Perfect for book discussion

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

3 words: riveting, quietly dramatic, haunting


There’s a reason this book, first published in 1993, is still flying off the shelves today. Actually, there are lots of reasons.

I’m pretty sure we can consider it a modern classic.

Here’s why…

First, this story is sadly timeless. A doctor from an influential family has been molesting Native American women, and it’s only when he commits murder to cover it up, that his brother–the sheriff–discovers this horrific misconduct. In these days of #MeToo, this novel’s narrative is timely in a way that just hurts. But Watson’s treatment of the subject is sensitive and honest. For a book group, this is one remarkable book to discuss, because while there’s a villain, there are no true heroes. It’s complex and messy and sadly real to life.

Second, Watson’s writing style perfectly fits the story. It’s clear from the length of the book (fewer than 200 pages) and the power of the prose that he’s also a poet. Every word is carefully placed, which a reader only realizes upon reflecting later–because while you’re reading this book, you’re gonna be turning the pages fast. Watson pulls you right into the story from the start and makes you care about the characters.

David, the narrator, is a preteen boy at the time of the story’s events. But he’s telling the story from the perspective of his adult years, which adds some nice complexity to the narrative.

If you’re looking for a great book discussion book, or a fast-moving work of literary fiction, or a modern Western, or just a remarkable book to fall into… this one’s a winner.

Give this book a whirl if you like… an adult perspective reflecting on a traumatic event witnessed as a child, succinct and powerful writing, coming of age stories, #MeToo, Native Americans, modern Westerns


What’s the best book you’ve discussed with someone recently?


Against type

(photo credit: Library of Congress)
Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson
Recently I broke a
solemn vow I’d made to myself.
You know those
horrid little Christmas-season books—usually novellas—that are published by
bestselling authors of series?
I detest those
They’re a
combination of grotesque commercialism and sentimental tripe, and I can’t
stomach them.
Well, after
swearing I’d never read one, guess what?
Craig Johnson wrote
one of those things. 

And I read it

And, damn it, I liked it. 
But that’s only
because of Craig Johnson. This is not going to become a habit, this reading of
the Christmas-themed mini-books.
And I have to
acknowledge that even though nearly this entire book took place on a B-25
Mitchell, I still found the plot a bit thin. It was basically an adventure
story. Now I have no quarrel with that, but it didn’t result in quite the usual
Craig Johnson bliss attack I usually experience.
So the story is
that when Walt Longmire was a brand new sheriff, he needed to get a little girl
flown to the hospital in Denver
after a car accident. And the weather was ghastly and the only plane that
possibly could make the flight was this old warbird. And Lucian Connally, the
crusty old feller who was sheriff before him, had been a Doolittle Raider, so
the dude could handle that kind of aircraft. And off they go.
So there’s lots of
stuff to like there: Walt, Lucian, an airplane. And a female pilot in the right
seat. A happy (of course—it’s a Christmas book, for the love of Mike) ending. And
I liked it just fine.
Crow: eaten.*
*tasted like chicken

Listening to a Western on the tollway

(photo credit: photo by Theodor Horydczak;
repository: Library of Congress)
Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse by Robert Knott
Recently I was
talking with a dear man who is a serious reader of Westerns. Especially to a lightweight
like me, he’s the real deal. And he recommended this book, so I listened.
And then I listened. To the audiobook. Which
actually required some hardcore listening, because the voice of the narrator (Titus Welliver) is
rather low and subdued (a perfect voice for a Western), which I had to strain a
bit to hear. I had the volume cranked (which created quite the effect when I
flipped back to the radio. Hello, blaring banjo of Mumford & Sons!)    
When the Western
reader described the book, he said it takes place on a train. So I got all
wiggly and excited because I love me the train books. (Just thinking about Murder on the Orient Express and The Edge [Dick Francis]) makes me
Ironhorse is part of a series begun by Parker, and now continued by
Knott (since the world lost Parker back in 2010; that was a sad day for an
awfully lot of mystery and Western readers).
The series features
Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two Territorial Marshalls back in the day. (Side
note: I believe the name “Virgil” is only found in Westerns. It makes me want
to get a turtle* and name him that.)
So this book has
everything a reader could want: tons of action (I couldn’t believe how much
happened in the first few chapters); strong, stoic good guys; nasty criminal
types for them to outwit and outgun; and a dry-witted narrator (that would be Everett).
And the author has
a nice way of phrasing. This line, uttered by a drunk dentist during a
middle-of-the-night interrogation by the marshalls,
made me laugh out loud: “They were kind of like the two of you, rather
obnoxious and demanding.”
A completely
satisfying story.

nephew-turtle clumping earnestly across the floor

*The turtle wish is
due to my completely surprising level of fondness for my sister’s family’s
turtle. If you don’t already have a nephew-turtle, I can highly recommend it. 

