One writer’s picks for memorable gifts of literature

We are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in Montana as far as good books by good writers, so for your gift-giving pleasure, I thought I’d cite some of the best Montana books I’ve read in the past couple of years. I’m going to focus mostly on writers that aren’t getting as much attention as I think they should.

Novels

♦ “A Bloom of Bones” by Allen Morris Jones.

Although this story revolves around a murder, it’s really more of a love story about a crusty Montana rancher and his New York agent. Much like Allen’s first novel, “Last Year’s River,” the writing in this book is often breathtaking.

♦ “The Widow Nash” by Jamie Harrison Potenberg.

This story of a late 19th-century woman who fakes her own death to escape from a wealthy, overbearing father and a fiancé she despises is so richly told, by the daughter of Jim Harrison. Jamie’s first book in many years is well worth the wait.

♦ “Brave Deeds” by David Abrams.

Not exactly an obscure writer, but this was one of the best novels I read this past year, about six soldiers tramping AWOL through Baghdad to try to get to the memorial service for their fallen leader. An amazing exploration of war, told from a first-person- plural point of view.

♦ “Shaking Out the Dead: by Kate Cholewa.

This story of a young woman who reluctantly agrees to raise her recently deceased sister’s daughter explores small-town Montana through the eyes of several complex and interesting women characters, without a hint of sentimentality. A point of view that needs to be celebrated more in Western literature.

♦ “The Ploughmen” by Kim Zupan.

This novel is both brutal and tender, a journey of friendship between men in the West, a subject that is hard to write about because it’s never simple or easily explained.

♦ “The Buffalo Commons” by Richard Wheeler.

Wheeler has written more books than the rest of us combined, and there are few better at combining fact and fiction, as he does expertly here in a story about the struggle between our past and the present.

♦ “Canyons” by Samuel Western.

The lives of two men are linked in very complicated ways by a tragic event. When they reconnect 30 years later, both still struggling to come to terms with what happened, it leads to surprising results.

♦ “Mile Wide, Mile Deep” by Richard O’Malley.

An oldie but goodie, this seminal novel about mining in Butte follows the lives of two young men through childhood and then into the mines, where they both plan to just work for a few years to get enough money together to move on to bigger dreams. This is a great novel about the invincibility of youth.

Short story collections

♦ “Maple and Lead” by Aaron Parrett.

A wonderful collection of quirky but poignant short stories by a guy who has written some of the most original books to come out of our state in the past few years. I predict that it’s just a matter of time before he breaks through to great success.

♦ “Survivors Said” by Matt Pavelich.

This book has one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time in “Himself, Adrift.” But the whole collection is astonishing, garnering praise from such luminaries as Evan Connell, one of my heroes.

♦ “All I Want is What You’ve Got” by Glen Chamberlin.

After struggling to come to terms with the death of her daughter, Glen Chamberlin came back strong with this collection, establishing her right up there with the two previous writers among the best short story writers Montana has to offer.

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♦ “Ballet at the Moose Lodge” by Caroline Patterson.

Patterson is especially strong when it comes to writing about family dynamics, and there is plenty of that here.

♦ “Off the Path II” by Adrian Jawort.

This collection of stories from indigenous people from all over the world is a true labor of love by a visionary writer and editor. Stories by Cinnamon Spears and Sterling HolyWhiteMountain are particularly powerful.

Essays

♦ “Accidental Gravity: Residents, Travelers, and the Landscape of Memory” by Bernard Quetchenbach.

Thought-provoking and insightful essays about the relationship with place, both physical and psychological.

Poetry

♦ “When We Wake in the Night” by Tami Haaland.

Wonderful collection by a former Montana poet laureate.

♦ “Talkativeness” by Earl Craig.

Another poet laureate, and one of the funniest poets I’ve ever read. He’s also a farrier, which makes him the most interesting man in Montana.

♦ “This Vanishing” by Dave Caserio.

Caserio’s poems are brutally honest and emotionally raw. To get the full effect, you need to see him read them live, but still, reading them gives you an idea of how talented this man is.

♦ “Lament of the Antichrist in a Secular World and Other Poems” by Cara Chamberlain.

Does this title not tell you everything you need to know already? Yes, it’s weird and wonderful. Chamberlain bases these poems on various stories from the Bible, and adds her own interesting twist to each of them.

Russell Rowland has published five books, his latest being “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey.” He lives in Billings, where he teaches online workshops and works one-on-one with other writers.

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