Lit up 

The books we couldn't put down in 2013

It's impossible to read Night is Simply a Shadow without some sorrow. Its release this August comes eight years after poet Greta Wrolstad, at the age of 24, died in a car accident on Highway 200. It includes pieces with harrowing lines best described in the former University of Montana MFA student's own poetry as "not terror" but a "lullaby from which the danger is waking." What's great about the title is that it illustrates the beautiful darkness of some of her writing but it also, with the word "simply," swiftly reassures that night is nothing to fear. The book's publisher, Tavern, and Wrolstad's poet friends have curated the collection to reflect that in an elegant way. By the final poem, "Fontaine De Vaucluse," which ends with, "the season of rain is coming, hold out your hand," you will feel less sorrowful and more lucky to have her words to read over again. (EF)

There are times when a good novel starts to become the thing that it's about, and such is the case with Rick Bass's latest, All the Land to Hold Us. The prose stretches out and burns steady like a meadow on fire. It meanders whether you want it to or not. But for every new piece of landscape traveled, the reader will feel as though they've accomplished something extraordinary just to have witnessed it. This is the novel to bring on a long backpacking trip. There isn't an ordinary sentence in the lot. (ML)

Montana's hard-boiled plot and its twists are entertaining enough, but Gwen Florio's portraits of tough women and old-school journalism are what left a lasting impression for me. Lola and Mary Alice worked for their college paper and then moved on to rough big-city beats for dailies, packing .45s for protection and drinking Jameson, never regretting their bold career choices. They're the kind of dogged, intrepid reporters that aspiring journalists hope to become. Fictional portrayals of journalism can be frustrating to read if the details are wrong. But Florio's real-life experience gives the dramatic plot of Montana a realistic heft. (KW)

Introduction to Botany nearly derailed my college degree. In the final semester of senior year, it was the one required general ed credit I had left to take. Perhaps I'd have done better had Amy Leach been my instructor. Leach, a writer based out of Bozeman, has released Things That Are, a series of beautiful, graceful essays musing upon beaver dams and intergalactic dust and everything in between, like the wonders of salmon spawning, the moon's gravitational orbit, jellyfish eyes, mushroom sprouting and supernova formations. It's science made into poetry. (KW)

In She Matters: A Life in Friendships, Susanna Sonnenberg's sentences are bizarre and off-kilter without ever calling attention to themselves, and she writes them without clumsy metaphors or similes. "We have different styles. Patricia starts with the reports, I start with mood. I pierce, hunt for the biggest truth, restless until I've divined it." She pierces! No need to completely nerd out with me on the extraordinary verbs at play here, but they deserve at least a small celebration. This is a book about a specific thing, but the writing is so good, the cadence of the sentences so soft and feminine, I would trust this author with just about any subject. (ML)

In It Runs in the Family, the natural progression from digging for answers from his parents to searching for reportable facts provides the perfect framework for Richard Manning to touch on a number of larger issues while also recounting his life. There's a rawness to Manning's memoir that makes it extremely poignant. His bitterness and fury often bleed through. So does his passion for wilderness and his keen desire to connect with people who he cares about. The book ties no loose ends, offers no rosy finale. But it does make a case for never being afraid to ask questions that have complicated answers. (EF)

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After the first few pages of Eidolon, you'll find yourself drawn deeper into the world that Ken White creates, not necessarily because you know what's going on, but because of the sound and cadence of his poems. They carry you along like a current. While his words are compelling on the page, the lines seem to hiccup and shift strangely, the wordings unfamiliar. But read aloud, they sound exuberant, breathless and real. (MM)

The five novellas that make up Brown Dog each give way to the next, as the title character becomes more than a rustic clown. He actually experiences personal growth (gulp) despite his best efforts to avoid it. By the end, it's even poignant. Whether or not you're a fan of Jim Harrison's other work, the character of Brown Dog is probably somebody you'll want to meet. If you already know B.D., you'll find this collection works as a strong novel in its own right. I recommend it highly. (DK)

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So dog-eared are the pages of my copy of Opportunity, Montana that from across the desk the book appears waterlogged. Simply put, there's just that much to like in Brad Tyer's debut—that much to ingest, puzzle over, learn from, return to. Like many fine recent nonfiction publications, Opportunity, Montana is a determined hybrid: part history, part narrative, part treatise, part balanced reportage. But the book does not waffle as it wanders. It hones in on the well-documented Milltown Dam cleanup, the history of atrocities surrounding the drainage-long pile-up of toxic sediments, and the irony of that phrase "cleanup." When a story about slag heaps and sluices can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you know you're holding rare ore. (CD)

Books reviews by Kate Whittle, Molly Laich, Erika Fredrickson, Chris Dombrowski, Melissa Mylchreest and Dave Knadler.

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