Thursday, May 30, 2013

An Interview with Sharma Shields

This week, Chérie Newman talks with Spokane author Sharma Shields about the stories in her collection, Favorite Monster, winner of an Autumn House Fiction Prize. Shields also reads two short passages from the book.

"By all rights, these comic tales, with their cyclopses and serial killers, werewolves and writers, medusas and managers, ought to collapse into lighthearted whimsy. Instead they unfold into objects of extraordinary beauty and darkness, rendered in prose that can turn on a dime from the deadpan to the profound. Sharma Shields is a cutup, a sneak, and a badass -- she will crack you up with these charming beasts, and then, in a stage whisper, reveal who the real monster is. (Hint: it's you.)" -- J. Robert Lennon

Sharma Shields’ collection of stories Favorite Monster was chosen by Stewart O’Nan as the winner of the 2012 Autumn House Fiction Prize. Sharma’s short fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Fugue, and The Sonora Review. Her numerous awards include the Tim McGinnis Award for Humor, a grant from Artist Trust and the A.B. Guthrie Award for Outstanding Prose. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and now lives in Spokane with her husband and young son. As an Information Specialist for the Spokane County Library District, Sharma founded T.W.I.N.E. — Teen Writers of the Inland Empire — a writing club for area youth.

This program will be broadcast over the following stations:
Or, listen online.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Children's Book Review: 'Mister and Lady Day' by Amy Novesky

Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her
by Amy Novesky
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

Billie Holiday had lots of dogs: a poodle she carried in her pocket, a brown and white beagle, two Chihuahuas she fed with a baby bottle, a Great Dane, a wire-haired terrier and a mutt. But her favorite dog was a boxer named Mister.

She knit him sweaters, dressed him in a mink coat, cooked for him and took him for midnight walks. He waited for her in her dressing room when she performed and served as a sort of bodyguard.

It's a clever idea to frame a children's story about Billie Holiday around her beloved pets. Unfortunately, there isn't enough of a plot in this story for it to hold readers' attention. The climax takes place off-stage, when Holiday "gets into trouble" and has to "leave home for a year and a day" (during the period in which she is sentenced to prison for drug possession).

While there is no appropriate way to address this adult topic in a picture book for young children, the mysterious absence serves only to set up a joyous reunion with Mister when Holiday returns from prison, and then he waits in the wings when she returns to the stage for her comeback performance at Carnegie Hall.

The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton have a scrapbooky feel that is appropriate to the historical glamour of the subject matter, and the first graders I read this story to enjoyed the images of the dogs. On the whole, though this book will appeal more to adult fans of Billie Holiday than to the youth audience for whom it was intended.

Amy Novesky is the author of Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O'Keeffe Painted What She Pleased, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, which Publisher's Weekly called, "a rich and unexpected depiction of a treasured artist." She lives in Northern California with her family.

Vanessa Brantley Newton is the author-illustrator of Let Freedom Sing and the illustrator of One Love by Cedella Marley. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Poems: "A True War Story" -- by Roger Dunsmore

My friend's uncle
was a Marine in Korea.
His squad came to a cluster of huts,
smoke drifting up from one.
The squad leader ordered him
to go into that hut,
to kill everyone inside.
He stepped cautiously through the door
and waited for his eyes to adjust.
In the dim light he saw a Korean grandmother,
terrified children huddled up against her.
He squeezed the trigger on his M1,
emptied it into the thatched roof,
and stepped back out
through that doorway.
No one spoke.

Back home,
when he told the old people
what he had done,
they gave him a new name:
and made him
The Giver of Names
for new-born children.

*     *     *    *     *     *

Roger Dunsmore has spent more than 40 years as a poet and university professor. During that time, he has published several collections of poetry and twice been short-listed to the governor for the position of Poet Laureate of Montana. "A True War Story" is included in Dunsmore's latest collection: You're Just Dirt.

Listen to Chérie Newman's conversation with Roger Dunsmore.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An Interview with Susanna Sonnenberg

This week's program features Susanna Sonnenberg talking about her second memoir, She Matters: A Life in Friendships.