I dropped everything and read

A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson
OK, I’m gonna try
to do the thing Joyce Saricks suggests: apply 3 terms to describe a book.
For the latest by
Craig Johnson, the terms I’m choosing are:
This latest in his
stellar series particularly feels like a Western to me, and that’s a huge
compliment. I’ve got me a weakness for the Westerns. But it’s clearly still a
full-fledged mystery, too.
I’ve also got me a
weakness for Walt Longmire. And for his friend Henry Standing Bear, too. These
fellas are the manly sort of men: they don’t say much, but when they do, it’s
pretty darn good.
And Vic, his
undersheriff (and love interest) is pretty entertaining, too.
Here’s an exchange
between Walt and Vic:
“I eased back in my
chair. ‘Can I talk now?’
‘No, you cannot
talk until you show some semblance of being able to behave like a rational,
reasonable law-enforcement professional.’
I considered. ‘I’m
not going to be able to talk for the rest of my life?’”  (p. 200)
And, yeah, this
book has a plot and everything. Some Mormon fundamentalists are moving into
Walt’s county, which he discovers via a boy who’s been cast out from the group.
And then stuff gets
interesting. There are guns and shootouts and explosions and all kinds of good
crap like that. And things aren’t what
they seem…
So, while the plot
races right along (there was one point where I was turning the pages fast with my eyes wide), the thing I
continue to love about this series is its people. I like Walt’s narrative voice
and dry sense of humor, I like Henry’s use of plain language, I like Vic’s
cursing, and I like the strong sense of teamwork that infuses these stories.

So all I can say
is: thank you, Mr. Johnson, for gracing the Junes of my recent years with your
latest installment. Please don’t stop

Cowgirl wannabe

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)

I kinda wanna be a cowgirl.* This has been going on for years.

We could chalk up its origins to my feverish chicken pox brain, but
I think there’s more to it than that.
When I was in 1st (2nd?) grade, I got the
chicken pox, and I.Was.Elated.
Seriously. I was blissing like I’d never blissed before. Because: I Had to Stay
Home from School, Preferably in Bed… All Day Long.
And dudes, to this girl, that meant READING.
I could hardly contain myself.
Never mind the itching, I was in the lap of luxury.
I immediately made a plea for books. (There was a brief moment
when I thought: Oh my gosh. What if Mom can’t leave my side to pick up library
books?!?!) But my amazing mom made it happen. A pile-o-books materialized by
the bed. (Truly: a marvel, that lady. Now I’m wondering how she managed that
library run in the midst of chicken pox care. I have the sense that my
babysitter may have been deployed.)
I had asked for, and I received (yes, it was nearly biblical in
nature)… the Tizz books.  
Tizz was a palomino pony who was part of a family that included a
boy named Don and a girl whose name I’ve forgotten but who always had her hair
in the perkiest ponytail (ponytail!)
I’d ever seen.
Yes, it appeared at that young age that I might become one of
those little girls who’s wild about horses. (But instead, I just became one of
those little girls who liked reading about
After the best darn week of my young life (oh, chicken pox, why
must you strike only once?) I
continued my habit of reading darn near everything (even, as previously disclosed, a biography of Barry Manilow [so you can’t ever say I don’t tell all]), and that mix included a steady
diet of horse books.
During the Nancy Drew years (confession: I’m still in the Nancy
Drew years) I adored The Secret of
Shadow Ranch
because Nancy and her chums were all hanging around this old
decrepit ranch and riding horses and solving a highly improbable mystery. And
that’s one darn intoxicating blend. 
Then there was A Morgan for
, which I remember chiefly because there was a horse in it, and also
because Melinda’s family decided to remodel a bathroom rather than take a
vacation. As a child, I simply had to disagree with their logic. I still disagree. I mean, for pete’s sake,
it’s 30 years later and I’m still making the frowny confused face at that
episode. (And guys? Happiness experts would support my argument. They say that
money only buys happiness if you use it for experiences,
rather than things. Take the damn
Then I grew up and thought I was done with the horse books. Then I
ran across Hank and Chloe and Cowboys Are My Weakness.
And then the Pioneer Woman showed up with her blog and I got a whole
new dose of the cowgirl lifestyle.
And I dreamed of
it…. Oh, I dreamed.
But guys? The thing
is: I don’t actually want be an actual cowgirl.
I don’t like the
smell of manure.

I don’t like the smell of hay. 

