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Bibliolatry
33 Halliburton in Hell
32 Mr. Fabulous Chicken Fricassee
31 Little Dictators
30 The 2002 B-TOY Awards
29 My Fitness Goals
28 A Streetcar Named Darlene
27 Operation Enduring Irritation
26 Au Revoir
25 Jeanette MacDonald Among the Ruins
24 I, Flannel-Mouthed Shave Tail
23 The Center of the Universe
22 Some Ketchup with That?
21 That Loathsome Guild
20 Honey-Sweet
19 Buff-Daddy Bookseller
18 Dr. Seuss, Heretic
17 A Smart Bomb Sampler
16 Bin Laden, Bushranger
15 Puppet Nature
14 Character Determines Fate
13 Fundamentally Changed
12 The Smell of Rodent in the Morning
11 Planet of the Bobos
10 Poor William Rehnquist
9 What Michael Pollan Learned From His Alien Abductors
8 We Are in the End Times
7 The Incurable Disease of Writing
6 Halitosis of the Mind
5 My Mommy Fetish
4 Sherlock Holmes Was No Fancy Boy
3 Joyce Carol Oates Scares Me
2 Global Warming is Getting on My Nerves
1 I. Don't. Like. Dave. Eggers

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Powell's Q&A | September 3, 2014

Emily St. John Mandel: IMG Powell’s Q&A: Emily St. John Mandel



Describe your latest book. My new novel is called Station Eleven. It's about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company in a post-apocalyptic North... Continue »
  1. $17.47 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Station Eleven

    Emily St. John Mandel 9780385353304

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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
independent
bookseller
No. 24: 

I, Flannel-Mouthed Shave Tail

Editor's note:
Cowboy Carlisle? Yeah right. This is a man who calls Del Monte pork and beans "American cassoulet," a man who thinks riding the lawnmower is getting back to nature. For real tales of the American West, try one of these favorites, all set in the grand spaces west of the Mississippi.

Breaking Clean
Breaking Clean
by Judy Blunt


"A remarkable literary achievement. It is destined to be a classic in the literature of Western women; excerpts should end up in school anthologies for their brilliant evocation of blizzards and one-room schools." Sandra Scofield, The Oregonian

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Little Big Man
Little Big Man
by Thomas Berger


"One of the very best novels of the decade and the very best novel ever about the American West." The New York Times Book Review

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The Blue Bear
The Blue Bear
by Lynn Schooler


Though not about cowboy country, The Blue Bear does provide a riveting portrait of the last remaining American frontier, Alaska, finding "beauty in the frailty of life and impermanence against a grand setting." A wonderful book.

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Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy


"Blood Meridian...seems to me clearly the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer." Harold Bloom, The New York Observer

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Lasoo the Wind
Lasso the Wind
by Timothy Egan


"Egan has truly inhabited the rural, recreational, wild and historical places of the West that he writes about...and his pieces are detailed reporting at its best, built with information, history and statistics and enlivened by characters who are shifty and taciturn in ways peculiarly Western...." The Los Angeles Times

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Angle of Repose
Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner


This Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece was included in the Modern Library's best 100 novels of the 20th century and is among the best novels ever written about the American West.

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The Course of Empire
The Course of Empire
by Bernard DeVoto


"The whole story of the West as frontier, as dream and discovery, exploration and confrontation...[The Course of Empire is] monumental, massive, grandly conceived and beautifully controlled, a history of the West as imagination and reality and realization." Wallace Stegner

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I don't mean to be immodest, but it's commonly accepted that I strike a rather cosmopolitan figure. It generally takes people aback when I tell them that I'm not from London or Monaco, but from the high desert county east of the mountains, right here in Oregon. It takes them further aback when I tell them that I grew up on a cattle ranch, that I was once, like my father and his father before him, a genuine cowboy.

This is invariably assumed to be a joke, and we all have a good chuckle. But every so often I find this amusement annoying. Is it really so difficult to believe that I was once a cattle roper? People do change. After all, Anne Heche was once a lesbian. Michael Jackson used to be black. Why is it so unbelievable that I was once a cowboy?

Let me tell you what happened just yesterday. An older gentleman sat down next to me on the bus. Actually, the term "gentleman" is generous. The old coot's cowboy hat looked like it had been rolled in the mud and then baked, the piping on his "western" shirt was coming unraveled, and he reeked of cheap booze. His only saving grace was his boots, a sturdy, well-turned pair I could tell had been treating him well for some years. They were first rate, and I told him so.

"What would a ferner like you know about proper boots?"

I explained that I was actually a local boy, not a "ferner," and that I had not only grown up just over the mountains, but had spent the better part of my youth in the saddle and therefore knew a proper pair of boots when I saw them.