From the publisher:
The New York Times called Susanna Sonnenberg “immensely gifted,” and Vogue , “scrupulously unsentimental.” Entertainment Weekly described Sonnenberg’s Her Last Death as “a bracing memoir about growing up rich and glamorous with a savagely inappropriate mother.” Now, Sonnenberg, with her unflinching eye and uncanny wisdom, has written a compulsively readable book about female friendship.

The best friend who broke up with you. The older girl at school you worshiped. The beloved college friend who changed. The friend you slept with. The friend who betrayed you. The friend you betrayed. Companions in travel, in discovery, in motherhood, in grief; the mentor, the model, the rescuer, the guide, the little sister. These have been the women in Susanna Sonnenberg’s life, friends tender, dominant, and crucial after her reckless mother gave her early lessons in womanhood.

She Matters: A Life in Friendships illuminates the friendships that have influenced, nourished, inspired, and haunted Susanna Sonnenberg — and sometimes torn her apart. Each has its own lessons that Sonnenberg seeks to understand. Her method is investigative and ruminative; her result, fearlessly observed portraits of friendships that will inspire all readers to consider the complexities of their own relationships. This electric book is testimony to the emotional significance of the intense bonds between women, whether shattered, shaky, or unbreakable.

Read a review of She Matters in the New York Times.

The Write Question featuring Susanna Sonnenberg will be broadcast over the following stations:
Or listen online.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Children's Book Review: 'Snippet the Early Riser' by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

Snippet the Early Riser
by Bethanie Deeney Murguia
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Snippet is a snail who likes to draw doodles on the sidewalk, make leaf sculptures, play soccer, and wake up early. His family likes to sleep in. He tries to wake his parents by knocking on their shells, hollering, turning on the shower and climbing on their backs, but he's stuck with a "family of slugs."

He enlists the help of all of his bug friends, but in spite of their numerous attempts, his family continues to sleep on the bottom of a leaf until Snippet is inspired by Caterpillar to start chewing...

The family wakes up to "breakfast in bed", but by that time Snippet  is growing tired himself and promptly falls asleep... until early the next morning!

Murguia's illustrations are simple pen and ink drawings with colorful details that perfectly capture the quirkiness of Snippet and his family. A sidebar featuring images of Snippet awake and asleep (rolled up in a ball) is a particular delight. End pages include additional monochrome drawings of snails with fun facts (e.g. "Snails sleep a lot." "Snails wake up very, very slowly." etc.).

I read this story to a class of first grade students who could probably relate to Snippet's dilemma of waking up before his parents. They liked watching the snails' piggyback rides and the way they finally "plunk" onto the ground. But they wondered why Snippet spent so much time trying to wake up his family once the other bugs arrived, asking, "Why didn't he just play with his friends instead?"

In spite of this one minor flaw in child-logic, Snippet the Early Riser provides a pleasant glimpse into a charming and magical bug world.

Bethanie Deeney Murguia is not the earliest riser in her household. She loves to draw, paint, and whenever possible, sleep in just a little longer. Bethanie earned her MFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. These days she can be found in California. Visit her at

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at

Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday Poems: "Rider" - by Mark Irwin

As I carried my mother from the hospital bed
across the room toward the chair by the window,
she played with my gold watch as if it were a toy,
flipping the strap up and down, then singing Giddyup,
Giddyup, but as I looked at her she did not smile
so I nodded my head, snorted, then put a pencil
in my mouth, as bit, and cantered about the room
till I was out of breath, puffing, and she patted me, saying,
Good boy, Good boy, so I pawed the carpet, slobbering a little
like her, as she waved and I nodded my mane
until this was how we said goodbye one spring
while the sun shrank to a white-hot BB among a thousand
others receding in the jeweled, black sky as the rivers
galloped away with her breath through the dark green land.

