Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Poetic Bit of Holiday Cheer

So as to be sure to be the one this holiday season who gives the gift to your friends who will listen, or the one who throws it in the face of your more-conceded ones, remember this name: Chris Dombrowski. I ask, “were there ever more fulfilling proclamations in the English language than, ‘I told you so!’ or ‘I knew him before he was him!’?” And being an advocate of chest-puffing via other writers’ work myself, I can assure you Chris’ is surely one to remember.

Already a well-known poet throughout the Missoula and greater Montana writing community, I ran into his poetry through a class specifically focused on current Montana writers. Although I’ve enjoyed the class, it has tended toward more regionalist writings, a style I’ve never been too highly fond of, and so, from Chris, I wasn’t expecting much more than another few elk poems outside of Dillon or stanzas comparing the Gallatin and Clark Fork — but what I discovered was something far greater.

Writing in the same poetic styling as Billy Collins, Chris takes his local knowledge, his precise eye for detail, both in nature and in his home, and is able to uncover that in it which takes on the full spectrum of human emotion: the confusion, mystery, and beauty that are all interlaced aspects of the human condition. And yet, what I love most about Chris’ poetry is not necessarily their applicable content, but the means by which this relevance is achieved, the completely fresh, unique, and often startling way he is able to contrast and relate these interwoven facets of human life. In his poem “Get Up, John”, a piece on the struggle of growing older, and a new personal favorite, Chris sharply compares himself to his young son in the lines:

“But the yearling child
reaching into the lineaments of sun
lancing between his crib bars—how might
this shame us, that they seem
to seem graspable to him?”

And in other poems, including “Fragments with Dusk in Them”, the title poem of his recently-published chapbook, and “Landscape with Scavenger and Bonelight”, another new personal favorite, Chris is able to achieve this same universal sentiment through his poignantly harrowing descriptions of the otherwise simple and often mundane scenes around him. It’s simple to say that, speaking as a student, to know his name would be a great benefit in any dinner-table conversation on current literature, but speaking more-prominently as a writer myself, I’d say that beyond knowing his name, knowing Chris’ poetry is a gift any poet-enthusiast would love to receive this holiday season.

Jacob Kahn is currently a sophomore at the University of Montana in Missoula. He is studying Creative Writing, and loves nothing more than a good book of poetry and prose.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Murder and Mayhem in the Montana Mountains

When Neil McMahon walks on stage to give a reading he does not necessarily look like one would expect a Montana cowboy to look. In fact he is a carpenter who writes or more accurately a writer who does carpentry in Missoula. When he starts to read, his characters jump off the page and come alive.

It is not much different when reading one of his books. His characters are well rounded and are always doing things, getting into one jam after another. McMahon does not fill the pages with flowery descriptive prose of landscape and people but with punchy lines that get to the heart of the story and allow the reader to instantly sympathize with the character in a too real landscape.

In the first twenty pages of Lone Creek, the protagonist, a mature Hugh Davoren, is employed at his boyhood stomping grounds: the Pettyjohn Ranch in the Rocky Mountains northwest of Helena, Montana. During his weekly Saturday trip to the dump with the construction debris, he discovers two thoroughbred horses who have been savagely murdered. He has a run in with the foreman and the owner then lands in jail. The surroundings remind him of the girl he had a crush on who died when they were both teenagers.

What could be better to curl up with on a cold Montana afternoon when the North wind is tapping at the windows than a murder mystery that is so real it makes you afraid to walk out your back door?

But as a word of warning, once the last page of Neil McMahon’s Lone Creek is turned, you won’t want to let the Davoren go. Fortunately, you won’t have to because he reappears as the protagonist in McMahon’s latest novel Dead Silver.

Title: Lone Creek
Author: Neil McMahon
Number of Pages: 328
Cover Price: Hardcover $24.95
Trade paperback: $14.95
Publisher: HarperCollins
Released: April 2007

Jullie Hoen is a nontraditional student at the University of Montana, Missoula. She will graduate in spring 2009 with a BA in English with Literature and Creative Writing options. When not in school she makes her home in Great Falls with her husband and dog.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival

Authors Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, two real-life best friends, found a way to combine their very different writing styles into this beautiful and poignant book.

Bobbi (a dog with a bobbed tail) and Bob Cat (also with a bobbed tail) traveled together for months after Katrina, barely managing to survive. Expect tears when their astonishing secret of friendship is revealed near the end of the book.

The book is illustrated by Jean Cassels, from New Orleans, whose painful memories of Katrina almost made her turn down the job.

