The year's best in local literature

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Ever since 1979, when Ivan Doig's This House of Sky, his memoir of growing up in Montana with his father and grandmother, was nominated for a National Book Award, Doig has continued to imagine the effect of the vast Montana countryside on the people who populate it. Often that effect is romantic. Yet Doig widens his geographic scope in The Eleventh Man (Houghton Mifflin Hardcover), without losing his Montana roots. The effect is as wonderfully romantic as it is fiercely realistic. (AO)

Renowned Montana poet Ed Lahey's first novel is an homage of sorts to Butte. "Built on the shoulders of immigrant miners," Lahey writes, "Butte was proud of its reputation as the toughest town in the West. It was the town that bought our whiskey." The Thin Air Gang (Clark City Press) is a rich chronicle of an often forgotten era, but it doesn't care to acknowledge how the fallen ghosts of Butte's past can still reverberate for present-day readers. For that reason the ghosts in this novel don't really haunt us, however much we might want them to. (AO)

Where the Money Went (Nan A. Talese) is Kevin Canty at his best. He's long since been a master of his craft but this book also contains a poignancy that, for me, had been missing from some of his previous work—like his 2000 novel, Nine Below Zero, which, while elegantly written, came off flat and barren. With his latest, Canty snaps back to form and displays a kind of wisdom and a jolt of spirit that proves there are few better at writing a story. (JS)

It's no real wonder that Jim Harrison is one of Montana's greatest poets. Though known primarily as a novelist (Legends of the Fall and, most recently, The English Major), Harrison has always thought himself to be, first and foremost, a poet. In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon Press), Harrison's new collection of poems, resonates just as deeply as his novels, perhaps more so. In the last lines of "Night Ride," he writes: "Here I was Jim the poet drifting the edges of night,/not sure he wished to be kidnapped by the gods." Though he might not be sure, the rest of us are hoping the gods remain at bay for a while longer. (AO)

That a college education often resembles little more than clever finesse is only one part of a larger indictment in Walter Kirn's latest, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overacheiver (Doubleday). In this shrewd, engaging memoir, Kirn, who now lives in Livingston, illustrates a disturbingly accurate portrayal of the American meritocracy, specifically the kind extant in higher education. (AO)

Richard Manning's Rewilding the West (University of California Press) is a candid lesson in both history and conservationist politics, of the American West in general and the Great Northern Plains in particular. To the layperson, one without a background in either sustainability or ecological restoration, the topic can sometimes feel daunting, not unlike walking into the middle of a Sierra Club meeting that's already been hammering out business for several hours. However, despite the sometimes-dense material, Manning's eloquence and forthright argumentation provide an astute and provocative solution to the barrenness of the American Plains. (AO)

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Preacher is one of the best villains ever to come out of a James Lee Burke novel. Articulate and religious, Preacher is not opposed to sharing his moral insight with friends, enemies and victims (and sometimes those categories are blurred), nor is he opposed to correcting their grammar. Cold-blooded and guilty of grisly acts of cruelty, Preacher is, nonetheless, capable of surprising and seemingly inexplicable acts of mercy. It was Flannery O'Connor, one of Burke's literary predecessors who also hailed from the South (Burke is originally from Texas), who said that violence in fiction is "strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them for their moment of grace." Throughout Rain Gods (Simon & Schuster), Preacher—not unlike a modern-day equivalent to O'Connor's most well-known (and well-loved) villain, The Misfit—seems to be perpetually anticipating his own moment of grace. (AO)

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Phil Condon is a na-tural storyteller, one who recounts defining moments with startling accuracy. Yet, Condon manages something else in Nine Ten Again (Elixer Press) as well; he stakes out deeper territory in this collection, where the notion of war—be it Vietnam, Desert Storm or the current crises—is so omnipresent it appears like a character in itself. (AO)

Helena native Kevin Michael Connolly, 23, writes an unflinching memoir about life without legs (Connolly was born a bilateral amputee) in Double Take (HarperStudio). More than just a series of provocative reminiscences, Connolly's memoir is as much about perception—the way we see—as it is about Connolly's life. And, Connolly should know. As a young man, as well as a championship downhill skier, world traveler, photographer and writer, who makes his way through the world by way of a skateboard that reads "THIS IS A LEGLESS GUY'S SKATEBOARD. PLEASE, PLEASE, DON'T STEAL," Connolly has been the subject of many a look. His profoundly memorable book engages in a discussion about the way we stare. (AO)

Reviews by Azita Osanloo and Jay Stevens.

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