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The year’s best in local literature

In his latest novel, Swan Peak (Simon & Schuster), James Lee Burke bears witness to a fact usually ignored by tourists in Montana (and even by Montanans themselves): that bad things actually do happen in the last best place. Burke draws out, astutely, the contradictions in landscape. He concentrates on the inner lives of his characters, on the reasons why the grifter turns saintly and the gold-digger turns courageous. In this world, events don’t just happen, they are caused by the carefully delineated impulses of characters. (AO)

Jim Harrison’s The English Major (Grove Press) is about a once youthful reader of Emerson and Thoreau who became an English teacher to avoid farming but ended up a farmer anyway, at least until his increasingly shark-like realtor of a wife divorces him and sells the land to developers. But wherever Harrison’s characters start, and wherever they end up, is largely beside the point. Life is what’s happening along the way, and Harrison continues to revel in the earthy humanity of it less neurotically than almost any American writer I can think of. (BT)

Elegantly structured and compellingly rendered, Her Last Death (Scribner) focuses on Susanna Sonnenberg’s life and relationship with her mother—the same mother who once had the 11-year-old Sonnenberg read Penthouse letters aloud to her and who presented her with cocaine on her 16th birthday. Certainly the book is in the current tradition of popular memoirs, but rather than exploiting the trend, Sonnenberg’s reflective narrative is in conversation with it. She allows us to play the voyeur but she won’t let us escape easily. “Go ahead. Watch me,” the memoir seems to challenge us. “But see everything.” (AO)

Hipólito Rafael Chacón wrote The Original Man (The University of Montana Press, The Montana Museum of Art and Culture) to provide a full history of A.J. Gibson. The Missoula architect created some 144 local building designs in the span of just 20 years, including the courthouse and the old library. Chacón doesn’t just articulate the structural intricacies of turreted Queen Annes or symmetrical classicism. He provides insight into the sociological and populist ideas behind Gibson’s designs. (EF)

In the opening pages of David Allan Cates’ Freeman Walker (Unbridled Books), we learn from our 7-year-old protagonist, Jimmy Gates, that he is the product of a love affair between his slave mother and his plantation owner father. In one sense, Freeman Walker is a novel about the past—one that is, in all senses, an odyssey of freedom. However, in another sense, the novel’s trajectory can’t help but illuminate a troubling legacy of hypocritical notions of freedom. (AO)

Memoirist Judy Blunt loves the Plains she left behind. Novelist David James Duncan imagines trout fishing in the muddy rivers of eastern Montana. Folios by photographers Lee Friedlander, Lois Connor and Geoffrey James linger lovingly on the empty landscapes, with a preponderance too of the human-made in their viewfinders. The conflicted agenda of The Wide Open (University of Nebraska Press), an anthology edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor, is to simultaneously draw you in and repel you; to convince you to value this land and to leave it be. (BT)

University of Montana alumnus Seth Kantner grew up in an igloo and now lives in Kotzebue, a remote Alaskan fishing village situated on the northern tip of the Baldwin Peninsula, 26 miles above the Arctic Circle. In other words, he’s not your typical author. Kantner’s sophomore effort, Shopping for Porcupine (Milkweed Editions), combines brutally honest essays about the rigors—and politics—of a changing landscape with stunning outdoor photography to vividly portray what it’s like to live in Alaska’s vast wilderness. (SB)

Seen through Greg Keeler’s eyes, everything has to do with fishing, and a lot of it—from dialing up a lake full of fish by cranking a charge through telephone wires to bowfishing for giant goldfish—isn’t pretty. Keeler identifies his “totemic spirit” animal early on: a sucker-faced carp. And he does not indulge the folly of trying to pawn himself off as a thematically meaningful—never mind exemplary—man. Trash Fish: A Life (Counterpoint) reads like real life all right. Messed-up, crap-shot and unredeemed. (BT)

“In the autumn of my forty-third year,” writes Perry Knize, “I remembered, quite unexpectedly, that I was meant to be a pianist.” So begins Knize’s memoir, Grand Obsession (Scribner), a book that recounts her search not just for the perfect sound on a perfect piano, but for the source of music within her own self. What drives the book is Knize’s obsession. What provides satisfaction is what we learn along the way about human nature, the mystery of the universe, the charity and depredation that each of us is capable of. (JS)

Expressed throughout The Baseball Field at Night (Lost Horse Press), Patricia Goedicke’s 13th collection of poems (finished just weeks before she died and published posthumously this year), are contrasts between living and dying, the physical and the ethereal, the body in love and the body in pain. These poems are indeed a conversation, an audacious, supremely joyful conversation using the genre in which Goedicke had the most faith and for which she had the most respect. (AO)
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