Wild at Heart

I had the pleasure last week to interview one of my writing heroes, David Quammen. It may not be a big deal to some, but last May’s issue of National Geographic that focused on Yellowstone National Park was written single-handedly by Quammen. That, when it comes to magazine writing, is a pinnacle achievement. He will be in Missoula Friday for an event, and my interview — a much-abbreviated version of our full conversation — is in this week’s issue of the Independent. I hope you can check it out, because the guy is loquacious and fascinating. Here’s an excerpt:

When you realized you were actually writing an entire issue of National Geographic, did you have any particular “Holy shit!” moments?

David Quammen: It was a “holy shit” moment for me. And there were a few times after I accepted this project that I had a few of those “holy shit” moments at 4 a.m., thinking, “How in the world am I gonna do this?” What I was thinking was, everyone has already read books about Yellowstone, at least in this region and the world that we live in. And across America people think that they know Yellowstone and what it’s about. The first challenge was how to make it new, how to make it fresh, how to make it interesting. So I worked very hard on trying to do that, to make it serious and probing and unexpected.

I’m looking forward to the event Friday. If you are near Missoula, you should check it out.


Kickin’ and Stickin’

Things have been quiet around here in April, but that’s because I’ve been busy as hell. Mostly I’ve been working on a big project for the Indy, which I’ll talk about when it comes out early in May. Until then, here are the latest things I’ve published in the last couple weeks; again, all via the gracious folks at the Missoula Independent.

Oil Trail: Ken Ilgunas talks Keystone, Plains folk and fear

Q&A with writer Ken Ilgunas, appearing in this week’s edition, for his book, Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland.

Fighting Irish: Timothy Egan’s story of social justice resonates

My review of Egan’s latest work of non-fiction about Irish hero Thomas Meagher, who also served as acting governor of the pre-statehood Montana Territory. Great stuff, as usual for Egan. My only regret is I missed his event in town last night.

What’s Good Here: Eating squirrel with Steven Rinella

This was a fun one, and at 1300+ Facebook likes at the Indy page, it’s easily the most popular thing I’ve ever written for them. It’s an interview with hunter, writer, and host of the Outdoor Channel’s “Meat Eater” television show, Steve Rinella. We’d met once before when his first book came out (which has just been reissued by his current publisher), The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. This published piece is just a fraction of our conversation, and some of the best parts were left on the cutting room floor, if only because the piece was a pinch hit for the regular Food article dude at the Indy. I will likely transcribe and post the entire conversation at some point, because I think it would make for a fun read.

Road stories: Marc Beaudin defies category in Vagabond Song

I met Marc, who lives in Livingston and owns the bookstore there, at last fall’s Montana Book Festival. I enjoyed his book, which I review here, and I enjoyed his event. I wish I’d gone out to beers with him afterward, but I wimped out at the end of what had been a looooong day. I’m certain our paths will cross again more than once, though.

Richmond Fontaine: You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To

My review of the first non-movie soundtrack album I’ve bought this year. It’s really good.


Making Bones

bonesI have a review in the latest Missoula Independent. The book is called Making Bones, by Bill Vaughn. It’s a crime novel set in the Missouri Breaks region of Central Montana and features a fantastic female lead character. You can check the review out HERE, and I urge you to do so because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t recommend it enough.

Normally I’d run a clip from the review here, but instead I’m going to share the book excerpt that Vaughn published online; I doubt he’ll mind if I copy and paste it here:

IZZY sprawled in her lawn chair, holding hands with Mark and trading gossip about the latest acquisition of the local polygamist, while they waited for the sheriff. Rolex, Izzy’s bay-and-white paint, and Sally, Mark’s long, tall buckskin mare, were saddled up and tied to Mark’s trailer.

At ten a streamer of dust on the horizon announced the arrival of the local constabulary. Smudge Iverson was already red-faced and out of breath as he lowered his considerable heft from the county’s old stock truck to the ground. He’d brought along one of his three deputies, a scarred and wiry Cree named Fenton Welch. Their horses stomped in the rack, eager to get out and get on with it.

“Porta,” the sheriff rasped, apparently unwilling to waste any additional effort to shake hands. Mark had told Izzy that Iverson informed him in their most recent professional conversation that he was no different than his constituents in the matter of their position on Washington D.C. and its most visible presence in the Breaks, the Bureau of Land Management.

“What did he really say?”

Mark shrugged “We don’t need your kind here.”

“Does he mean Rangers? Or Italians?”

Mark shrugged.

Izzy watched Smudge examine her in a guy way, chest first, then crotch. Then he looked again, in reverse order. “Hey, Smudge . . . .” She resisted the temptation to ask him if he’d like her to turn around so he could check out her ass.

“Izzy,” Iverson rasped, ignoring her to deal with Mark. “What’s this, Porta? You bringin a date to a body search?”