You can find more information about the book and the real Two Bobbies at

Ten percent of author sales from the book go to Best Friends Animal Society.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Forget Me Not: A Memoir by Jennifer Lowe-Anker

Of all the memoirs published during 2008, Forget Me Not stands out for (at least) several reasons. First, the cover art, created by the author with "fat, brightly-colored paint sticks... generally used by ranchers to mark the hides of sheep and cattle," will call you away from the text at times -- for a second, third, or tenth look. An attention-grabbing foreword written by Jon Krakauer states that "Many of the things Alex [Lowe] did on steep rock and ice were so staggering and so far ahead of their time that they were terrifying to contemplate." But perhaps the most compelling reason Forget Me Not should move to the top of your book pile is Jennifer's skilled use of personal correspondence from her husband to entwine his international climbing career with her domestic pursuits of parenting and painting.

Although she shared international adventures with Alex for years, once their first child once born she "lost interest in activities such as ice climbing and skiing for the first time ever." After that, this story transitions into their struggles with leaving and staying and trying, with moderate success, to find ballast within the storms of conflicting passions. From the dusty cliffs of Pakistan to the blue ice of Antarctica, Alex writes love letters to his family describing his exotic escapades.

Those world-wide, public dramas, however, are punctuated by scores of contrasting passages that deliver Jennifer’s domestic adventures: “At home, Max beat on our pots and pans and we danced together in the living room. I took Max to ride the bus, and we went to ‘monitor’ swim classes, library hour, and the park. We hiked among spring wildflowers that sprouted in the greening hills of the Wasatch. We baked cookies, read stories, and were together always.” Although Jennifer accepted her husband’s drive (and job) to climb mountains, she was often afraid and overwhelmed by her family responsibilities. And then on October 5, 1999, the worst happened.

Even if you have no interest in the exploits of mountain climbers, this poignant story of Jennifer Lowe-Anker, her famous husband, and their children will draw you in and keep you emotionally connected with them far beyond the final page.

Read about Forget Me Not: A Memoir by Jennifer Lowe-Anker on

And don't forget to listen to The Write Question on Montana Public Radio Sunday mornings at (approximately) 11:10. This week's guest is Susanna Sonnenberg, author of a memoir titled, Her Last Death.

Chérie Newman

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chérie's Fall Reading List

'Tis the season (no, not that one) for books. As the light and fair weather have faded off into the 6 P.M. sunset, I've barely noticed. It's hard to see over my stacks of books.

In mid-September, I started off with politics, just to get it over with, but actually enjoyed (and learned a lot from) Blue Man in a Red State, Greg Lemon's biography of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.

Then I prepared for reading nirvana. I made a huge pot of veggie soup, a pan of blueberry muffins, and a gynormous container of green salad so I could graze for several days while I devoured:

Horses That Buck (Margot Kahn)
Freeman Walker (David Allan Cates)
A Country Called Home (Kim Barnes)
Hundred in the Hands (Joseph M. Marshall III)
Her Last Death (Susanna Sonnenberg)
Jackalope Dreams (Mary Clearman Blew)

Next, two marvelous books of poetry launched my mind into a serious contemplation of my mind's contemplations:
the true keeps calm biding its story (Rusty Morrison)
Thistle (Melissa Kwasny)

I've had to pause for grocery runs and to spend some time at the radio station, but the stacks of fascinating books on my kitchen table (and bedroom table and living room table) flirt with me every time I walk through the room. So to hell with dog hair and spotty windows...

Next on the list:
Another Man's Moccasins (Craig Johnson)
Forget Me Not (Jennifer Lowe-Anker)
Trash Fish (Greg Keeler)
The Enders Hotel (Brandon R. Schrand)

There's nothing like reading to re-arrange reality. If you're dreading cold wind and snow, I recommend a bookstore or book festival outing. Stack up some books and read your way into oblivion.

And don't forget to listen to The Write Question on Montana Public Radio, or from our Web site, every Sunday at (approximately) 11:10. David Allan Cates is my guest this week.

- Chérie Newman

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Addendum to McMurty Thoughts

Just finished up Streets of Laredo. A reader should probably not mistake black humor – despite its strength and prominence here – for the sole, prevailing sentiment. The humor is tied inextricably to fragility and the fleeting nature of things.

We’ve all heard the writing metaphor, “punctuations of violence.” But too often, violence in books and movies is like an exclamation point: abrupt and loud. McMurtry, on the other hand, cuts deep grooves into the text. He cuts them and then, after only the most cursory pause, he moves on. He is the master of violence as a comma.

We could extrapolate this into, perhaps, a meditation on his philosophy of life, but why bother? It speaks for itself: threads of good will, interwoven with and usually overwhelmed by thick, ragged and inky black threads of ill will. The end result – a sense of reality, a distinctly unrosy feeling – is something we know well, but set in a context that fosters simplicity and still, somehow, seems preferable.

- Nathaniel Miller

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nathaniel Miller Wallows In Larry McMurtry's Writing

Texas was once the west, and Texan Larry McMurtry writes a great deal about the “old west,” so I think it’s safe to call him a Western writer.