Mark Irwin was born in Faribault, Minnesota, and has lived throughout the United States and abroad in France and Italy. His poetry and essays have appeared widely in many literary magazines including The American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, New England Review, and The New Republic. A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop (M.F.A.), he also holds a Ph.D. in English/Comparative Literature from Case Western Reserve University and has taught at a number of universities and colleges including The University of Iowa, Ohio University, University of Denver, University of Colorado/Boulder, University of Nevada, and Colorado College. The author of seven collections of poetry, including Against the Meanwhile, Wesleyan University Press (1989), Quick, Now, Always, BOA (1996), White City, BOA (2000), Bright Hunger, BOA (2004), Tall If, New Issues (2008), and Large White House Speaking, New Issues (2013), he has also translated two volumes of poetry, one from the French and one from the Romanian. His American Urn: New & Selected Poems (1987-2013) will appear in 2014. Recognition for his work includes The Nation/Discovery Award, four Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, Colorado and Ohio Art Council Fellowships, two Colorado Book Awards, the James Wright Poetry Award, and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He lives in Colorado, and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program at the University of Southern California.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An Interview with Gregory Spatz

A grieving couple rents a desperate landlord’s house in an effort to recover lost intimacy. Twins are irrevocably separated by events both beyond and within their control. A nighttime prank and its gruesome aftermath forge human connections no one could have anticipated.

The eight stories in Half as Happy reveal with startling clarity their characters’ secrets, losses, and desires. Each with the depth of a novel, these insightful portraits of the darkness and light within us reverberate long after they’ve ended, like beautiful and disturbing dreams.

Find out more about Gregory Spatz, and listen to the program, on the radio or online.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Children's Book Review: 'Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg' by Lori Mortensen

Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg
by Lori Mortensen
illustrated by Michael Allen Austin
Clarion Books, 2013

Cowpoke Clyde is ready to relax after a long day on the ranch, when he notices that "ol' Dawg, his faithful, snorin' friend, [is] caked with mud from end to end." He fills his buckets to give Dawg a bath, but Dawg sets off on the run, creating mayhem as Clyde chases him across the ranch, splashing other animals along the way.

Michael Allen Austin's large, colorful illustrations perfectly capture the spirit of this story, portraying Clyde as a lanky, sharp-boned cowboy, and the animals as larger-than-life to emphasize the chaos that is created in the course of the chase.

Mortensen uses the time-honored folktale tradition of repetition and accumulation to convey the parade of animals that are "gettin' soaked instead of Dawg." The language is pleasingly rhythmic and peppered with the appropriate Western terms and details. And rhymes drop off with the final word in large print on the following page to encourage children to join in the telling of the story.

The first-grade students that I read this story to leaned forward in their seats as I read, and laughed aloud when the Dawg jumped into the tub with Clyde after he'd given up the chase. They loved the details in the illustrations (such as the cat, who on one page is chewing on a bone) and found the whole book to be funny and fun. This book is nearly perfect in style and execution: a rip-roaring read for children and adults alike.

Lori Mortensen is the award-winning author of more than two dozen books for children, including fiction and nonfiction picture books, easy readers, first graphic novels, and middle grade nonfiction. She lives with her husband and three children in California and reckons that - unlike Clyde - she'll never complete her chores. You can visit Lori online at

Michael Allen Austin is the creative director of a medical media company and the award-winning illustrator of ten books for children. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Kim, and their sheepdog, Riley, who - unlike Dawg - likes to roll in clean laundry. Michael's website is

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Poems: "The Hoot of The Owl" -- by Minerva Allen

The morning sun is bright and warm.
Children are playing; no worry of alarm. Listen!

The hoot of the owl three times.

The scout returns. The enemy is close by.
With speed of an eagle, the tribe is leaving.
Only the rings of the lodges are left on the ground.
Noise of lodge poles formed into travois; the whispering
of children. Each has his own chore.

Birds have stopped sining; dogs are all quiet.
Horses' ears are wiggling and they nicker to each other.

The tribe steals away in silence.

The evening sun is setting. Food is cooking
in the lodges. All is quiet
                    until the hoot
                    of the owl
                    three times.


Minerva Allen lives in northern Montana on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Lodge Pole with her family in the foothills of the Little Rockies, know as the Island Mountains to the Nakoda. She owns a ranch with cattle and many horses that roam the ridges in Big Warm. She coordinates the Lodge Pole Senior Programs and teaches the Nakoda Language.