Despite herself, Izzy laughed. Everyone in Hilger County knew that she and Mark were doing more than sniffing around each other. After all, they were high-profile individuals—Izzy resented because she inherited a big spread in a part of the world where there wasn’t enough ranch to go around for even the male heirs of these old families, Mark reviled because he worked for the land-grabbing socialist government that was trying to confiscate their property so rich liberals on the Coasts could have even more playground in the Big Empty.

“She’s here in an official capacity,” Mark told the sheriff.

“Welch will take all the pictures we need,” Iverson rasped. “You know we cain’t take no civilians along.”

She went to her saddle bag and came back with her badge. The BLM office in Lewistown had issued the shield to her after Mark convinced his bosses that her knowledge of the Upper Breaks qualified her to be sworn in on the Castel case as a special deputy ranger.

“Ain’t no civilians round here,” she said. Iverson took the badge and poked it with what seemed to her an unwholesome gesture.

“Well, fuck me and the horse I rode in on.”

Izzy tapped her index finger on her lips. “Um, how about just the horse?”

What is unique about this particular outing is that it’s the first time I’ve reviewed a book for the Indy that is available only via Kindle eBook. It’s possible this is the first time they’ve ever published one at all, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing: if more Kindle-only releases were as good as this one, I think I’d be reading more than the dwindling number I do every year. Most, with a few exceptions from reliable writers I’ve come to trust (like Gramlich, and Badelaire), are shit. Maybe I’ve just been on a bad run the last couple years, but the quality in self-published fiction has been on the decline. Either that or I’m just getting pickier. Or grouchier. Probably all of the above, but heaviest on that last possibility.

Anyway, give Making Bones a chance. Here is the link on Amazon. You won’t regret it.

Oh, and if Bill Vaughn’s name sounds familiar, it’s because last year I reviewed his nonfiction work Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, also for the Indy. That book was recently selected for Honor Book recognition for the 2015 Montana Book Award. So kudos to Vaughn for unleashing two excellent, totally different books in about a year.

Art of Floating

41kZEc9AX4L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a late-comer to reading Jim Harrison. I encountered a rave review in 2007 of his novel, Returning to Earth, when it was first released. Reading the book I was captivated. In a subsequent interview, I learned he identifies himself as a poet. With some few exceptions I had not really “gotten” poetry at that point in my evolution as a reader, and I couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would choose to be a poet when clearly they were adept at the novel form. After all, isn’t that the pinnacle of storytelling?*

Then I started reading Harrison’s poetry. The man really knocked down some doors for me, and now I make a point to read poetry every day, even as I must admit I could probably read and re-read his over and over for the rest of my life and be satisfied.

His newest collection, recently released by Copper Canyon Press, is called Dead Man’s Float. I have a review in the current issue of the Indy. You can check it out HERE. An excerpt:

When I read the last few poems of this book and closed the cover I sat back in my chair and looked around. The sun was shining brighter than it had for days. I could see through my window several house finches at the feeder hanging from the branches of the tree out front. My dog slept on her cushion, back-to-back with a bitter old cat. They used to be mortal enemies, but both now find themselves too old to expend the energy for animosity. Reflections like these seem the soul of what Jim Harrison writes about, at least to me. Few enough are the books I decide to keep beyond a culling or two. Barring fire or flood, Dead Man’s Float will be in my library for the rest of my life. If it’s the last poetry collection we get from Harrison—and I hope it isn’t—it is as fine an example of his efforts as any.


Here is one of my favorite poems from the book, this one called “Apple Tree.”

Sitting under the apple tree on a hot

June day harassed by blackbirds

and a house wren who have nests there.

I’m thinking of the future and the past,

and how the past at my age has become

obviously so much longer than the future.

The feeling always precedes my sense

that severe weather is coming. I don’t believe

in doom or destiny — I believe in turmoil,

thunderstorms in the head, rolling lightning

coming down my brain’s road. As an artist

you follow the girl in the white tennis dress

for 25,000 miles and never close the deal.


You’ll be hearing a lot about Jim Harrison on this blog in the coming months, I believe. I’ve dedicated myself to reading as much of his work as I can find, and I’ve found much of it.


* That’s a rhetorical question, of course


House of the Rising Sun

Tomorrow, December 1st, is the release day for the latest novel from James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun, his, by my count, 35th. I reviewed it for the Independent this past week, which you can read HERE. That is the short version, and it’s a version I’m not very happy with. Indy reviews are 800 words maximum. Sometimes that seems like an insurmountable goal to attain, and others, like this time, it’s hard to say everything that needs to be said and still bring it home under the wire. I realized the day after I submitted it — on a shortened holiday week, of course, where the paper came out on Wednesday instead of Thursday — that I should have taken a different approach. So I’m offering another version, not so different, here. This is what I started with before I started cutting words to get to 800, moving things around, etc. I wish I could have let this book sink in a little, written the review, then thought about it for a day or two before submitting it. But that’s how things go down sometimes, I guess.


books_burkeI have a special affinity for James Lee Burke, because the storied writer is practically my neighbor. From where I write he lives just a few miles away as a raven might fly, though we are separated by a river and a ridge or two and the trip from driveway to driveway would certainly exceed an hour. On a couple occasions I’ve sat next to him at the movie theater, separated only by the space of the chair on which he placed his ubiquitous cowboy hat. Hell, I even shared a waiting room at Les Schwab for an hour or so once. I’ve been to several of his entertaining events, and I’ve spoken with him a couple times, though certainly not enough for him to remember who I am. He is always a gentleman.