The best parts of my recent days have consisted of wallowing in the crude genius of McMurtry's dialogue.

“Streets of Laredo” (1993), which I’m reading now for the first time, is the sequel to “Lonesome Dove” and was written before the two prequels, “Dead Man’s Walk” and “Comanche Moon.” “Lonesome Dove” (1985) is a book I get worked up about. Sure, untold numbers adore it, and it won that little thing they call the Pulitzer, but people of high erudition tend to disparage it (without having read it, of course). Sometimes I am forced to have words with these people.

“Lonesome Dove” deals with so many things, but above all it’s about the taming of the West; “Streets” seems to exist primarily to satisfy McMurtry's fascination with "killers" in the time before effective, pervasive law. Sometimes I think it's gratuitous, sometimes I think it's very real – if reality were honed to an edge so sharp that it was ragged and would break if pressed against any hard surface.

McMurtry has always demonstrated a fondness for killing off his characters – he kills them swiftly – often with pain, gore, and zeal, but almost never with telegraphing or fanfare. That’s one of his strengths: he can make a story (or a life) seem real just by its sheer, unscrupulous unpredictability. He stomps on western romanticism with flair and black humor.

It’s true, sometimes he lets a plotline get the better of him, spinning in too many directions until all you’re left with is loose thread (see “Comanche Moon”), but the ride is usually worthwhile.

He’s also showing off, in “Streets,” his clear love for tossing historical characters in with his fictional ones, and putting strange, compelling, off-beat words in their mouths. In this case, it’s the famous cattleman Charles Goodnight, who has minor roles in all of the “Lonesome Dove” books but figures prominently here in all his terse glory, and John Wesley Hardin, the infamous killer.

I’m halfway through, steeped in blood, completely uncertain as to where the story is going or who it’s really about, and pleased to be in good hands.

>> Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page that lists Larry McMurtry's books.

~ Nathaniel Miller writes about the dark side of nature, and other things. He enjoys pig-meat, old Russian folk music and books about Ned Kelly. He is not from the same place as you. When he passes by, all the people say, “Just another guy on the lost highway.”

Friday, August 8, 2008

Book Festivals

Links to book festivals scheduled in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada:

Missoula, Montana
Salt Lake City, Utah

Las Vegas, Nevada
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Book festivals offer opportunities to meet authors and publishers, plump up your reading list, and enjoy a weekend of total literary immersion. They usually have great book bags, too!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Discovering Kim Barnes

Even when your professional life is all tangled up with the pack of prolific writers populating the western U.S., and you're an avid recreational reader, it's hard to keep up. That's my excuse for reading Finding Caruso five years after it was published. Barnes' compelling story and poignant writing carried me from late evening into near-dawn before physical fatigue forced me to lay the book, and my head, down.

Although I wanted more character development and started to feel a little dizzy when the plot began to circle like a dog settling in for a nap, Finding Caruso pulled me into raw emotional territory. The first scene in the book will stay with me forever, in the same way parts of Faulkner's book Sanctuary still sprint through my mind now and then.

According to, "Kim Barnes is the author of the novel Finding Caruso and two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—and Hungry for the World. She is coeditor with Mary Clearman Blew of Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, and with Claire Davis of Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty. Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, MORE magazine, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain."

Barnes' new novel, A Country Called Home, will be out in September.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading List from the West, plus Toni Morrison

A few new books from regional writers to add to your summer reading list:

James Lee Burke: Swan Peak
Alexandra Fuller: The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
Greg Lemon: Blue Man in a Red State
Neil McMahon: Dead Silver
Deborah Richie Oberbillig: Bird Feats

Toni Morrison is not from the Western United States, but every reader needs variety. My summer list includes Sula, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, and Love.

Read Toni Morrison's letter to Barack Obama, published in the New York Observer.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

An E Interview With Maile Meloy

During a rare lull in her busy schedule, award-winning author Maile Meloy graciously responded to our questions about writers who have influenced her work, twisty plots, unfinished stories, and the weather in Montana.

TWQ: You grew up in Helena, Montana. What Montana writers influenced you and why?

The poet Richard Hugo, who wrote some of the most beautiful Montana descriptions I know. Wallace Stegner, who staked out the real, everyday west as a subject for fiction. And Mary MacLane, who wrote brilliantly in 1901 about living at home in Butte with no prospects, driven crazy by the sight of her family’s toothbrushes by the sink. Also my aunt Ellen Meloy, who lived in Montana when I was growing up, and who made me think that it was possible to make a life and a living as a writer.

TWQ: Which non-Montana writers do you most admire and why?

So many: Cheever, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Joseph Conrad. I loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Right now I’m re-reading Evelyn Waugh. I get so much pleasure and also instruction from reading him. It might be because his style is so unlike the laconic western style I sometimes feel steeped in: it’s all about sentences and excess and performance and wit. And his books are beautifully structured. The structure of Decline and Fall really helped me with Liars and Saints, though they’re nothing alike.

