Montana book review: First-rates reads
By DOUG MITCHELL
Another stunner from one of Montana’s most treasured fiction writers, a clear-eyed and interesting look at farming pulse crops in Big Sky Country, a moving book of poems from a Helena native, and a Montanan’s take on one of the most popular fiction titles in recent years. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a pleasingly diverse set of books.
Riverhead Books, New York – 2013
- Read an author Q&A with Sweet Thunder author Ivan Doig
Ivan Doig has done it again. With his newest offering, Sweet Thunder, one of America’s most treasured writers of western literature transports readers to another place and another time. Using just ink and paper, Doig somehow makes us feel a part of the very landscape and era about which he is writing while at the same time telling a story that keeps the pages turning.
And Sweet Thunder is quite a story. Set in early 20th century Butte, Doig’s 12th novel showcases the globetrotting Morrie Morgan as he makes his way back to the mining city. Frequent Doig readers will be familiar with Morgan and will be as delighted as I was to see his return to the page. New Doig readers won’t miss a beat because Sweet Thunder and Morgan require no introduction or previous understanding by the reader.
Sweet Thunder stands alone beautifully as a special work and when combined with Doig’s Whistling Season and Work Song makes a powerhouse trilogy that belongs on the bookshelf of any reader who enjoys the history of the West.
In this offering, Doig plants us smack in the middle of the conflicts between union activists and the mining company high atop and far below the “Richest Hill on Earth.”
Morrie Morgan takes a job as the editorial writer for a new, union-backed opposition newspaper, dubbed “Thunder,” and the battle is on.
I’m betting you can see in your mind’s eye some of the story line, but Sweet Thunder is much more than any other book that tells a familiar story.
I was most taken with the depth of the characters in which Doig invests in the telling of this story. The relationships between, and challenges faced by, characters we care about from the very first page will likely make this book about different things for different readers.
The love story between Morrie Morgan and his wife, Grace, was the thread that most delighted me. He’s not perfect, she’s not perfect and the relationship doesn’t get within the same zip code of perfect. And yet there is something genuine, charming and vulnerable about it that I will long remember.
Worry not though. If that particular thematic element of the book doesn’t sound interesting to you there are countless other treasured threads. Griff and Hoop, Mr. Sandison, and Morgan’s opposing editorialist “Cutlass” provide compelling drama that found me dragging the book everywhere I went and sneaking a quick read at every opportunity just to see what would happen next. Woven together through the expert hands of Ivan Doig, these threads make Sweet Thunder a beautiful tapestry indeed.
Lentil Underground – Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America
Penguin Group, New York – 2015
- Read an author Q&A with Lentil Underground author Liz Carlisle
It’s amazing what can come from the bottom drawer of a metal desk on Cruse Avenue in Helena. You see, that’s where I pick up advance reader copies of books sent to Montana Magazine for consideration as a potential book review. In early November, I swung by the office, left my truck running outside and was given a pile of books that had accumulated in the drawer. I always read the publisher information and at least the first chapter of each book to see if it might be a good fit.
From nearly the moment I began reading Lentil Underground I knew this book was a hit in the making. I remember literally, stopping reading – still in the prologue – putting the book down and breathing. This was going to be an important story that would spark a significant discussion about farming and food in Montana and across America.
I devoured the book and went on a search for the author, Liz Carlisle, a native Montanan who I found in Berkeley, California, (now Dr. Carlisle, PhD) where she is a fellow at the University of California. I wanted to know more about the genesis of her research and the roots, if you will, of this landmark book about a group of farmers in Montana who have been at the forefront of the organic farming and emerging pulse crop movement. Carlisle was kind enough to do a lengthy and far reaching interview with me that you can find at www.MontanaMagazine.com. Our interaction confirmed that in Carlisle and her book we have on our hands something very special.
Lentil Underground is a very well researched, expertly written book about how, through the courage and conviction of a few farmers, Montana went from growing virtually no pulse crops two decades ago to being one of the top five largest producers of peas and lentils in the country. It is the story of Dave Oein and his company, Timeless Seeds, and a dedicated group of agricultural innovators who, acre by acre, are changing the very landscape of Montana.
In many ways, this shift in approach is tantamount to a social revolution. The farm economy has an organizational inertia that is at the core of the very social structure of Montana’s small towns. Challenging that view equates to challenging the status quo – the very idea of how things should be and how they should look.
This kind of book could easily fall into what I call the “soapbox” category where the author uses the nonfiction moniker to prove a point or take a position. Carlisle rises above that trap and presents a clear-eyed, warts-and-all book that examines the case of the “renegade farmers” complete with the problems they face and the promise the future could hold.
Equally impressive is that, as we would expect from a Montana native, Carlisle does all of this not from the safety of her office. No, she gets her hands dirty and sees for herself first-hand what’s “on the ground” in her home state.
