Godforsaken Idaho [Review]


Godforsaken-IdahoGodforsaken Idaho

Shawn Vestal

Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

ISBN 978-05440-2776-3, paperback
209 pages, $15.95

When I first saw Shawn Vestal’s book with its picture of Joseph Smith on the cover and its title, Godforsaken Idaho, my first thought was “Hey, that’s where I grew up. What a great title.” By the time I got about half way through this collection of nine short stories, I was thinking that an alternative title could have been “Godforsaken Families.”

The pivotal story in this collection is the first one, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death.” In it the protagonist, Rex, experiences an afterlife filled with trips to the cafeteria, reunions with deceased family members, and a quest through his own past to find wonderful events that he can relive. What he finds, though, is a troubled search that starts with a hunt for perfect days and then degrades into a search for “great afternoons” or “great nights” (13-14) until he’d be satisfied with finding “One great hour”(18). Eventually Rex concedes that “you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment. Every second is crowded with life, with misery and anxiety that just won’t be stomped down” (14). And by the end of the story he settles on a moment that “lasts thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds” (26) as he stands smoking cigarettes on the Perrine bridge in Twin Falls.

What makes this first story so pivotal is the way Vestal connects his nine of stories through a significant family event – a dinner. After he’s been dead for a few hundred years, Rex attempts to have a large reunion dinner with his ex-wife and children who have also died. His plan to have dinner with just his immediate family falls apart when grand-children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and nieces are also invited. During this dinner he finds himself surrounded by many members of his family, the Todds, and his ex-wife’s family, the Warrens. What makes this so important is that many of these characters appear again as the reader progresses further into the collection – finally meeting Joseph Smith himself in the final story entitled, “Diviner.” Rex says that he conceives of the family dinner idea 326 years after his death, so from first story to last covers about 500 years of his family’s history of bad decisions in chronological order from the future into the past. Sara Warren, Rex’s great-great-grandmother, appears again in “Gulls” debating with herself as to whether or not to become one of Bishop Warren’s wives during the 1848 “miracle of the gulls.” Sara is also mentioned in passing in “Families are Forever.” And Rulon Warren, is the central character of “Opposition in all Things” which takes place in Franklin, Idaho, a few years after WWI. Somewhere in each story is some small link to the first story that gives this collection an overarching continuity that I wasn’t expecting in any author’s first published story collection.

In the third story in the collection, “Families are Forever,” the narrator describes his girlfriend’s parent’s house and an ornate sign in their dining room “done up in curlicues: FAMILIES ARE FOREVER” and then he adds that this message “sounded like a threat” (49). This threatening notion is a theme that the book keeps circling back to – but I don’t want readers to get the impression that Vestal is saying that families are a bad thing. This book is really an open-ended examination of the complex and, often, poor choices made by the protagonists and how their family history influences those choices and how those choices influence the future of their families.

Since this review is for The Idaho Librarian, I’ll throw in a warning that this book is not without controversy. Many of the book’s critics are labeling it as “anti-Mormon” because Vestal is a former member of the LDS church, and many of the book’s less than moral characters are also LDS, therefore, according to these critics, the book is anti-LDS. My personal response to that criticism is that the characters in this book are not being held up as examples of perfect moral behavior. I can’t think of any religion that would hope for their members to act the way these characters act. The protagonists in these stories are surrounded by bad choices and poor examples that they think they are unable to overcome. It is a very dark book, frequently moving, and often hilarious with great moments of insight into some very difficult families.

I would certainly recommend this book to any academic or public library interested in developing its collection of Idaho or Pacific Northwest authors.


George Williams is the Access Services Manager at Latah County Library District.

Sudden Death Over Time [Review]

reviewed by Michelle Armstrong

Sudden Death Over TimeSudden Death Over Time
John Rember
LeGrande, OR:  Wordcraft of Oregon LLC, 2012
ISBN, 978-1-877655-79-1, paperback
148 pages, $14.00

John Rember’s collection of short stories in Sudden Death, Over Time are both familiar and unexpected.  Born and raised in Idaho, Rember uses his knowledge of the state to develop settings which most Idahoans would recognize.  However, Rember was also a professor of literature and writing at the College of Idaho and Pacific University, and uses his experiences with academia to help him create stories which are both humorous and a little bit absurd.