TWQ: What attracted you to California?

I felt like I had to go somewhere, and I had a friend from Helena who was moving to Los Angeles to be an actor, and I knew we could be roommates. Also I had a vague idea about working in development for movies -- I liked movies. I had no idea what I was doing. I moved with my clothes and ten books and a table lamp in the back of my station wagon, and no job. I was braver then.

TWQ: What spawned the idea to intertwine the plots of Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter?

I had started another novel, after finishing Liars and Saints, and I had about forty pages when it ground to a halt. So after Liars and Saints came out, I was looking around for something else I knew about, and it seemed interesting to me, in a way it never had before (although I loved Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, and books like that), to have a character who was a writer. Then it seemed interesting to have one of the secret-keeping family from Liars and Saints write a novel, and at first I thought it could be their somewhat lost son, Jamie. But a character who had died in the novel was the better candidate. So I thought, well, I can bring her back to life. Why not? And that was exciting and freeing. And then the idea developed of a book that would exist parallel to Liars and Saints, that would seem to be the real-life source material from which Liars and Saints was distilled.

TWQ: Did you write Liars and Saints with the intention to commit metafiction with A Family Daughter?

No. It was only supposed to be the one novel. A Family Daughter does have metafictional aspects if you read it alongside Liars and Saints, and it was interesting to me to have elements in each that are recognizable but transformed in the other. But I also wanted it to stand alone as a realistic novel, with a different plot, that you could read if you’d never read Liars and Saints.

TWQ: Many of your short stories revolve around severe Western weather. What’s the most memorable Montana-bad-weather event that ever happened to you?

My uncle Mark and my aunt Ellen took my brother and me to the movie E.T. in Helena during the 1982 hailstorm that produced golf-ball and grapefruit-sized hail. We covered our heads with our hands, running across the street from the car to the theater, and during the quiet scenes in the movie we could hear the giant hailstones thumping on the roof. I learned what a ball-peen hammer was, because after the storm, my dad said that’s what it looked like someone had taken to all the cars. It sounded so great: a ball-peen hammer.

TWQ: What characteristics of Montana landscape and lifestyle continue to influence your writing?

So many. I guess, as you said, the fact that weather is important, that it’s not just an idle topic of conversation. And I think my style has been influenced by growing up in a place where people are suspicious of wordiness, and a there’s tendency toward the laconic. I’m happy with it, but it’s not really a choice. I’d be just as happy to be witty and English.

I also think it’s a trait of people who live in less populated places like Montana, where their great-grandparents were likely to have been homesteaders, to go ahead and do things they haven’t done before -- plumb a toilet, fix a roof, re-wire a light -- because who else is going to do it? And how hard could it be? I think I approached novel-writing the same way: blindly assuming that I’d be able to figure it out. If the first draft was roughly built, at least I had a first draft.

TWQ: What advice do you have for writers with lots of ideas who have trouble focusing on one long enough to create a whole story?

Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement. So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. It takes the pressure off the individual story, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising. I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off. It’s like wildcatting for oil. You dig a lot of holes and eventually one has something valuable in it.

TWQ: What are you working on now?

A collection of short stories, many of which are set in Montana. I’m almost finished and it will be published in the summer of 2009.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Maile Meloy was born in Helena, Montana, in 1972. A Family Daughter is her third book. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Her first story collection, Half in Love, received the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters , the John C. Zacharis Award from Ploughshares, and the PEN/Malamud Award. Her first novel, Liars and Saints, was shortlisted for England’s 2005 Orange Prize. Both books were New York Times Notable Books. She has also received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in California. (This information is from the author page of Maile Meloy's Web site).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Reader's Definition of Montana Literature

Montana stories migrated from oral traditions into print shortly after the good old Rugged Individualists found their way into the Montana Territory. Immigrants had to be sturdy if they wanted to stay around here. The weak ones died or moved on to a more forgiving environment. From pioneer journals to 21st-century novels, Montana literature is permeated with themes pulled from this challenging and splendid landscape.

Montana literature is rural. Even in stories where people live in towns (Perma Red and A River Runs Through It) most of the action happens outside. The literature and poetry of Montana is populated with people who are forced to deal with their problems without a lot of props. They have to use what's here: blizzards; animals, birds, and plants; lakes, rivers, and creeks; wildfires; and vast landscapes and skies.

Nature is a dominant character in Native American stories by James Welch, M. L. Smoker, Joe McGeshick, Debra Magpie Earling, and others. Judy Blunt and Elise Lavender* may view the landscape from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but their relationships to it define them. Rivers flow in and out of the lives of Louise White Elk and Paul Maclean, saturating their stories with unique meaning and symbolism. Severe Western weather challenges characters in Maile Meloy's short stories.