This combination of serious academic research and authentic human interaction is perhaps what makes Lentil Underground not only an important book but a great read. Carlisle introduces us to Oein and a plethora of other members of the Lentil Underground in a way that is accessible, personal and compelling. The writing is top notch and the reader is allowed to make his or her own conclusions about the information presented.
I learned a ton from reading Lentil Underground including the fact that the delicious garnish on my favorite dish at Blu Funk’s Bigfork restaurant Showthyme is, in fact, a specialty lentil called Black Beluga. Who knew?
The publisher materials and book cover evoke the name of Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, and while that might help sell a few books, I’m not sure it is a very good comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Omnivore’s Dilemma, but in my view Lentil Underground is the better book. Perhaps that’s because it is about Montana, includes some people I know and others about whom I have heard. But I think it’s more than that. I think it is about the purity of Carlisle’s approach to the subject and the care she takes to be honest and fair.
My guess is you are going to hear a lot in the coming months and years about Liz Carlisle, her book and her work. As for me, I’m heading back downtown to see what else is in the bottom of that desk drawer
chasers of the light
Penguin Group, New York – 2014
First, an admission. I’ve known Tyler Gregson since he was a kid. I watched he and his sisters grow up here in Helena (all named after baseball legends by the way) and have to admit when I was asked if I had read Tyler’s book of poetry I was a bit taken aback. Tyler? Poetry?
Yes. Tyler. Poetry. Wow.
chasers of the light is a transcendent experience for a reader like me who is not inclined toward poetry. It is accessible, smart, creative and achingly beautiful.
Gregson is clearly a creative soul.
He is an expert photographer and clearly has a mind that sees things through a lens that sees light and hope and love in a way that few do. More important though, through the written word – in this case poetry – Gregson can somehow open his mind’s eye to the rest of us.
The poems that comprise chasers of the light are short, compelling and unified around the themes of wonder, beauty and love. As we stood in line at the Montana Book and Toy Co. to get our copy signed by the author, my wife Julie and I were by far the oldest people in the crowd, many of whom had driven hundreds of miles to be there and visit with Gregson about how his poems had connected to their life journeys. It was impressive indeed and as I cracked open my copy over a cup of coffee the next morning, I too found a connection with Gregson’s work.
Gregson uses some interesting practices in presenting some of the poems in chasers of the light.
For example, in some cases he will limit himself to the page of a book. Using only a blackout pen to eliminate the words he does not want to use. The remaining words make up the entirety of his poem in a manner that is both visually interesting and intellectually thought provoking.
Gregson’s book will stay on the Mitchell family coffee table for a long time and I would guess it’s only the opening salvo in what promises to be a promising career for a gifted writer.
Little Brown, London – 2014
The runaway bestseller and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction The Goldfinch will be coming out in paperback in the United States in early April. And it’s a lot of paper.
I naively ordered my paperback version late last year not understanding it would take weeks to arrive from London. When the book finally cleared customs, it came in at a stout 864 pages and in a tiny font that had me reaching for my seldom-used reading glasses.
I have to admit that while I appreciate the magnitude and scope of the book as a literary achievement, it is not one that I’ll list in my top 10.
The title refers of course to the Dutch master painting of the same title that has recently been on tour in the United States along with “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” and other priceless pieces. Told in the first person by the book’s main character, Theo Decker, The Goldfinch weaves an intriguing tale that begins with Theo as a teenager visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to see the painting on the way to a meeting at school. There is an explosion, Theo’s mother is killed and Theo leaves the museum injured, in a daze and with the painting in a canvas bag.
What follows is a circuitous, creative and somewhat creepy tale that takes us from New York to Las Vegas and back as Theo comes of age and the painting comes to be, for him, a little bit like what the “One Ring” came to be for Schmiegel and Bilbo Baggins.
The characters are beautifully crafted, mostly flawed people to whom I found it hard to connect. I guess that’s why I didn’t love The Goldfinch. I like books that bring me in close and I felt like The Goldfinch kept me at a distance.
I won’t argue with those who argue the book is a “must read.” By page 400 or so, I was fully invested and couldn’t put it down. It is that good. In fact, if I had to pick an historical work with which to compare it, I would pick Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both are an investment, both are dark and both are important.
So understand going in that The Goldfinch is an experience in 21st century literature rather than a feel-good pager turner.
Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.
Water Craft: Swan Lake family builds custom canoe legacy
By BUTCH LARCOMBE
Photos by LIDO VIZZUTTI
Tucked into the cozy shop is half of a canoe, its bow in the air and stern on the floor, retrofitted with shelves to hold brochures and magazines. When a visitor asks Greg Morley about his start in canoe building, he points at the upended craft and smiles.
That canoe, largely constructed of plywood and a remnant Morley’s first foray into boat building, was a means for a cash-strapped University of Montana graduate to explore rivers and lakes.