"Well, hell. No offense pardner, but that's a boot that jist don't fit. You look more flannel-mouthed shave tail than genuwine cowpoke. So stop pullin' my leg! You don't know a heifer from a hound dog."

It's difficult to explain my emotion at that moment. Perhaps impossible. But if you are to understand at all, you'll need to know something of my background and how I got to be where I am today.

Despite what you might assume from my current persona, I really did grow up on a ranch. I was the youngest of five sons born to a fifth generation rancher in what today seems a distant era. From an early age I took to the cowboy's life like an otter to water. I was in the saddle by age three and had roped my first steer by age five. At ten, I went on my first cattle drive, and I never missed another until I left the life years later. And I've never since discovered anything quite so satisfying as the spring cattle drive.

Hitting the range at dawn with my pa, my four older brothers, and 5,000 head of cattle just as a sweeping golden sunrise envelops a spacious sky. In every direction a windswept sea of grass stretches to the horizon. Me and my gentle Appaloosa, William, working in perfect harmony, shoring up our flank of the herd, keeping it orderly and moving in the right direction. Here and there a calf finds a bit of open space in which to frolic while its weary mother lumbers along lowing mournfully.

Dusty and spent after a full day's ride, we set up camp and feast on pork and beans. With a bottle of rye making its way around the campfire, older brother Jake starts playing his mouth harp. At first the music is melancholy. But as the whiskey gets warm in our bellies, his songs become increasingly lively, until we all join in, proclaiming loudly to the full dome of the night's stars the bawdy exploits of Sadie the Seersucker Whore, or Shane, the Sheep-Loving Cowboy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ma and Sis are making bacon, tending their potato rows, and laying up mincemeat so that when we all return there's a feast waiting. Over steaks the size of our canteens, we swap stories, my brothers and I poking gentle fun of John's flatulent horse, and Ma telling us about her trying work with the Ladies Christian Society bringing Christ to "those poor pagans over on the reservation."

Yes, it was a sweet life. But as these things go, our pastoral idyll would not last forever. I can look back today and realize that many events contributed to my eventual decision to leave. But I believe the beginning of the end was marked the day my brother Hank and I ran across that strange young man wandering around behind our barn.

I say "man," but at the time, we weren't quite sure what we'd stumbled on. Its hair, which was longer than my sister's, was so unkempt I thought maybe we'd strayed upon some oversized feral dog. But I've never known a dog to wear tattered red pajamas. And I've never known a dog to yell at approaching strangers, "Whooooaaaa. Purple elephants. Trippin'. Hey, purple elephants, can either of you spare a tab or two?"

We looked at one another, not sure what to do. I reminded Hank what we'd do to a dog that acted that way. But after a few moments, he jumped down, wrapped the delirious cretin up in a saddle blanket, and threw the whole package on the back of his horse. Ignoring the muffled cries from his horse's ass — "Help, I'm being kidnapped by worm people" — we headed over to the sheriff's office in town.

Sheriff Cooper greeted us at the door with a howdy and a handshake, but after Hank showed him why we'd come he seemed less than pleased to see us. I asked him if he knew what the hell it was. He spat in the dirt, and politely kicked dirt over it with his Tony Lamas.

"Yep, I know."

"You aim to fill us in?"

"Why don't one of you boys leave 'im in the office. I'll take care of it." Apparently not.

The whole incident seemed to put the sheriff into a foul frame of mind. He didn't even say good-bye when we left, though he did bother to call after, "Best burn that blanket."

It turned out that our loon in longjohns was a member of some religious cult that had recently bought the Jensen ranch and imported a few thousand members to live on it in small huts. They were all disciples of some egomaniacal guru who believed he was the current incarnation of Christ and whose idea of religious discipline was to take drugs and have sex with anyone you wanted.

Shocking as this was, it might have been no more than fodder for wry dinner conversation (after the youngsters had gone to bed, of course). But the group had imported so many followers — and promptly registered each of them to vote — they were able to effectively take over the county. Within six months, they had replaced every elected official in the county with one of their own.

As you can imagine, this changed the tenor of the town considerably. For example, Sheriff Cooper was succeeded by Sheriff Wajiloo, a stout former dentist from Salem who dyed her sheriff's uniform purple and refused to arrest anyone. She liked to keep the jailhouse free for parties.

We tried to pay as little attention as possible to the goings on over at the Jensen place. What happened in town had little impact on our own lives — so we thought. Though we didn't know if yet, our halcyon days were numbered.

The next spring, we set out on our cattle drive as usual. For a cowboy, there's nothing better than riding the range. It's just you and thousands of miles of open country. Climbing into the saddle that year, what with all the goings on in town, was a particular relief, like the world had been lifted off your shoulders.

As always, our first landmark was the river. Once we'd crossed that, we were off our own land and into open country. But we were in for a surprise. When we got there, the river was a shadow of its former self, a mere trickle. There wasn't enough water there to scare a cat. We found out why soon enough.

