Postscript ’06 

Our critics revisit the region’s best reads

Gallatin Canyon

Although the eastern seaboard is sprinkled with hucksters, dreamers and long-shot dice rollers, people who really want a fresh start in this country go west. For the past 37 years, Livingston’s Thomas McGuane has been showing the ways in which this mythology draws Americans like a siren song, and the longer he has remained in Montana, the cleaner McGuane’s prose has become, as if the wind has sanded it down. Gallatin Canyon (Knopf), his latest collection of stories, features some of his most elegantly varnished work yet. Each sentence embodies a complicated swirl of familial valences and conflicted allegiances. And yet if you placed these stories in a wind tunnel, their drag coefficient would barely register. (JF)

The Boy Who Invented Skiing

From a sister who ran away from home to play Lady Godiva in a “pornography circus” to a mother who taught the author the correct way to wring a magpie’s neck, most everything in Missoula writer Swain Wolfe’s The Boy Who Invented Skiing (St. Martin’s Press) is as captivating as it is darkly comic. Unfolding the layers of his childhood and young adulthood, Wolfe returns readers to an old west full of the glorious and the expected—forest fires, horse-drawn carriages, mine shafts and street brawls—and even deeper into the unwieldy and ultimately beautiful territory of childhood memory. This memoir unlocks why and how the definitive events in a boy’s life finally begin to make sense after a lifetime’s worth of wondering. (AO)

The Dead Fish Museum

We may have encountered UM visiting professor Charles D’Ambrosio’s plots and themes before (coming of age as parents divorce, discovering that a spouse is a bad match), but we don’t often see prose as controlled and compelling as this writer’s. By turns expansive, terse, tremulous and becalmed, D’Ambrosio’s language will keep you turning the pages through each of the eight stories in The Dead Fish Museum (Knopf). (JC)

Labors of the Heart

Unpresuming in its eloquence and uncompromising in its revelations, Claire Davis’ latest collection of stories, Labors of the Heart (St. Martin’s Press), is as likely to inspire weeping as it is to inspire smiles. With one husband who is loathe to comprehend his wife’s latest obsession with taxidermy, and another young wife who struggles to find her way through the dark with a dying horse plodding behind her, each of this collection’s stories—all set in the Pacific Northwest—dives to cavernous depths, deftly illustrating the elusive divides of the human heart. (AO)

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin Though several exhaustive and skillful biographies of Charles Darwin are already in print, none has really tried to tell the man’s story with the pith and precision Bozeman’s David Quammen brings to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (Atlas), his concise and essayistic biography of the 19th-century naturalist whose puzzlement over finches and barnacles blossomed into the basis for much of modern biological science. Quammen’s is an interpretive biography with which not everyone will agree, but at the same time it’s a book that anyone could benefit from reading—not least because its style is every bit a match for its substance. (JW)

Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line

Mark Matthews has discovered the moral equivalent of war in the burning forests of the Pacific Northwest circa 1943–1945. Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line (University of Oklahoma Press) recounts the stories of conscientious objectors who trained at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station and at Camp Menard in Huson to take their places among the first ever to jump wildfires. While Matthews honors the religious convictions that led these men to decline wartime military service, he wisely focuses on their yearning for heroism. Like most anyone their age, these young men were jonesing for adventure. They found it on the fire line. Recommended for all, this book is required reading for anyone interested in Montana history. (JC)

High Country

So, you think you’ve read every piece of Montana fiction worth reading, don’t you? You’ve got a dog-eared copy of A River Runs Through It and enough extras to hand out to every relative east of Livingston. You’ve read Ivan Doig and A.B. Gurthrie Jr., and every last story in Bill Kittredge’s The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology. It’s time to add Willard Wyman’s High Country (University of Oklahoma Press) to your list. Perhaps the year’s most unexpected treasure is this first-time novelist’s depiction of a young mule packer making his way through Depression-era Montana. The quiet story follows its hero throughout his entire lifetime—and takes nearly as long for readers to forget. (AO)

The Whistling Season

In Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season (Harcourt), Morrie Morgan takes over as teacher of a one-room Montana schoolhouse and turns Paul Milliron and the rest of the kids on to math and science by preparing for Halley’s Comet, which is due at the end of the school year. Paul may be Doig’s intended central character, but the book belongs to Morgan, who turns out to be equal parts inspired sage and dandified conman. Though it’s as predictable as the arrival of the comet, the novel’s end still dazzles when it arrives. (JC)

The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine

UM graduate Steven Rinella’s The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine (Miramax) takes readers through a year in the writer’s life as he prepares for—and eventually prepares—a three-day feast following recipes set forth in Le Guide Culinaire, the 1903 bible of French cooking. For Rinella, preparation began with the hunting and butchering of the meal’s core ingredients: including a giant turtle, a pig’s head and pâté of cottontail rabbit. The author’s adventures come together for one of the smartest and most entertaining reads of the year. (AO)

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

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