“I wanted a boat and it was a cheap way to get it,” he recalls.
Not long after fashioning the plywood boat and inspired by a conversation with “an old hippie in Portland,” Morley borrowed a technique used to make early racing canoes and fashioned a craft with a hull formed with long, thin cedar strips.
“They were really built for the method, not for performance and design,” Morley said.
- View a video about Morley Canoes by Nicolas Heitert of Lens Air Films
But that early strip canoe was the start of a long, fulfilling, still unfolding chapter in the life of Morley, his wife Anne, and more recently, Steve Morley, one of the couple’s two sons, who returned to Montana about a decade ago to build canoes alongside his father in the small shop that sits along Montana Highway 83 in Swan Lake.
Sitting in front of the Morley Canoe shop’s welcoming woodstove, the father and son shared stories of their paths into the canoe business. Outside, tall mountains cast shadows into the mirrored waters of Swan Lake, golden larch trees framing a postcard-worthy fall day.
To read the entire Morley Canoe story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Ghost Sign Scrutiny: Butte grapples with how restore outside ads
By CLAUDIA RAPKOCH
Many a ghost story has been written about Butte.
The city’s metropolitan past is rich with colorful characters, drama and intrigue. But it was also an urban center where thousands of people lived their lives – and that made it a prime target for advertisers.
Long before interstate highway billboards or other forms of modern media existed, there was only one way to reach potential customers on a daily basis outside of the newspapers. Advertisers made use of the most readily available canvas at the time – buildings.
Companies hired sign painters, called wall dogs, to travel the country and promote their products. These painters were a combination of salesmen, artists, engineers, chemists and daredevils, and Butte’s population made it an obvious place to advertise regional national brands such as Bull Durham Tobacco, Rex Flour, Sweet Caporal Cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
That was long ago.
Today, the remnants of the advertisements painted on walls are called ghost signs.
To read the entire Ghost Sign Scrutiny story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Art of the State: Montana artists well represented in museum’s permanent collection
By Kelsey Dayton
Every work of art in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s 11,000- piece collection has a story.
Sometimes the stories are obvious and told in paint. Sometimes they are hidden, secured in history and legend. Sometimes the story is about the sculpture. Sometimes it is about the sculptor.
But when the best of the collection comes together it tells the stories of the histories of the museum, art and Montana.
To celebrate its 120th anniversary, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture is featuring an exhibit of 120 pieces from its permanent collection. Paintings, prints, ceramics, photography and tapestries, as well as traditional and contemporary Native American art and Southeast Asian textiles, are on display in the anniversary exhibit.
The show, divided into two galleries on the University of Montana’s campus, is meant to be a global experience, said Barbara Koostra, director of the museum.
Brandon Reintjes, museum curator, selected works that showcase the diversity of the permanent collection, along with works important to the museum.
MMAC is hosting a series of special events to celebrate the permanent collection’s 120th anniversary
Art of the State: Celebrating 120 years of the MMAC Permanent Collection
Show hangs through May 23 in the Paxson and Meloy Galleries in the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana. The museum is open to the public during the academic year from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday with a $5 donation. For more information call 406-243-2019 or visit http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.
- Free talk ““Predilections and Possibilities: the Virtues of a Teaching Collection” by art history and criticism professor Rafael Chacon 7 p.m. March 3 at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. March 7 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on European and American masterworks, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 19.
- Display of two tapestries 7 p.m. March 19 in the Masquer Theater at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on contemporary and modern art 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. April 9.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. May 2 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
To read the entire MMAC story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Homegrown Guitars: Pieces of Montana provide perfect instrument material
By CORY WALSH
Photos by KURT WILSON
To build instruments that reflect a sense of place, Sean Kochel hunts down the materials other people are casting aside.
The wood from a barn a farmer planned to burn down. Refuse most hikers would ignore, such as spent ammunition and elk bones.
He knows there’s a surfeit of guitar-makers out there, and the vintage Montana look these materials provide helps the Potomac resident stand apart in the crowded marketplace.
“I was trying to stay with this Montana image – with Montana being kind of rustic” he said.
He doesn’t want his guitars to look too pretty, and doesn’t spend hours on a sparkly finish.
- View a video of musician Lou Shields playing a Kochel Guitar
Take one of his electric resonator models, which appears to have been squirreled away “in someone’s basement for 100 years,” he said.
The body and the neck are hand-crafted from wood he salvaged while tearing down an 1864 barn at the far end of the valley.
He’s collected an entire stack of reclaimed boards in his shop.
The Shelby native has used wood from torn down buildings in Toole, Pondera and Glacier counties, such as a 1903 commercial dairy in Cut Bank or a dilapidated 1895 railroad icehouse in Conrad.
