scurried back to his newspaper job. But because he’d left, he lost his seniority at the paper, and was one of the first to be laid off when the paper downsized. Matt couldn’t afford to lose his job: he’s got an enormous mortgage on a big house, a car payment, a garage full of supposedly collectible crap that his wife purchased in a compulsive shopping binge on eBay, and two non-Catholic young sons who attend Catholic school because the neighborhood public school reminds Matt of Sing-Sing. A chance encounter with some neighborhood potheads gives Prior an idea that he hopes will lead him out of his predicament.

The third book I have to recommend by a Washington writer is The Big Burn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 324 pages, $27) by Timothy Egan. In August of 1910, the largest fire ever to sweep across forests in the United States claimed trees, buildings, and lives across a stretch of three million acres in the Rocky Mountains. Seattle’s Timothy Egan writes that this blaze was known as “The Big Burn,” and it stretched “from central Idaho, east into Montana, west into Washington, north into British Columbia.” The smoke drifted as far away as Chicago. “It was as if a volcanic blast had disgorged the airborne remains of the forested northern Rockies into disparate parts of the United States.” Besides destroying several towns in the region, this fire had a lasting effect on the course of the country’s conservation movement, initiated by Theodore Roosevelt and his close confidant Gifford Pinchot, first head of the United States Forest Service. In The Big Burn, Timothy Egan once again demonstrates his skill at collecting the individual stories of eyewitnesses to a historical event and weaving them into a fascinating narrative that provides readers with a wider view that is relevant today.


My favorite book set in Wyoming this year is Ron Carlson‘s The Signal (Viking, 184 pages, $25.95), a taut and suspenseful novel written with beauty and precision, centered around a camping trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. For ten years, Mack and his wife Vonnie have gone hiking in that area every September, but this year is starkly different. Since the last trip, Mack has had some financial troubles, and with his ranch in danger of foreclosure, he got involved with some meth runners. Vonnie left Mack when his behavior became unacceptable. Mack recently finished a stint in jail for busting the windshield of Vonnie’s new beau’s fancy vehicle. Feeling sorry for Mack, Vonnie agreed to complete their annual camping trip one last time. Carlson’s dialogue and description is crisp and witty, and it feels as though his years as a short story expert have allowed him to condense into less than 200 pages a story it might take another writer 400 pages to tell. The result is a potent page-turner that mingles old-fashioned themes of love gone wrong and nature’s consolations with modern trappings.

Next year should be a good one for literature from the Cowboy State: Alyson Hagy’s short story collection Ghosts of Wyoming is due out from Graywolf in February, and Knopf will publish Mark Spragg’s new novel, Bone Fire, in March.

Other Western States

2009 was a stellar year for short story collections, and in this category I’ll list three story collections that were too geographically diverse to group under one state.

Antonya Nelson packs a novel’s scope into the short stories collected in Nothing Right (Bloomsbury USA, 304 pages, $25), plunging the reader inside complex family dramas within just a few incisive lines. She is brutally funny in these stories, set in the places she calls home—Telluride, Colo. and Houston—as well as in Montana and her native state, Kansas. Wherever the story is set, Nelson cuts right to the heart of the matter, her characters revealing caustic wit as they navigate the terrain of marriage, child-rearing, divorce, and adultery. Nelson’s humor is the rich, observational sort that derives from emotional pain and enables people to endure it. In Nothing Right, Antonya Nelson reaches both hands into the mess of contemporary American family life and comes up with gold.

Robert Boswell—who happens to be married to Antonya Nelson—also published an excellent story collection this year, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards (Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $24). The varied collection features some stories that pass by in a few pages while others stretch out to novella length, some that are light and comic, and others that are dark and death-obsessed, and still others, such as the title tale, in which death and comedy mingle. They are set all over the country, from a Colorado mountain cabin filled with druggie dropouts to a decadent Florida community inhabited by current and future divorcées (“No River Wide”). There’s a bleak tale set in the North Dakota countryside (“A Walk in Winter”) and a quirky one set in Albuquerque (“Miss Famous”), where a cleaning woman with artistic aspirations works for a fastidious client named Mr. Chubb who “was black, too tall to be a dwarf, too short to be normal.”

Best of the West 2009: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri (University of Texas Press, 268 pages, $19.95) is a welcome revival of anthology series that ran from 1988 through 1992, collecting outstanding stories set in “the Wide Side of the Missouri” that previously appeared in literary journals. The quality of the stories in this year’s anthology is just as high as those in the well-known national Best American Short Stories series. The overwhelming common theme for 2009 is sex: the people in these stories might be lonely, but they manage to partner up pretty well. The anthology includes stories by Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Dagoberto Gilb, Antonya Nelson, Don Waters, and Ernest J. Finney.

I thoroughly enjoyed California-based novelist T.C. Boyle’s The Women, which tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright from the perspective of four of the women in his life. In my last review for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I wrote, “the author excels in portraying the larger tapestry of the incredible life of Frank Lloyd Wright, a man with such grandiosity, artistic drive and peculiarity of habits that Boyle would have invented him if he hadn’t already existed.”

One last notable novel to mention, set mainly in Arizona and Texas, is Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. In her author’s note, Walls explains how she came to write this novel about her singular grandmother: “This book was originally meant to be about my mother’s childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. But as I talked to Mom about those years, she kept insisting that her mother was the one who had led the truly interesting life and that the book should be about Lily.” Walls’ mom was right: Lily Casey Smith is a one-of-a-kind horse-breaking, whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, moonshine-selling, ranch-running, airplane-flying, pistol-packing, school-teaching, indomitable pioneer. Packed with first-class yarns and detailed, sensory writing about an inspiring, unyielding woman, Half Broke Horses is a true Western narrative with a heroine every bit as entertaining and larger-than-life as the outlaws who populate traditional Western stories. The New York Times listed Half Broke Horses as one of its 10 best books of 2009.

Finally, my favorite Western art book this year is Stephen Strom’s Earth Forms (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 96 pages, 43 photographs, $45), which collects his entrancing photographs of multi-colored mudhills in New Mexico, the red rock formations of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and canyons, cliffs, and desert lands throughout California, Nevada, and Arizona. Strom has been photographing the deserts of the American Southwest for thirty years, creating arresting images of forbidding, breathtaking landscapes containing geological formations and striking colors like nothing else on earth. Strom worked for over a decade as an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, where he says he first began to “love the desert.” His book of photographs would make the perfect gift for anyone who loves the landscape of the West.

Did I miss any of the best books set in the West this year? Please school me: list your favorites in the comments.

About Jenny Shank

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the suggestions and I’ll look for some of the books. I apologize if this is inappropriate, but I’d like to suggest my own 2009 novel, “Land Beyond Maps,” which just won the 2009 New Mexico Book Award for Lesbian/Gay Fiction and was a finalist in the historical fiction category. “Land Beyond Maps” tells the story of how Laura Gilpin, the acclaimed photographer of the Southwest landscape, came to take her famous photographs of the Navajo people at the beginning of the Depression. “Land Beyond Maps” also fictionalizes the Indian Detours tourist buses run by Erna Fergusson, and the Canyon de Chelly Mummy Cave archaeological dig of Earl Morris. I love New Mexico and Southwest history, and I’ve tried to bring these people alive for today’s readers. My website is