Although new immigrants, following the same old dreams of freedom and independence, continue to arrive, and the writers among them inject Montana literature and poetry with urban themes, nature still dominates: Melissa Kwasny ponders geese while thinking of Novalis; Casey Charles explores gay issues as he watches aspens shuffle in Pony; Karen Volkman brings the sea to Montana with a sonnet…

Ultimately, Montana literature mirrors the landscapes that give it life. It is sturdy, beautiful, thrilling, and heartbreaking in ways that take a master wordsmith to describe.

* Elise Lavender is a character in Deirdre McNamer's short story, "Virgin Everything." ( The New Montana Story: An Anthology, compiled and edited by Rick Newby)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Graduation Remarks from UM Professor and English Department Chair Casey Charles

"Go then into this mythical real world and in the inimitable way of the English major, be valuable."

The Quality of English

For many professors, like me, graduation is both a happy and sad event, one we look on with both an “auspicious and dropping eye” as Claudius puts it, “in equal scale, weighing delight and dole,” largely because we are parting with such sweet sorrow from students we have taught and learned from over the years, students we have grown attached to, students who now must venture into the so-called “real world”—out into a place that has come to be defined in opposition to the academy—that institution which over the years has assumed an adjectival capacity as an experience “not expected to produce a practical result.” It strikes me as worthwhile to think for a minute about why the unreal city of academia and more particularly the supposedly impractical English major continues to command the attention of students in spite of the warnings of burger-flipping futures from parents and counselors, in spite of the university’s attempt to transform itself into a training ground for software companies and weapons laboratories, in spite of the prevailing media messages that happiness is measured by the definition of our screens, by the quantity of our pixels and megabytes, by the venture of our capital, our argosies on the high seas, and the ducats we have amassed. Why then does the English major at UM continue to grow—why do nearly 600 students continue to study the reasons why a pound of flesh is worth more than thrice three thousand ducats in The Merchant of Venice rather than learn econometric models or the principles of accounting?

What is the value of this English major any way, I know many of you are asking, having borrowed those ducats to put your kids through school or received them from student loan sources that are now drying up? What price Shakespeare, Joyce, the composition of a sestina, a lesson plan to present at middle school where starting salaries for teachers are less than that of bank tellers? Is it easier to read “The Clerk’s Tale” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” than memorize anatomy, perhaps? Easier to write essays and villanelles than identify strata or apply the law of physics? Hardly. We cannot call these graduates slackers; English is not the ready and easy way in spite of what received opinion may suggest. No one walks away from Medieval Studies or Theories of Pedagogy with an easy A.

No, my sense is that the success of our department and English Studies in general resides elsewhere, in a persistent force within our social consciousness that understands how, as Jean Howard has stated, literature is an agent in shaping a society’s sense of itself—how the fiction and nonfictions we create and study do not simply comment on some posited authentic world of W2s and mortgage payments, but instead actually help to produce our notions of what the real world is and what is important in it. While I admit a B.A. in English is not necessarily the easiest entrée into the board rooms and sky boxes of America, I want to argue this afternoon, for the value of that non-transferability. If your parents are anything like my Dad, who grew up over a grocery store in the Haight Ashbery during the Depression, they are probably wanting to know what the hell you’re going to do with a degree in English. How you are going to support yourself by writing short stories, what can you possibly say about Much Ado About Nothing that hasn’t already been said a thousand times—for Pete’s sake? I can hear him now, quizzing me while I leaned into the push broom, sweeping the yard for the fourth time in a month during another one of our Saturday “joy through work” sessions.

I would like to take just a minute this afternoon to reverse this perennial question parents ask of non-utilitarian English majors like you and me. Just for a second let’s not ask what good an English Major is in the real world, but ponder, instead, just for fun, what good a real world is without English majors? Indulge me for a moment to think what it would be like if we did cave into the prevailing rhetoric and reduce the English major to a degree in technical writing with subspecialties in advertising copy and business letters. Imagine, if you can, a world without literature, without creative writing, without Mrs. Hinton, your eighth-grade English teacher, asking you to think about man’s inhumanity to man and the treatment of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird in between her lessons about the mechanics of semicolons.

Think of this world, just for a second,—one devoid of Robert Frost beside John Kennedy on a cold January day in 1963, a world without Nikki Giovanni after Virginia Tech, a world without Upton Sinclair writing about oil men or Cormac McCarthy borrowing from Yeats to title his novel No Country for Old Men. What if we had no Beowulf, what if the Miller had not told his tale or Hamlet not seen his father in his mind’s eye. What if a bookish student from Christchurch had not decided to justify the ways of god to man, if Gulliver had not traveled or Mr. Darcy not been in possession of a good fortune and in search of a an unconventional and book-living wife like Elizabeth Barrett? Imagine a world, if you can, devoid of white whales, quoting ravens, red wheelbarrows glistening in the rain. Think of what a dooryard would be like without lilacs blooming, without a little women named Harriet penning another episode of a book that would start the Great War of Emancipation. I wonder what our world would be like if a poet had not compared thee to a summer’s day or counted the ways of love, if Prufrock had not been etherized on a table, if Amanda Wingfield had not waited for a gentleman caller, if Annie Proulx had not put Jack and Ennis on Brokeback Mountain. What would life be like in Montana if a poet from Seattle had not walked into the only bar in Dixon, if the sky had not been gray on that day in Philipsburg. What if a house wife on the High Line had never broken clean or more importantly not decided to write down her memories with the help of her creative writing professors?