"Hoot of The Owl" was published in her collection titled Nakoda Sky People (2012 Many Voice Press).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An Interview with Joe Wilkins

During this week's program, Chérie Newman talks with author and poet Joe Wilkins about his memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up in the Big Dry. He also reads from the book and reads two poems from his new collection, Notes From The Journey Westward.

Publisher's Description:

The Mountain and the Fathers explores the life of boys and men in the unforgiving, harsh world north of the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana in a drought afflicted area called the Big Dry, a land that chews up old and young alike. Joe Wilkins was born into this world, raised by a young mother and elderly grandfather following the untimely death of his father. That early loss stretches out across the Big Dry, and Wilkins uses his own story and those of the young boys and men growing up around him to examine the violence, confusion, and rural poverty found in this distinctly American landscape. Ultimately, these lives put forth a new examination of myth and manhood in the American west and cast a journalistic eye on how young men seek to transcend their surroundings in the search for a better life. Rather than dwell on grief or ruin, Wilkins’ memoir posits that it is our stories that sustain us, and The Mountain and The Fathers, much like the work of Norman MacClean or Jim Harrison, heralds the arrival of an instant literary classic.

The Mountain and the Fathers was a Montana Book Award Honor Book and was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award.

Joe Wilkins' essay "Out West: Growing Up Hard," published by Orion magazine.

Find out more about Joe Wilkins, and listen to the program, on the radio or online.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Children's Book Review: 'My Mom is the Best Circus' by Luciana Navarro Powell

My Mom is the Best Circus
by Luciana Navarro Powell
Robin Corey Books, 2013

Just in time for Mother's Day, Random House Children's Books has released a new board book which celebrates mothers by author/illustrator Luciana Navarro Powell.

In bright, colorful images, the mother in this story is portrayed as the ultimate super-mom, gliding through domestic tasks and keeping her children entertained before heading off to work in her business suit.

The focus of the story is squarely on the home, however, with mom's time at work passing in the flip of a page. The evening is spent cooking and clowning around with the kids before bath and bedtime.

The circus theme is clever, portraying mom as a ringmaster, juggler, acrobat and magician. But the finale is slightly disappointing, with mom's best stunt being "the sandman show."

Since no other adult is portrayed in the book, My Mom is the Best Circus might be an appealing choice for single mothers with young children. The board book format will hold up well to baby and toddler play. And every mother deserves a little applause on Mother's Day.

Luciana Navarro Powell is originally from Brazil and moved to the US in 2002. She has been a professional illustrator for about 14 years. She has worked with all kinds of media but eventually settled on the digital brush, since she loves the freedom it allows her and all the possibilities of experimentation.

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Poems: "As If darkness Can Mend It All" -- by Maya Jewell Zeller

I thought here I could summon you,
here where the first balsamroot
presents each sage-colored leaf
like an upside-down heart, apex
aimed at the sky.
I thought here I could call you forth,
here where the hills erupt
into a thousand white
and yellow eyes.
I thought here you'd listen
for the trickle of a new spring
spitting from the rocks.
I thought you'd want
to be mist.
But you've gone and found
a new cave.
The truth is you're tired
of all this damn
sunshine, this river
showing off its cheap jewelry,
robinsong, wingflick, white-
tailed deer with their quick tendons,
the new budding spruce,
even fresh bear scat
reminding you
how young you were.


Maya Jewell Zeller grew up in the northwest, mostly near coastal environments. She now lives in Spokane, where she teaches English at Gonzaga University and co-directs a literary reading series. Her poems appear in a number of literary journals, and her reviews and interviews can be found online. "As If darkness can Mend It All" was published in her collection, Rust Fish (2011, Lost Horse Press).

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bruce Holbert: "I Killed My Friend"

Mike Kemp/In Pictures — Corbis
In North Dakota, a gun owner displays
hunting paraphernalia in a bedroom.
THE summer before my sophomore year in high school, I moved into my father’s house. My father had remarried and the only unoccupied bedroom in his house was the gun room. Against one wall was a gun case he had built in high school, and beside it were two empty refrigerators stocked with rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. My bed’s headboard resided against the other wall and, above it, a resigned-looking, marble-eyed, five-point mule deer’s head with a fedora on its antler rack.

