Occupying the centerfold of this issue of The Bloomsbury Review is a wise, pithy conversation between two award-winning women writers of the West: Page Lambert and Laura Pritchett. Both have written for decades in multiple genres, but I had never heard of either. Their conversation is inspirational—grounded, specific, filled with references to writers, books, and the relationship between place and heart. “We are bound by a real and raw love of books and land,” Pritchett says near the end. For her, books and the natural world are so linked she “can barely see the difference,” possibly because she read books by the river when she was a child. Lambert says that Place (with a capital P) is as central to stories as a main character, listing Isak Dinesen, Jack London, and other writers as having formed her sense not only of place but also of writing that transfigures Place as Place transfigures the characters within it. The conversation—whose provenance is nowhere listed (where did it take place? When? Who transcribed it, or was it originally written rather than spoken?)—introduces me to women whose work I see I must learn more of. But by “work” I mean not only their fiction and nonfiction but also the unconventional ranching work they do daily, devoted to livestock, home, and place—the American West. Because this is where I live, this issue—this conversation—calls to me in particularly strong ways.
Such unique conversation is central to this issue of The Bloomsbury Review, not only materially—in the centerfold—but also conceptually. “For more than 34 years,” says an announcement toward the front of this 24-page newspaper-format magazine, “The Bloomsbury Review has reviewed books from small, independent, university, and large presses and from self-published authors for readers who wanted and needed to be informed about this . . . often overlooked spectrum of literature.” An advertisement on the back cover says, “We don’t plug the mega-bestsellers. . . . We seek out hidden gems and see that some of those new books find an interested and talented reviewer to do them justice.” No more worthy statement of purpose is needed. You won’t find Gone Girl here, or The Telling Room. You will find an essay on Aldo Leopold (“Learning from the Best” by Tom Wylie), describing who Leopold was and how children might be taught his wisdom. You will find Scott Russell Sanders’s 2012 collection Earth Works reviewed so intelligently (also by Wylie) that you’ll want to find a copy of it immediately and go to a river to read it. But you’ll also find over two dozen concise, well-reasoned reviews of fiction and nonfiction of the American West, and far beyond, fiction and nonfiction you’ve probably never heard of, and probably won’t anywhere else. This magazine thus renders a necessary and laudable service—and does it admirably.
It gets complicated to list the reviewers, summarize their reviews, and keep straight the books they evaluate so helpfully. Suffice it to say that no review is too short; every review is a brief essay, thoughtful, well-edited, and convincing. Both fiction and nonfiction are covered so well by reviewers like Denver gardener and yoga instructor Joan Isbell (reviewing a most thorough Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West by Jane Shellenberger, published by Fulcrum Publishing), John Nizalowski (reviewing Gifts from the Heart: Stories, Memories & Chronicles of Lucille Gonzales Oller published by the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs), Ray Gonzalez (reviewing Begging for Vultures: New and Selected Poems by Lawrence Welsh, published by the University of New Mexico), and many others, that readers in search of the new and unknown are enlightened quite beyond expectation.
The first half of the issue is, as I have remarked, devoted to books about the American West. Reviews in the second half, after the conversation between Pritchett and Lambert, are as diverse as in any literary supplement. There are also poems: the late Robert Burlingame’s “Crossing Rio Bravo Into Juarez” describes a man’s (a tourist’s? American?) concession to the foreignness he encounters on the other side of the river: “in his leaving / he heard life’s half-warbled low laugh / scarlet as the wounded sky.” Somewhat similarly, the late Janine Pommy Vega’s “Boots” is a poignant farewell to the footwear that has taken her on travels now irretrievably past.
Avid readers agree there’s almost nothing more satisfying than discovering more worthy books. What better thing could there be, then, than another review magazine, somewhat smaller than The New York Review of Books and much closer to home than The London Review and altogether devoted to two of any bibliophile’s prime causes, the independent press and the lesser-known writer? TBR is a wonderful find.