Maybe a world without literature, its study and creation, a world without Leslie Fiedler and Edward Said and Jacques Derrida, would not have a very distinctive character, would not in the end be a very interesting or valuable place at all. Maybe we need to rethink what we mean by the quality of value in our world. It strikes me that these students before us today have learned not just to perpetuate the arts and entertainment channel, but to think deeply and critically about the role of culture and its representation in our world. Some will create, some will critique—all will be able to write, think, and question where and who we are in the twenty-first century. We have enough statistics to prove that in spite of my father’s questions the English major teaches the broad reading and writing skills that employers are clamoring for in an increasingly over-specialized world; we have enough data to show that most of you here today will land on your feet economically and will make a good living. Whether you end up in fly shops or on book flaps, whether you find yourself in a classroom helping students discover exactly what Pip’s great expectations really were, whether you develop closing arguments or open green businesses—most you will do well, but not because you had your heart set on the gold casket, I think, but rather because you have learned to understand the way books and films and language provide us with a deeper understanding of what really enriches us as a community. Go then into this mythical real world and in the inimitable way of the English major, be valuable.

Casey Charles, Chair
Department of English
University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812
Graduation Remarks — 5/10/08

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Leif Enger's New Book

Leif Enger, the author of the New York Times best seller, Peace Like A River, has written a second novel. So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a lively picaresque tale that begins in the Midwest and migrates across the West to a California orange grove.

In the opening scene, Monte Becket, a Minnesota writer, sits on his front porch slogging away at his seventh unfinished novel in five years. Then he spies "Glendon Hale rowing upstream through the ropy mists of the Cannon River." Naturally, Becket's life becomes instantly more interesting. And it soon becomes downright thrilling as he and Hale travel toward Mexico by train, car, horse, and foot power to find Blue, the wife Hale deserted more than thirty years ago.

True to the form, adventures, bad guys, heroes, and horses populate this book. The self-deprecating and stoic narrator, a writer in way over his head, delivers the tale with confidence.

Enger's prose is crisp and clean, sprinkled with just the right amount of delight:
"She could squeeze a conversation to its rind..."
" upstart wind whipped the grasses into confusion."
...his face was chaos"
"she gave the old cloud an insouciant sneer"
"the wallpaper slumped" has awarded So Brave, Young, and Handsome 4.5 stars, based on thirty-eight customer reviews.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mary Clearman Blew at Fact & Fiction

Mary Clearman Blew will read from her new book, Jackalope Dreams, at Fact & Fiction Bookstore in downtown Missoula on Thursday, April 24, at 7 p.m.

Here's a synopsis of Jackalope Dreams from the Fact & Fiction Web site:
"The departed men in her life still have plenty to say to Corey. Her father, a legendary rodeo cowboy who punctuated his lifelong pronouncements with a bullet to his head, may be the loudest. But in this story of Montana--a story in which the old West meets the new and tradition has its way with just about everyone--it is Corey's voice we listen to. In this tour-de-force of voices big and small, sure and faltering, hers comes across resonant and clear, directing us to the heart of the matter. Played out against the mythology of the Old West -- a powerful amalgam of ranching history, Marlboro Men, and train robbery reenactments -- the story of the newly orphaned, spinsterish Corey is a sometimes comical, sometimes poignant tale of coming-of-age a little late. As she tries to recapture an old dream of becoming a painter -- of preserving some modicum of true art amid the virtual reality of modern Montana -- Corey finds herself figuring in other dramas as well, other, younger lives already at least as lost as her own."

Meet Mary Clearman Blew and get your book signed at Fact & Fiction at 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Greg Patent's Book Nominated For A James Beard Award

A Baker’s Odyssey (John Wiley & Sons, 2007; hardback), Greg Patent's newest book, has been nominated for a James Beard Award.

A Baker's Odyssey is a celebration of America’s rich immigrant heritage. It is about preserving heritage and tradition through cooking and baking. Patent worked with women (and a few men) from thirty-two different nationalities in their home kitchens to learn their special techniques and to gather the recipes in this collection. The book comes with a companion DVD. Color inserts illustrate more than three dozen recipes.