Even so I’ll admit I’m not one of those people who has read a pile of his writing, because there’s plenty of it. I’ve read my share, certainly, but throw out a title and I couldn’t necessarily tell you if it is a Robicheaux yarn, a story of one or other of the Holland characters, or something standalone (but hey, I can hardly remember the titles of my own stuff, so that’s no surprise). I love his work, and I always look forward to new releases with anticipation. As much of a fan as I am, though, I find his latest effort, House of the Rising Sun, to be something of a mixed bag.

The book kicks off in 1916, in Mexico, in the heat of revolution. Hackberry Holland — the grandfather of modern era Burke series characters Hackberry (the younger) and his cousin Billy Bob Holland — is the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who ambushed a train that led to many civilian casualties, including women and children. Holland, who participated in the attack, was along only because he was trying to track down his estranged son, Ishmael. Ishmael is a captain in the United States Army, leading a group of black soldiers on a mission to the south of the period’s rather permeable border. Holland staggers into an encampment where a group of Mexicans have set an ambush for the American soldiers at the site of a brothel. There he meets the madame of the place, Beatrice DeMolay, one of the three primary female characters to bedevil him throughout the book. Mayhem ensues, and Holland escapes after destroying a wagon full of stolen weapons that were slated to become the possession of Austrian arms dealer (and primary villain) Arnold Beckman. He also comes into possession of a religious artifact that may or may not be the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from, which Beckman will go to any length to retrieve.

From there we bounce back in time to 1891. We meet Ruby Dansen, the feisty woman much younger than Holland whom he convinces to come with him to his ranch, who ultimately becomes the mother of Ishmael. When the two talk of marriage, Hackberry reveals he is still technically married to a woman named Maggie Bassett, though they have been estranged for years. When he takes to the court to sue for divorce, he is denied. Bassett, who (we presume) wants to stay married only to secure Holland’s wealth when he dies, is brought into play. She is a wiley former prostitute with many secret machinations of her own, and her renewed involvement with Holland sets the stage for the “betrayal” hinted at in the first section that costs Holland his relationship with his son.

At this point we are one third of the way through the book, time jumps to 1918, and Ishmael is leading his men now in World War I. The plot moves forward from there, with Holland juggling his relationships with the three women, his attempt to find and reconcile with his son, and the conflicts he faces with the diabolical Beckman.

While not a mystery in any sense — it’s a Western, really — the story manages several twists as it unfolds. Burke’s gifts, particularly in describing scenery and the world his characters live in, are in fine form. There are sentences and paragraphs as beautiful as anything he’s ever written. One need go no farther than the opening sentence for proof:

The sun had just crested on the horizon like a misplaced planet, swollen and molten and red, lighting a landscape that seemed sculpted out of clay and soft stone and marked by the fossilized tracks of animals with no names, when a tall barefoot man wearing little more than rags dropped his horse’s reins and eased himself off the horse’s back and worked his way down an embankment into a riverbed chained with pools of water that glimmered as brightly as blood in the sunrise.

House is an adventure story and a love story, and is clearly an additional piece in Burke’s effort at, when combined with last year’s Wayfaring Stranger, a sweeping family epic featuring the Hollands. Hackberry Holland’s chapter features heartbreak and pathos and cruelty to go around, while aiming for, hopefully, some kind of redemption. It also has its share of problems.

My main issue is with Hackberry Holland himself. He is too much the archetypal Western tough guy who often speaks like a poet but is also the baddest hombre around. He is wealthy and has an insurmountable code of right and wrong, yet is haunted by deeds of his past and, therefore, prone to binges of violence and alcohol. He’s a giant of a man and a hit with the ladies (as an indication of his manly epicness, Maggie Bassett says at one point to Holland’s son Ishmael, in talking about her similarities with the young man’s mother, “We both got involved with a man who has ten inches of penis and three of brain.”). A former law man himself, he is a source of constant frustration to law enforcement for going off like a loose cannon and taking the law into his own hands. Yet for all his intelligence and willingness to go off the rails when it comes to violence, he is constantly being manipulated and won’t allow his heart anywhere near the lattitude his trigger finger has. Frankly, I found him to be an asshole, and deserving of the heartbreak he’d brought onto himself.

I hesitate to call House a misfire. It’s enjoyable — Burke always is — but could probably stand to lose about a quarter of its heft. It gets slow in the middle third; shave off a few of Holland’s efforts to track down and beat on people, and we’d have a tighter story with a character more worth pulling for.