In 1882, a ranch hand saw a fire on the prairie. When he went to help, he discovered the body of Daniel Wolfe.

A color, antique postcard of Main Street, Miller, South Dakota

Daniel Wolfe arrived in Miller, a year-old boomtown in the Dakota Territory, on October 6, 1882. Having traveled the hundred or so miles from Mitchell, he took a room at the newly opened, three-story Vanderbilt Hotel. There he kicked off his boots and likely took measures to secure what gossips later claimed was a “considerable” amount of money.

Wolfe was a bachelor, pushing fifty and beginning to lose his hair, an effect he mitigated with a fashionably…


In Memoriam: Frances Wolfe

Frances Wolfe laughs with her daughter Bridget during a reading in March 2017 (Peter Hedlund).

Frances Wolfe — a mother and a baby sister, a voracious reader of short stories and a somewhat pestering patron of the downtown library, a lover of poetry and Willie Nelson, a gardener, a back-deck-sitter, a birdwatcher, a fierce and only reluctantly unarmed enemy of black squirrels, a churchgoer, a caregiver, an unapologetic snoop where the neighbors were concerned, a former Republican, a former Catholic, a former wife, a former smoker, a former teacher, a feminist and a liberal, a knowledgeable and at times overenthusiastic fan of Hawkeye basketball, a cardplayer, a southpaw, a virtuoso storyteller…


The great Jewish novelist struggles, beautifully, to write a memoir.

Aharon Appelfeld

In this terrifying and beautiful memoir, The Story of a Life, published in 2003, Aharon Appelfeld does more than tell his life story (although, with his elliptical style, which can be rather like a narrative form of Swiss cheese, it sometimes seems as if he does less than that, too): the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor battles history itself.

Of course, the Holocaust is everywhere these days, employed in all manner of fiction and film for purposes large and small.¹ Philip Roth puts it to original use in The Plot…


Vietnam’s most famous dissident publishes her fifth novel in English.

Duong Thu Huong

When it rains on page 1 of Duong Thu Huong’s No Man’s Land, published in 2005, you know something’s up. That’s because in Vietnamese novels, the heavens are always trying to shoulder their way into the action, dousing characters with water or setting the odd fire, usually in an attempt to prove they’re wise to danger ahead or perhaps the cause of it. (Elsewhere in No Man’s Land, which, believe it or not, is a painstakingly realistic novel, a ghost shows up to taunt his killer, and the moon gets…


Sherlockian “scholars” pay tribute to the sleuth by pretending he actually lived.

At the end of an otherwise spirited introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, John le Carré seems a little defensive.

“Do not be dismayed,” he warns us for no particular reason. “Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love.”

Now, imagine you are someone who has just plunked down $75 for Leslie S. Klinger’s massive two-volume compendium of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories (published in 2004), 1,900 pages full of annotations on everything from Victorian public schools to Holmes’s sex life, not to mention the Sherlockian…


Underestimate the novelist Carolyn Chute at your own risk.

Carolyn Chute at home

We’re all familiar with the author archetype, wherein a great writer is squeezed like a lemon — usually by the movies — into a sour but user-friendly cliché: the reclusive J. D. Salinger–type, appearing in both Field of Dreams and the more recent Finding Forrester, the tipsy Faulkner effete (Barton Fink), the restless, sex-stuffed Bacchanalians (Henry & June), and the hopelessly romantic Bard (Shakespeare in Love). Think of them as cinematic shorthand in an age that likes its sentences short and punchy. …


On learning to fail

Instead, it is me trying to remember the beginning, sitting here with the lights turned low and the clicking hum of my ceiling fan, trying to remember. For Dr. Culver it had been like quoting Shakespeare or the Bible. Standing in the carpeted lobby at Symphony Hall in Chicago, we asked him something about the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. “Oh sure!” he exclaimed and vigorously hummed the opening bars in perfect tune. Even under such a shower of saliva we were dumbstruck. After that we tried to stump him, with names like Hindemith and Piston, but it…


Mapping a troubled history along the backroads of Iowa

Over the Corn, Eastern Iowa, by Neal Wellons (Flickr)

1

My father grew up fatherless in nearby Delmar. But his father’s grandfather, who landed in Lost Nation after leaving Kerry in 1847 and who became, according to his esteemed son the judge, “one of the largest landholders and most successful farmers” in the area — his spirit seemed to whistle through these fields. The Wolfes of Lost Nation. For a hundred years they spread like quackgrass across the township, raising farms, crowding the rolls of the Democratic Party, and marrying McGinn girls, and McAndrews. …


A man is always more complicated than his paper trail — especially when he’s your father, who walked out one day.

Father and son, 1991

1

The policeman, having just kicked open the back door, missed it. So did the EMTs and the out-of-sorts neighbor lady, her eyes all fear and water. Instead, it took Mom and Sara, with damp washcloths over their mouths, to finally notice it the next day — just sitting there on the table by the recliner in my dad’s house: a standard-sized manila envelope marked in Dad’s sloppy cursive:

Death.

Inside the envelope was a typed letter dated almost exactly…


Watchmen (Absolute Editions) by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins (DC Comics, 464 pages, 2005)

Who’s watching Watchmen? Everybody apparently. This book — or comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it — has been picked apart endlessly in the decades since it was first published, every frame microscopically studied, its plot, characters, and symbols charted out no less elaborately than Ulysses’. Its fans, like fans of everything else, are intensely protective and argumentative. Reading a book like this now, for the first time, is likely to result less in actual criticism than in intellectual…

Brendan Wolfe

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.

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