"Deemed 'the Oscars of the food world,' by Time magazine, The James Beard Foundation Awards are the country’s most coveted honor for chefs; food and beverage professionals; broadcast media, journalists, and authors working on food; and restaurant architects and designers." (quote from

Baking in America (Houghton Mifflin, 2002; hardback) was a finalist in the 2003 International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Cookbook Awards. It won the 2003 James Beard Foundation Award for best baking book of the year and the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards for best baking book in the English language.

Read more about Greg Patent, find recipes, and get information about his books and articles at

Monday, March 31, 2008

And Speaking Of Craig Childs...

This announcement came from University Relations, University of Montana:

Author To Share Tales Of River Adventure

Author Craig Childs, UM's Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer in Environmental Studies, will host a reading and slide show about his September 2007 first descent of a river in Tibet at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 7, in Turner Hall's Dell Brown Room.

At the presentation, titled "Lost in Tibet," Childs will share astonishing stories and images of running 200 miles of uncharted water through 17,000-foot mountains.

Childs is the author of "The Animal Dialogues," "The Secret Knowledge of Water," "House of Rain," "Soul of Nowhere" and numerous other books. His recent essays have appeared in Orion, High Country News and The Sun, and he is a regular commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Reading It Real

Craig Childs, from Colorado, recently stopped by Fact & Fiction in downtown Missoula to read from his new book, The Animal Dialogues.

Rarely have I felt so completely drawn into a story read by its author. Somehow, Childs' voice and words conjured images of wild places and animals, and made the tension real, right there in the safety of a book store.

Childs is the author of nine books, including The Secret Knowledge of Water and House of Rain.

David Frey's review of The Animal Dialogues on

Friday, March 14, 2008

University of Montana English Professors Receive Awards

Congratulations to University of Montana Professor Deirdre McNamer, whose novel Red Rover won the 2007 Montana Book Award.

Penguin Group Red Rover reading guide.

A review of Red Rover from the New York Times.

A review of Red Rover in the Los Angeles Times.

McNamer was a guest on The Write Question on August 19, 2007:

And congratulations to Professor Casey Charles for receiving the Pantzer Presidential Humanitarian Award, and Professor Katie Kane for being awarded a research grant by the Montana Committee for the Humanities.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Smoking Poet Spring 2008

The Spring Issue of The Smoking Poet is now available online. TSP publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, travel essays, book reviews, and interviews.

Russell Rowland, the new fiction editor, acknowledged the challenge of his postion: "I was a bit overwhelmed with how difficult it was to choose which submissions to include. Saying no is harder than I expected it to be."

But choose he did: Lynn Stegner, Mark Bastable, Kris Saknussemm, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, and Cynthia Graham, among others. He chose Sue Miller, author of The Good Mother, While I was Gone, and Family Pictures, as his "Feature Author" and posted a meaty interview with her.

(Russell Rowland was a guest on The Write Question November 25, 2007.)

The new issue also features a poignant nonfiction essay by R. A. Evans, a travel piece about Santorini Greece by Jeannie Dugan Sanders, and a review of Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft. The Feature Poet is Harry Owen, first Poet Laureate for Cheshire (England).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kathryn Trueblood on the Festival Circuit

An article titled, "Rising in the West: The Festival Circuit in Washington, Montana,
and Oregon," by Kathryn Trueblood, was published in the most recent edition of Poets & Writers Magazine (page 63).

Trueblood, is an Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Susan Wicklund's Story: This Common Secret

Montana Public Radio News Director, Sally Mauk, recently talked with Susan Wicklund and Allan Kesselheim, co-authors of This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. Mauk's interview was part of the February 22 Montana Evening Edition broadcast on Montana Public Radio.

Click here to listen to the interview.

From an article posted at on January 22:
"Wicklund describes her work as a privilege and an honor. But it's also a job, often a dangerous one. She has donned disguises to get past the protesters who scream and wave signs outside both her home and her medical office. She's worn a bulletproof vest and carried a gun. In some states, Wicklund is required to read abortion patients misleading, politician-penned scripts that refer to an embryo as an "unborn baby" and warn that the procedure can be fatal (with no mention of the fact that wisdom tooth removal is far riskier)." more...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Greg Patent Wows NPR

Greg Patent - cookbook author and Montana Public Radio "Food Guy" - recently garnered a spot on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday.

Through the magic of technology, Patent talked with NPR national correspondent Daniel Zwerdling from a recording studio in Washington, D.C., while Patent whipped up a batch of Iraqi Cheese Sambouseks in his own kitchen. Montana Public Radio producer and recording engineer Beth Anne Austein captured the Missoula end of the conversation.

The following day, the Cheese Sambouseks arrived at NPR headquarters via FedEx. The program, broadcast January 27, includes sounds of Zwerdling and Liane Hansen biting into the Sambouseks, then moaning with delight. Here's a link to the story titled, "From Cannoli to Chapati: A Baker's Culinary Journey."