Kochel saved the galvanized metal used to patch the barn to craft the pickguards. To accentuate the already weathered look, he rubs the scraps raw and pours acid on them, resulting in a rusted finish ribboned with bright oily tones that contrasts with the aged metal.
The nut, the small strip that separates the neck from the headstock, is carved from Rocky Mountain elk bone.
“When I first started doing this I saved all the bones when I went hunting. I boil ‘em up and then cut ‘em up,” he said, and then shapes them into an instrument-ready form.
The eye-catching tone and volume knobs originated with a special request from Josh Peyton, who leads an Indiana roots trio called Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The Reverend didn’t want standard knobs, which are typically utilitarian plastic or metal parts.
He wanted shotgun shells.
“Once people saw that, everybody wanted it,” Kochel said. It’s been standard on all of his designs since.
The frets, too, are marked not by ivory inlays, but the ends of spent ammunition.
He fires off those shotgun rounds himself. After all, the full-time, 60-instrument-a-year Kochel outfit is a one-man operation.
“From tearing it down to ripping the stinky elk hide off the bone,” he said.
He’s collected old beer cans from Highlander, Carlsberg and the like and makes them into old-school, dirty blues microphones.
There are limits to the Montana-made aspect. He works with Rio Grande, a high-end boutique pickup company in Texas.
Lately, he’s been using resonators from a defunct Tennessee factory owned by Dobro legend Tut Taylor.
However, Kochel recently bought a computer-controlled cutting machine, which will enable him to cut reclaimed metal into his own intricate designs.
Kochel has a handful of standard models, but each instrument is made to order with customized options available.
He has a Telecaster-like design, although the artificially aged finish looks striking compared to a glossy new factory Fender. To further stand out, he makes a resonator model as well.
The Tele, which he calls the “406,” has been a hit with customers in England, who’ve inquired about the area-code marker on the pickguard – he likes to tell them it’s the brand of Montana.
Kochel has many overseas customers – Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand – far-flung places that are home to many roots music fanatics – blues fans that can rattle off obscure trivia about their genre of choice.
“They have this admiration and knowledge that I think most Americans don’t seem to have,” he said.
He also makes acoustics, which are more time-consuming, and more obscure instruments such as a banjo uke, a hybrid instrument that has the scale and strings of a ukulele with the body, neck and tuning of banjo.
He said the instrument was popular in the vaudeville era, and disappeared along with it.
Kochel inherited his love of history from his father, Larry Kochel, who worked for Montana Power Co. for 35 years.
When Larry passed away in 2004, Sean took refuge in history-related, process-heavy hobbies. He taught himself the exhaustive techniques of wet-plate collodion photography – both he and his father admired the photos of Darius Kinsey, who documented Northwest loggers at their remote worksites. Kochel taught himself the archival process and he has since led classes on the art form, which can take 20 minutes to make a photograph.
He’d carved wood since he was young. When he’d mentioned that he wanted to start making guitars, his brother Rian forwarded him an email about cigar-box models.
After early success selling guitars at Missoula farmers market, he worked his way up to a production level of 60-some per year.
As more guitar-makers flooded the market with cigar-box models, Kochel decided to branch out into full-fledged six-strings.
Using old blueprints, online tutorials and much trial and error, he honed his craft to the axes he makes today. He estimates he’s built 1,700 guitars to date.
Through his regular booth at the Saturday art market and his website, the instruments have caught the attention of touring musicians who want a rootsy sound and visual sensibility.
Artist and blues musician Lou Shields picked up a cigar-box guitar at the market when a tour brought him through Missoula.
“Kochel Guitars hit all of my senses at the same time,” Shields said. “As a visual artist, I was first taken by the look and feel of his guitars and his inspiring designs.”
The musician was tired of “cookie-cutter” designs and rigs built overseas, and Kochel represented the direct opposite.
Then there was the sound: “vintage, dusty, earthy and doggone good,” a match for the roots and pre-war blues Shields favors.
He’s taken it all across the United States and used it on studio recordings.
Peyton, meanwhile, is a self-described guitar obsessive who happened upon Kochel’s work online.
He had his six-string custom-built with a few special requirements, such as a neck the size of “baseball bat” that could accommodate unusually heavy .016-gauge strings.
“Kochel did a great job making sure that it had all the things I wanted, and it was customized with things that really make it feel like mine,” he said.
“That comes across to me in the mojo of the thing,” he said. “I truly love it.”
Peyton takes his Kochel guitar on the road with him – including gigs across the United States, Canada and Europe, and played it on several tunes for the Indiana trio’s latest recording, “So Delicious,” which was released in February 2014 on Yazoo Records.
In addition to the sound, there’s the look.
He said it’s as much of a piece of “folk art as it is an instrument.”
And like all folk art, it’s tied to a particular time and place, down to the barn wood maple.
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