Words of wisdom 

The best of 2007 from Montana authors

Jim Harrison begins his eighth novel, Returning to Earth (Grove Press), in the voice of a 45-year-old Chippewa-Finnish man stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease and ends it in the voice of the man’s widow. In between, Harrison adopts the man’s daughter and brother-in-law as storytellers, as well, in a novel that evokes Harrison’s penchant for novellas. Their charmingly digressive family histories meander back three generations and return to the recent past, sometimes within the same paragraph, rendering perfectly the workings of memory and the rhythms of speech. (JC)

Like Annie Proulx, Judy Blunt and Maile Meloy before her, UM MFA graduate and rookie novelist Aryn Kyle brilliantly reveals how a vibrant, female world pulses at the heart of proto-masculine ranch life. But unlike many first novels, The God of Animals (Scribner) never feels so nostalgic for where it comes from that it forgets to tell a story. Kyle switches gears late in the novel and drives her tale toward the kind of dramatic conclusion it leads you to believe is coming from page one. (AO)

Best Stories of the American West, Volume I (Forge Books) showcases 20 contemporary stories—each of which merits inclusion in an anthology bearing the name “best.” Editor Marc Jaffe’s collection features the work of four Montana writers: Missoula residents William Kittredge and Robert Stubblefield; Great Falls’ Pete Fromm; and Kalispell native Melanie Rae Thon. Other notables include Sherman Alexie, Elmore Leonard, Max Evans, Valerie Miner and Elmer Kelton. Although space restricts extolling the virtues of all the stories in the collection, there are no misses. The title implies the promise of more volumes of the anthology, and judging from the first installment, demand deserves to be high. (JC)

It is not every day that a former attorney, gay rights activist and literature scholar (one unassociated with the more established poets in Missoula and one usually not known for his creative work), quietly publishes his own chapbook of poetry. What comes as even more of a surprise is that, unlike many other poets’ take on our regional literature, Controlled Burn (Pudding House Press) by Casey Charles, chair of UM’s English department, directly confronts both the emotional and actual landscape of the Western literary tradition without romanticizing or deifying it. (AO)

James Lee Burke knows as much about the parts of Louisiana ravaged by Hurricane Katrina as any novelist ought to; he lives part of the year in coastal New Iberia, La. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Burke inserted his favorite character, detective Dave Robicheaux, into The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster) to convey the chaos after the storm—vengeance filling the void opened by gale force winds rendering order inert. Nor should it be a surprise, given Burke’s winning track record, that he’s written another good straight-up crime novel. (JF)

With all the hype surrounding The Tin Roof Blowdown, Jesus Out to Sea (Simon & Schuster), Burke’s collection of 11 short stories—released at roughly the same time and only in paperback—seemed to slip under the radar. It shouldn’t have. In some ways Burke’s writing is best suited for short form, freeing him of the weight of long-standing characters and a novel’s overarching narratives. Here his prose snaps, the storytelling dense and immediate; never any wasted space. Two Katrina-inspired pieces and a Montana-set morality play are worth some attention alone. (SB)

Reading the 16 first-person essays in UM journalism professor Jeff Hull’s Streams of Consciousness (The Lyons Press), the volume leaves little doubt that this man can fish. He’s also a fine writer. The adventure, introspection, exuberance and sadness in these essays will make readers forget time and drift along, like any content fisher, and the surprises will enliven like a quick tug on the line. No local reader, fishing enthusiast or not, would be wise to let this one get away. (JC)

Missoula nature writer Kim Todd got the idea to write a biography of 18th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian from a postcard at Rockin Rudy’s that sported one of Merian’s illustrations. Beautifully drawn and scientifically accurate, the image arrested Todd’s eye. And, when Todd realized the artist was a woman working in South America almost 400 years ago, she figured there was a story to be told. There was, and Todd tells it gracefully in Chrysalis (Harcourt) while peppering tireless research on Merian and the science of metamorphosis with Todd’s own reflection on the twins she carried while writing the book. The result is rigorous biography adorned with illuminating reflection. (JW)

Linked by a central mystery as well as by Deirdre McNamer’s consistent, echoing prose, the characters in her latest novel seem to have an acute sense of their own stories unfolding over time. The fictionalized tale of her own G-Man uncle’s apparent suicide in rural Montana following his World War II undercover mission to Argentina, Red Rover (Viking) is episodic and non-chronological in its structure, full of McNamer’s characteristically lyrical and precise prose. (AO)

Reviews by Joe Campana, Azita Osanloo, John Freeman, Jason Wiener and Skylar Browning.
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