In addition to co-hosting "The Food Guys" on Montana Public Radio, Patent's considerable list of accomplishments includes writing eight cookbooks, appearing as a guest on national television and radio programs, hosting a long-term TV cooking show, contributing two columns a month to the Missoulian, and teaching classes.

Look for more information about Greg Patent, his recipes, and cookbooks at
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Coming up on The Write Question during March:
March 2: Kim Todd
March 9: Roger Dunsmore
March 16: Swain Wolfe
March 23: Perri Knize
March 30: Rick Newby, publisher and Executive Director of the Drumlummon Institute

Listen to this week's program. Guest: Martin Kidston from Helena, Montana.

Thanks for stopping by. Send comments about The Write Question to Chérie Newman.

The Write Question is supported in part by The Greater Montana Foundation — encouraging communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. And by Humanities Montana, enriching intellectual, cultural, and civic life for all Montanans.

The Write Question Team: Chérie Newman, Producer; Michael Marsolek, Executive Producer and Program Director for Montana Public Radio; Academic and professional advisers: Prageeta Sharma, Director of Creative Writing at the University of Montana; Kim Anderson, Montana Committee for the Humanities; Barbara Theroux, manager of Fact & Fiction bookstore; Renee McGrath, Director of North Valley Public Library in Stevensville, Montana.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Real Montana Winter

Last Thursday morning, as fierce winds whipped several inches of new snow across the icy highways of western Montana, my dad, a girl friend, and two co-workers suggested I postpone the trip I'd planned to Dillon and Helena. I thanked them for thinking of me and drove off into swirls of white.

It's been years, maybe more than a decade, since we've had a real Montana winter. I'm not foolhardy, but I do love an adventure. And I wasn't disappointed. In addition to white-knuckle driving, I got to experience the thrill of meeting a dozen bright and fascinating people.

Judy Ansley from Dillon convinced several brave Montana Public Radio fans to leave their warm houses on Thursday evening and go over to the Beaverhead Museum. I recorded each of them reading a legal I.D. - that list of transmitters we're required to broadcast near the top of every hour - and making comments about Dillon and Montana Public Radio. I thought they would rush off to do something else after they were done, but they all stayed to watch me record interviews with poet Roger Dunsmore and fantasy author Diana Pharaoh Francis. Even though I'd just met everyone, I felt like I was sitting around in a friend's living room listening to stories on a cold winter night. It was wonderful! Train noises and all.

The next morning, Friday, I met writer and professor Alan Weltzien at the library on the UM-Dillon (Western to you older foks) campus. He gave me some great "tape" for The Write Question.

By ten o'clock I was back on Interstate 15, which had blown partly dry, and made it into Butte in time to beat the lunch crowd at the Front Street Market (only five bucks for a tuna sandwich, a cup of seafood chowder, a cup of tea, and a chocolate chip cookie). I met Caroline Patterson, a writer and an editor for FarCountry Press, at the Fire Tower coffee house and she gave me the key to her office so I could use it for interviews. I talked with Jim Robbins, Rick Newby, and Martin Kidston - smart and articulate all, more great tape for TWQ.

Next time I'll check the extended weather forecast before scheduling a winter trip, but I'm glad I ventured forth.

And what am I reading this week? Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey, by Perri Knize; The Open-focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins; Poems Across The Big Sky, edited by Lowell Jaeger; and Wind From An Enemy Sky, by D'Arcy McNickle.

Listen to this week's program. Guest: John Clayton, from Red Lodge, Montana.

Thanks for stopping by. Send comments about The Write Question to Chérie Newman.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Twelve Minutes A Week

The Write Question is broadcast over the Montana Public Radio network Sunday mornings at approximately 11:45.

We aim to air a mix of writers — female and male, fiction and nonfiction, narrative and poetry, local and far away — plus a few publishers, editors, illustrators, and photographers. Every year, tens of dozens of talented Montana writers, poets, illustrators, and photographers produce first-rate books.
Add award-winning authors from Idaho, Washington state, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and California into the literary mix and... well, you get the point.

So, what's a lover of all things writerly to do with bushels of literary excess? Blog, of course. This is where you'll find extra information to supplement our weekly twelve-minute peek into the world of writing and publishing in the western United States.

Listen to this week's program. Guest: poet Kathleen Lynch from California

Thanks for stopping by. Send comments about The Write Question to Chérie Newman.

The Write Question Team: Chérie Newman, Producer; Michael Marsolek, Executive Producer and Program Director for Montana Public Radio; Academic and professional advisers: Prageeta Sharma, Director of Creative Writing at the University of Montana; Kim Anderson, Montana Committee for the Humanities; Barbara Theroux, manager of Fact & Fiction bookstore; Renee McGrath, Director of North Valley Public Library in Stevensville, Montana.