I’m a compulsive
I’m not wild about
the pre-dawn hours.
I’m not too much
into hard physical labor.
And the blood and
guts of ranch life… I’d pass out daily. (Seriously: At age 11, I was at a
friend’s farm when a sheep was giving birth, and I kept dashing out of the barn
back into the house to draw pictures of the Washington Monument to calm my
nerves. [I was already a presidential history geek, and the Washington Monument
was about all my meager artistic skills could render.] Then I’d feel like a
ninny and head back out to the barn. For about 30 seconds. Then flee back to
the house. This went on for some time.)
I Do Not Know How
to Ride a Horse.
I am kind of afraid
of horses. They are surprisingly big when you see one in real life. 
And that branding
stuff? Scary. Also: disturbing.
And then there’s that other procedure they do to steers… you know
what I’m talking about, and it ain’t pretty. (Never seen it, and never gonna.)
And then the beef cattle get hauled off to market to be… slaughtered. (The vegetarian quivers.)
Yet on I read, all about the horses and the ranches and the cowboys. I’m reading my way right off into the sunset…   
*But really, guys? Probably the moral of this story is that I
really wanna be a librarian. In that case, mission accomplished. 

Just stoic enough

English Creek by Ivan
I’m a total sucker for a first-person narrative told in a really
engaging voice. And in this book—the voice is perfection.
For years now—years—I’ve
been thinking someday I’d read something by Ivan Doig. 

Why did I wait so long?      (for more about me being a numbskull, here you go)
(photo credit: Library of Congress)

Fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill narrates this story, and he is a
completely likeable young fellow. And the world sometimes mystifies him, the
way the world does when a person’s fourteen. His older brother is defying their
parents by working at a land baron’s ranch and then getting himself engaged,
and that’s stirring things up. Plus Jick is starting to get the sense that his
parents are actual people, and that
they had lives before he showed up on the scene. And that’s always a

So there in Montana,
in the midst of the Great Depression, Jick is growing up. “Frankly, high among
my hopes about the business of growing up was that I would get a considerably
more substantial horse out of it.” (pp. 14-15)
But he also finds himself wanting to ask his parents
questions—about his brother and the new tension in the family, about how his
parents met, about their younger years, about the forest ranger who preceded
his father in the job and why he fell from grace—and he hardly knows how to
As I read, I kept noting pages that contained stuff I really
liked. Here are two examples:
“We tell ourselves whatever is needed to go from one scene of life
to the next.” (p. 40)   Man, if that ain’t true.
And this scene, in which Jick’s dad is calling the dance at the
town fest:
“I stepped away from Ray, soldiered myself in front of my mother,
and said:
‘Mrs. McCaskill, I don’t talk through my nose as pretty as the guy
you usually gallivant around with. But suppose I could have this dance with you
Her face underwent that rinse of surprise that my father sometimes
showed about her. She cast a look toward the top of my head as if just
realizing my height. Then came her sidelong smile, and her announcement:
‘I never could resist you McCaskill galoots.’”  (pp. 204-205)
How can you not like that boy and his family?
Jick’s narrative voice is so lovely, and the voices of the other
characters are just plain interesting,
When I read the final section of the reader’s guide in the book, I
found out part of the reason why: Doig says that he found it easy to write in
Jick’s voice, and he mentions that he had decades’ worth of file cards of
phrasing and dialogue. In the Acknowledgments, he writes, “Thus it is very
nearly forty years now that I have been listening to Montanans.” (p. 337)
And guys, he listened well. And by writing well, he lets us listen
to their voices, too. The results are splendid.

To hell and back. In darn good company.

Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson, I love you, I do. But the way you put poor Walt Longmire in peril… it worries me. I swear to the heavens, I nearly did that thing where a person looks ahead to make sure everything turns out OK. (I can’t ever actually do that, so instead I just carried the book with me everywhere I could sneak in a half-page of reading at odd free moments so I could find out what happens without having to wait a moment longer than necessary.)
Usually Craig Johnson makes me crack up, because Walt and his sidekicks have that wonderfully dry humor thing going on. This book, it ain’t funny. And damn, but it still works.
Here, we got Sheriff Longmire headed into the blizzardy mountains to face his demons and to track a truly bad, bad, bad guy who’s on the loose and killing people right and left. And Walt’s solo, just like he was back in The Dark Horse (2 books ago), and I’m here to tell you: He’s wry when he’s with others, and he’s downright valiant when he’s on his own. Here he is: “That’s how I was thinking about myself of late, like a Marine mule that didn’t have enough sense to lie down and die. It wasn’t the most comforting of thoughts, but it got me up the hill.” (p. 256)
Thing is, Walt’s a former Marine, and Walt’s a sheriff who’s sworn an oath. Damn, I love Walt.
This novel has Dante’s Inferno as its basis, and Walt’s descending (yet ascending), with his guide Virgil White Buffalo, into the various circles of hell—fire and ice and the whole darn mess.
I read the Inferno in college, and I don’t hope to ever repeat that feat. But it’s one of those things where I’m glad I read it, in part because I get what’s going on with Walt and the others.
And it made this book even more perfect.
Bookish asides:
Walt’s office is in a former Carnegie library. (Love it!)
The other characters made a reading list for deputy Sancho Saizarbitoria, and it’s included in an Appendix. And the lists are just filled with good stuff: The Ox-Bow Incident (Walt), The Things They Carried (Henry), My Antonia (Ruby), The Maltese Falcon (Dorothy), and A River Runs Through It (Ferg).
One more thing—Guys, I’m poorly edumacated, and here’s more proof: It was only when Googling the title of this book that I learned that it was part of a Shakespeare quote (“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”). Damn good quote, that. Way better than my usual phrase for such situations: “It is what it is.”
Here’s the thing, though. If I were to be stuck on a desert island, I’d be picking Craig Johnson books way before I’d be picking Shakespeare. There that is.