As suggested by the book’s title, death as a theme runs throughout the stories.  In “Only I Have Escaped to Tell You,” two college professors are on a rescue mission to find a lost hiker.  Both men are struggling with issues of faith and seem unable to adequately respond to the possibility of finding the hiker’s body. Although death is a constant element throughout each story, Rember does not dwell on it in a morbid or depressing way.  Each story uses death to help frame ideas such as loss, ending, fear and resentment.  In “Dead Birds Don’t Make Good Pets,” a professor is unable to prevent a talented student from committing suicide.  In “The Old Guys Ski Club,” Rember expresses both empathy and pleasure as the girlfriend of the main character’s ex-wife reveals that her relationship has ended.  Occasionally Rember presents death as a kind of peace, as in the final story, “Sudden Death, Over Time,” where the main character finds some solitude as he celebrates his 54th birthday with his wife, Angel:

But memories are alive – they must be, considering all the damage they do. It’s probably good we can’t see them all the time. It’s probably good – for the sake of my birthday celebration – that Angle’s staked out a small space and time in this world where I can sit untroubled by my past and my future, my birth and my death (144).

These stories are also irreverent, particularly towards academia.  There is no idealized concept of the professoriate.  Instead, his characters are incredibly flawed and prone to breaching both decorum and official policy.  In “Selfish Gene,” Rember describes how the main character, a chemistry professor, has stored materials, including mercury, anthrax, and plutonium from the chemistry stockroom in his crawl space.  In the same story, he describes another professor who is fired after sleeping with a student.  Although he does not comment on the value of education, he does draw into question the importance of intellectual aspirations by highlighting political maneuvers by both faculty and administrators.  In “No Time for Poetry,” a candidate for a position with the English Department blackmails her way into the job, while in “Nocturne,” the university administration moves the main character into the basement of an old steam plant in order to encourage him to retire.

Sudden Death, Over Time will appeal to adult patrons of both public and academic libraries.  John Rember’s writing style is clear and accessible, and his artful prose is eloquent without being pretentious.  The eight stories never feel moralistic, but leave you with a sense that you have gained a deeper insight into the character’s motivations and relationships.  Most of all, Sudden Death, Over Time leaves you wanting more of John Rember’s work.

Michelle Armstrong is a librarian at Albertsons Library at Boise State University.  Ms. Armstrong oversees the development of ScholarWorks, Boise State’s institutional repository, and serves as the Library Liaison for the Graduate College and Department of Mathematics.

The Girls of No Return [Review]

reviewed by Sue B. Bello

The Girls Of No Return
Erin Saldin
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-31026-0 (hardcover)
352 pages, $17.99

The Girls Of No Return is Erin Saldin’s first novel which tells the story of the wilderness that exists within a young  girl named Lida and is told through her journal.  Lida has withdrawn into herself and further and further from those around her simply to survive.  The book is an irresistible and painful internal monologue told in Lida’s smart and witty yet cold voice.

As the novel inches along, the reader is given replayed snippets of a chilling childhood that set the stage for self-destruction. How does a small town Idaho teen become so bitterly lonely despite her doting father?  Chapter by chapter, her life line is craftily pieced together.  Lida’s years have been full of self-loathing, uncertainties, and devoid of friendship. She is estranged from herself and from the world around her.

In addition to revealing her childhood, Lida’s  journal also reveals her experiences at Alice Marshall School, a school for troubled female teens, in the River of No Return Wilderness area in northern Idaho.  The book moves full-circle until  Lida faces outright the life-altering consequences of her complicated friendship with two girls at the wilderness camp, Boone and Gia.  Boone is the toughest girl in camp while Gia is complicated and alluring. The two girls hate each other,  and Lida is caught in the middle and forced to make a choice which leads to the book’s climax.  Themes of trust, friendship and survival are explored in the wilderness setting.

Erin Saldin, in the acknowledgements, thanks her Mom and Dad for “settling in Idaho and forcing her to go to Girl Scout camp with Morgan Cole, whose father, Steve, took me on my first backpacking trip in the Frank Church Wilderness eight years later – an experience without which this book would never have been written.”  Erin  dedicates the novel “To Rob” who she recently married in the outback of Montana.  Morgan, Erin and Rob all graduated from Boise High.  Local girl makes good!  This debut book has received “stellar” reviews, and Idaho may claim another young and accomplished writer even though the Saldins now live in Brooklyn.

The Girls Of No Return is recommended to public and school libraries serving young adults, young adult teens and secondary students, as well as academic libraries with young adult collections or collections of Idaho writers.

Sue B. Bello, is a Teacher-Librarian and the Library Media Coordinator for Boise School District. 

How The Mistakes Were Made [Review]

reviewed by Heidi Naylor

How The Mistakes Were Made
Tyler McMahon
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011
978-0-312-65854-0, paperback
339 pages, $14.99

A few years ago, award-winning graduate student Tyler McMahon taught a popular research writing course at Boise State University on the history of rock and roll, all the while refining his literary talents in fiction. Now, his musical interests, combined with his imaginative gifts, have culminated in a high-energy debut novel titled How The Mistakes Were Made. The novel details the rise and nearly immediate collapse of The Mistakes, a Seattle-based post-punk band of the 1990s.