We were sitting there scratching our heads when Sis came flying up on her old mare Bessy. She was yelling something and waving the morning's newspaper. Turns out there was an article on the front page explaining that the state had agreed to lease California the water from the river — our river! — and had diverted it south. We sat in stunned silence.

But that wasn't all. As if on cue, Wajiloo drove up in her sheriff's car: "Good morning fellas" — fellas? — "I'm afraid we've got a problem. There's a law that says you can't drive a herd of cows closer than 100 yards of the river." — what river? — "Cows pollute waterways and pose a grave risk to several endangered species. I'm afraid I'm going to have to follow the law on this one."

"I thought you didn't arrest people?"

"Oh, I'm not going to arrest you. I'm just going to issue you a twenty thousand dollar fine."

That shut us up. All except first born Rudy, "Where the hell is our river?"

"You know, I couldn't say for sure. But last week His Holiness did buy himself a dozen Rolls Royces and a pair of congressmen." Looking pleased with herself, Wajiloo climbed back in her sheriff's car (recently enhanced with freshly tie-dyed seat covers). As she was pulling out, though, she rolled down her window. "Oh, I forgot one thing. I hope you fellas weren't planning to take those animals across that river. That's federal land over there. I'd hate to have to report you to the FBI."

Why, of all the nerve. Our family had been grazing cattle on that land for generations. If that two-bit dentist thought she could push us off our land, she had another thing coming.

In the end, though, we weren't given much of a chance to demonstrate our willingness to fight. It didn't really matter whether the government allowed us to graze on their land or not. It had already become impossible to make a living raising beef cattle on the open range. Market forces had finally rendered such a life impossible. No, the new rancher used scientific methods of animal husbandry, which boil down to a few, easy-to-follow guidelines: raise the cattle in vast warehouses; feed them corn instead of grass, the natural food of ruminants; inject them with enormous quantities of hormones so they will grow fat as purple elephants; and give them copious antibiotics so that their modern lifestyle won't kill them.

To help facilitate the family's transition to this new life, my father sent one of my brothers to college so that someone in the family would understand how to think about a cow as if it were a watermelon. To help out with finances, my mother accepted a job from the poor pagans over on the reservation dealing cards in their new, multi-million dollar casino.

Me? I just couldn't stomach it. I mulled it over for a few days, but when I'd made up my mind, I decided to have a talk with Pa.

I found him out in the barn oiling his saddle. "Pa, I'm going to cut straight to the quick. I don't think the modern cattleman's life is for me. You brought me up to be a cattle man, not a feedlot foreman. I've decided to do something else; I want to go to school."

Pa looked up from his work. He fixed me with a long stare, while he carefully weighed his response. "I can't say as I blame you, son. What kind of school did you have in mind?"

"Well, I've been debating between mechanical engineering and drama, but I'm having a hard time deciding. What do you think?"

He opened a tin of grease and scooped a generous amount onto his polishing cloth. "Those are two excellent choices, son. But my advice is to be practical. Everyone knows that mechanical engineers do pretty good. It pays well, and it's honorable work."

Applying the grease to the saddle in slow, even strokes, he continued. "But a successful drama expert can really make a name for themselves. You've heard of Joel Grey? Of course you have! Mary Martin? I don't even have to ask. Now, quick! Name me a mechanical engineer. Stumped, aren't you? I'd say your choice is obvious. You have my blessing to go to school, son. But you have my encouragement to become an expert dramatist."

Of course, he was right. I traded in my Stetson for a black beret, my flannel shirt for a brushed cotton J. Crew button-down, my boots for a stylish pair of suede Kenneth Coles, and headed off to a small college town in the Midwest. I even sold William and used the money as a down payment on a darling 1966 Corvair. Once at school, I learned to ask for hefeweizen instead of Budweiser, to prefer smoking Gitanes to dipping Skoal, and to describe a humid summer evening as "damp as Blanche Dubois's handkerchief" instead of "hot as a whorehouse on nickel night."

Though I do admit to a certain wistful nostalgia whenever I find myself underneath a dome of stars, or see a man in chaps, I don't regret trading in my former life roaming the vast expanses of the western wilderness for my current one navigating the rocky terrain of the Western Canon. And it was all so long ago, what difference does it really make? What's done is done.

÷ ÷ ÷

So I hope now you can see why that old codger on the bus who couldn't believe that I knew my way around the corral would get on my nerves. I suppose it's not fair to blame him, though. If I've so successfully transformed myself from dusty cow roper into worldly aesthete that a fellow cowboy fails to recognize me as one of his own, I should just take it as a compliment.

So I turned to the old man, and, smoothing my khakis and closing my copy of Fast Food Nation, responded, "The difference between a heifer and a hound dog? What's a heifer?"

—Carlisle

     

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