Ranch love

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels—A Love Story by Ree Drummond
Since I’ve got this recurring fantasy/nightmare of living on a ranch*, this story is, for me, a combo of a fairy tale and cautionary tale. And it’s funny as hell.
Ree Drummond (aka Pioneer Woman) had posted the beginnings of this book on her blog some while back, and I gulped it down one weekend when I barely left the computer because I wanted to find out what happened Next.
And—pleased to report—the published book is Even Better.
Ree’s story is a dramatic and wonderful romance, except that it’s real life. With cow manure.
She was a city gal all set to move to Chicago when she met a gorgeous hunk of a cowboy (Marlboro Man, who also is kind and decent–and can such a paragon of such goodness really exist?), and mere weeks later, they were full-on in love and she wasn’t going nowhere (except to the ranch).
The good news about this whole thing is this: Ree’s voice is lively, and she doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at herself. I like that in a person.
And besides that, she is, as I mentioned, funny as hell. I laughed for 5 minutes straight (unusual reading behavior) when reading about her sweat gland attack while attending a wedding with Marlboro Man.
And the delightful thing is that a person isn’t left stranded after the book ends, because her blog rages on.
This book. I loved it.

*All I have to do is remind myself that a ranch ain’t nothing but a farm with a fancy name, and I sober up fast from those rosy dreams. Farms are hard work. And farm animals, they are odiferous. And libraries full of books are far, far away from farms. And ranches.

Happiness in book form

Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson
Normally I read fast.
But when Craig Johnson has a new book, I take my time.
There are so few authors whose books just bliss me out. He’s one of them.
Several nights ago, here was the situation: I’m on the sofa, reading page 6, laughing out loud. I ask you: Does it get any better than that?
In this latest novel, which is every bit as good as all of the earlier books (can it be that they’re getting even better as the series progresses?!) Sheriff Walt Longmire has a situation with the town junkman and his family—and then someone dies, and it looks like an accidental death—but no. Plus, one of his deputies has given notice. And Walt’s daughter is engaged to a cop, so that’s making him all weirded out, too. In other words, we’re all set up for one heck of a story.
I’ve raved before. I’ve raved often. But truly, there is no other narrative voice that can match Walt’s.
In an interview on “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl” from last year (on October 8, 2009—the podcast is available via iTunes), Craig Johnson said that sometimes, at book signings, people will give him notes to pass along to Walt Longmire. (I’m thinking some of them are marriage proposals.) Anyway, the thing is: Walt seems so darn real—flawed and funny and just plain decent.
But here’s the thing: The author has given us wonderful characters, but he also creates tight, interesting plots and a sense of place that just won’t quit.
In other words, he’s got it all going on.

Humor as Dry as the Dust Bowl

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard

Since I’m a frighteningly bad navigator of the roads, it probably should come as no surprise that listening to this audiobook caused me to completely miss my turn and overshoot by about 10 miles before even realizing it.

But I tell you: that’s how good this audiobook is. I was completely engrossed, and I contend that narrator Arliss Howard is simply a genius. Here he delivers the best audiobook narration I’ve ever heard.

Plus I’d not read anything by Elmore Leonard before, and now I think I might be a convert.

This book has it all going on: two young punks—one “good” (U.S. Marshal Carl(os) Webster is clearly the good guy, though he truly delights in shooting bad guys) and one “bad” (Jack Belmont, the rotten son of an oil millionaire); a variety of other supposedly secondary characters—who are sufficiently well-drawn that they threaten to take center stage (witness Carl’s dad, the Marine who fought in the Spanish-American War, and Louly, a gun-slinging young woman who yearns for an outlaw of her own—but ends up with a lawman instead); a wonderfully gritty setting—dustbowl Oklahoma during the Great Depression; and a plot that just won’t let go of you.

The combination of Leonard’s bone-dry humor and Howard’s deadpan delivery make this audiobook nothing short of perfection.