The voice of The Mistakes is their drummer Laura Loss, who might have foreseen the band’s downfall. She’d been in a similar place a decade earlier, when she was lured by a reckless sense of authenticity into her beloved older brother Anthony’s hardcore D.C. band, Second Class Citizens. Anthony has long since been derailed by the fan violence he helped to incite.

Laura blames The Mistakes’ demise on its audience as well. The jolting shifts of a fan base are nothing new in the world rock music, especially in punk rock.  On the one hand, Laura notes, “all these strangers scream for you . . . you’re the first lady of hardcore” (39). But on the other? “Poseur journalists” (3) and the fickleness of fans. “There are good reasons to fear adoration,” Laura tells us (9). “It won’t take long for it to turn . . . ” (137). Yet, between gulps of a Cold War, Laura’s preferred mix of vodka and Coke, she’s compelled to explain herself to her turncoat fans, these “brain-dead sheep” (3).

Thus, the novel is largely a story of reaction. Hardcore punk is presented as a youthful early 1980s response to both the bleakness of suburban life and the horrors of the Cold War. The flannel-clad Mistakes extend this response to early Seattle grunge rock.  Given that time and culture span, the novel’s title has a triple-entendre, if you count President Reagan’s 1986 explanation for Iran-Contra: “Mistakes were made”—an unfortunate phrase that both acknowledges error and sidesteps consequence.

Mistakes were made in Laura’s band, too; and they’re the ones we often make when we’re young. But the difference is that the band’s mistakes, like its music, are more hardcore. For all her toughness, Laura’s frailty in love and blustering need for human connection are easy to understand, compelling, even devastating. She’s witty, self-aware, clear-eyed, and brave. But sidestepping consequence is one thing Laura cannot do, despite all her explanations.

How The Mistakes Were Made has a particular appeal for young adults, high school and college students as well as music fans.  The book is recommended for libraries that serve these audiences and for libraries with an interest in Idaho authors

Tyler McMahon received his Boise State MFA in 2007. His stories and features have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, and other magazines. McMahon’s story, “A Pocket Guide to Male Prostitution,” was shortlisted for the 2009 Best of the West anthology.

Heidi Naylor teaches writing and literature at Boise State University.

Memory Wall [Review]

reviewed by Amy Vecchione

Memory Wall
Anthony Doerr
New York: Scribner, 2010, 2011
978-1-4391-8284-0 (pbk.)
267 pages, $14.00 (trade paperback)

Idaho’s own Anthony Doerr is widely recognized for being a distinctive author of literary fiction. His newest book, a collection of short stories entitled Memory Wall, exceeds expectations by carrying the reader into terrifically imagined stories. Each short story showcases a powerfully vivid yet cerebral plot, evocative of experiences common in this modern era. The stories address issues of our contemporary global society such as aging, memory, complex family structures, and infertility. Doerr draws conclusions in each story that are uncanny and unpredictable, leaving the reader to progress through each as quickly as possible to find out what will happen.

In the title story, “Memory Wall,” Doerr takes us to Cape Town, South Africa, in the year 2024. The main character’s memories have been recorded onto a sort of cartridge machine that allows her play them over and over again, losing herself in her own past. Her memory is so poor that she needs a wall of reminders to keep her up-to-date on her current situation. The tour that the reader takes to the ending of this story is enthralling.

Another story, “Afterworld,” speaks to the pain experienced during the exodus of individuals in Germany to concentration camps before World War II, and the way later generations contextualize the events. The main character is bound to her past, hallucinating her time in an orphanage, and some other strange places, during episodes of epileptic seizures. She is living in a surreal state of liminality. The following exchange between the survivor and her grandson represents the central theme of Memory Wall:

“That’s in your head,” Robert says. He twirls his father’s car keys around his index finger. “The doctor says what you see is only real in your head.”

“Real in my head?” whispers Esther. “Isn’t everything that’s real only real in our heads?” (211)

Doerr asks readers to consider this throughout the book, as each story’s characters seem to live within their own heads crafting their own interesting realities. This fantastic theme is reminiscent of a plethora of David Lynch television series and movies, such as Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, in which the main characters are all living within a reality of their own creation.

Memory Wall consists of a series of stories which transport us from our everyday lives into stories that help us understand our own experiences. This deep, wonderful, and transformative book is highly recommended for all libraries. Mature audiences will enjoy this book, as will all fans of intelligent, literary fiction.

Amy Vecchione is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.