The room had no windows, so the smell of gun oil filled my senses at least eight hours each day. It clung to my clothes like smoke, and like a smoker’s cigarettes, it became my smell. No one in my high school noticed. We all smelled like something: motorheads of motor oil, farm kids of wheat chaff and cow dung, athletes like footballs and grass, dopers like the other kind of grass.

It did not appear to anyone — including me — that residing within my family’s weapons cache might affect my life. Together, my three brothers own at least a dozen weapons and have yet to harm anyone with them. Despite their guns (or, arguably, because of them), they are quite peaceable. As for me, I have three guns, one inherited and two gifts, and I’m hardly a zealot. In fact I never had much interest in guns. Yet it is I who killed a man. 

It was the second week in August, a Friday the 13th, in fact, in 1982. I was with a group of college roommates who were getting ready to go to the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race. Three of us piled into a red Vega parked outside a friend’s house in Okanogan, Wash., me in the back seat. The driver, who worked with the county sheriff’s department, offered me his service revolver to examine. I turned the weapon onto its side, pointed it toward the door. The barrel, however, slipped when I shifted my grip to pull the hammer back, to make certain the chamber was empty, and turned the gun toward the driver’s seat. When I let the hammer fall, the cylinder must have rotated without my knowing. When I pulled the hammer back a second time it fired a live round.

My friend, Doug, slumped in the driver’s seat, dying, and another friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat, raced into the house for the phone.
The house sat beside one edge of a river valley and I knew that between the orchard at the opposite side and the next town was 20 miles of rock and pine. I was a cross-country champion in high school. I could run through the woods and find my way to my cousins, who lived far into the mountains. I could easily disappear. But I remained where I was, mindful that even if I ran, I would escape nothing. So, when the sirens finally whirred and the colored lights tumbled over the yard and the doors of the cruisers opened and a police sergeant asked who was responsible, I raised my hand and patted my chest and was arrested. 

Though the charges against me were eventually dropped, I have since been given diagnoses of a range of maladies, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and adult attention deficit disorders. The pharmacists fill the appropriate prescriptions, which temporarily salve my conscience, but serve neither my story nor the truth.

Where I grew up, masculinity involved schooling a mean dog to guard your truck or skipping the ignition spark to fire the points, and, of course, handling guns of all kinds. I was barely proficient in any of these areas. I understood what was expected of me and responded as best I could, but did so with distance that would, I hoped, keep me from being a total fraud in my own eyes.
Like many other young men, I mythologized guns and the ideas of manhood associated with them.

The gun lobby likes to say guns don’t kill people, people do. And they’re right, of course. I killed my friend; no one else did; no mechanism did. But this oversimplifies matters (as does the gun control advocates’ position that eliminating weapons will end violent crime).

My friend was killed by a man who misunderstood guns, who imagined that comfort with — and affection for — guns was a vital component of manhood. I did not recognize a gun for what it was: a machine constructed for a purpose, one in which I had no real interest. I treated a tool as an essential part of my identity, and the result is a dead man and a grieving family and a survivor numbed by guilt whose story lacks anything resembling a proper ending.

Bruce Holbert is the author of the novel “Lonesome Animals.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 28, 2013, on page SR8 of the New York Times, New York edition, with the headline: Sleeping With Guns.

An interview with Bruce Holbert.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Interview with Sherril Jaffe

A homeless woman takes up residence in a man's closet; a detective solves cases by feeling the emotions of the perpetrators; a woman happens upon a swingers' club in the back of a tire shop; a couple struggling with their pets' protracted endgame puts out a hit on them; and a man's mother, newly dead and buried, calls him to ask if she can visit.

The fifteen tales in You Are Not Alone & Other Stories are set in San Francisco. Each uses its own dream logic to illuminate the great human themes of death, love, jealousy, anger, desire, and the nature of the soul.

"These are stories where anything can happen, where we root for characters entangled by both everyday life and fantastical predicaments. Humor and loss weave tightly together through these pages, and Sherril Jaffe's formidable imagination and playful prose shine unexpected light on deep emotional truths." — Caitlin Horrocks

You Are Not Alone & Other Stories is winner of a Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.

Find out more about Sherril Jaffe, and listen to the program, on the radio or online.