Best Reading 2009

Blue Tattoo, The: The Life of Olive Oatman
By Margot Mifflin. University of Nebraska Press. 280pp. Index. $24.95.
The 1851 Oatman tragedy continues to fascinate. Close on the heels of Brian McKinty's superb "The Oatman Massacre" (a 2005 SWBOY pick), Mifflin writes a haunting tale of captivity and a life lived in two worlds, as she painstaking separates fact from fiction in the sad story of Olive Oatman, the teenage girl held captive and returned to white society, where she became the reluctant central figure in an ongoing morality play projecting the lurid fears of Victorian America. Solid research in manuscript and ethnographic sources, coupled with a graceful writing style and a firm grasp of Olive Oatman's world(s), makes this a compelling and worthwhile read. []
No doubt about it, Olive Oatman's story is a good read. Here is Indian captivity, murder and adventure, Indians and the army, a long lost brother and sister reunited, a splinter sect of Mormon converts, the Methodists, an array of interesting cultures and innocent children. Hundreds of ;publications over time have distorted and magnified the story for its prurient interest. Mifflin gets it all in but lessens the drama by putting Olive's story in a cultural and historical perspective. The reader is left to reflect about Olive's complete acceptance of Mohave society since she expected never to return to her while world. Yet she did, and we become sympathetic to her situation and imagine the dilemma she faces in transition. []
Into the Beautiful North: a Novel
By Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown and Company. 352pp. $24.99.
In the village of Tres Camarones, somewhere near the southern border of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, 19-year old Nayeli suddenly realizes that all the men have “gone north” as her father did years before. Organizing a motley group composed of her two best female friends and an older, gay male chaperone, Nayeli leads her band just where the title says they should go: Into the Beautiful North. Funded by contributions from the village women, including the newly elected mayor, the first female to hold that position, they go in search of males to repopulate Tres Camarones, and Nayeli secretly wants to find that rascal, her father, who stopped sending money a long time back. A glorious piece of storytelling moved along by superb dialog. Urrea never misses a beat.
This novel is a farce comedy that will delight Southwest readers even though it does not take place in the Southwest. With flawless dialogue Urrea seamlessly tells the story of a merry band of Mexicans who venture to the United States to recruit seven retired Mexican cops or soldiers who will come to Sinaloa and save their village from narcos (banditos) in the style of The Magnificent Seven (or The Seven Samurai, one of whom magically appears in a Tijuana domp). Led by strong women, Nayeli Cervantes and Aunt Irma, mayor of her fishing village in Sinaloa, the characters are huggable and the plot predictable, but who cares. This romp reads as crisp as a stage play and deserves to become a movie. Along the way there are a few scares and many laughs about both cultures – movies, blonde actors, restaurants, NAFTA, Johnny Depp, immigration, apparel, and a junkyard “dawg” name Atómiko. If you’re looking for fun reading, this is the book. Let's hope a sequel is in the works. []
Naked Rainbow and Other Stories, The = El Arco Iris Desnudo y Otros Cuentos
By Nasario García. University of New Mexico Press. 242pp. $18.95.
The author's childhood village of Ojo del Padre (modern Guadalupe) in the Rio Puerco Vally southeast of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, provides the inspiration for these stories about the common folk in the tiny town. Whether it is the group of variously disabled men who meet regularly to curse their condition, or the village women who created their own method for permanently ridding the village of a cheating peddler, or the constantly maligned three-breasted woman who lived happily ever after, there is something to be learned about the human condition. Sometimes serious, often funny, perhaps even bawdy, the vignettes are a delight to read. The stories are also repeated in Spanish, an added incentive for those interested. []
Garcia writes these simple tales in Spanish then translates them himself, which means, of course, that he is free to translate them to suit himself. However, he provides both a glossary and a section of idiomatic words and phrases with his translations for those of his readers, like me, whose ability to understand is based in only one of the two languages. The characters who populate these stories are the common folk of central New Mexico; earthy, uneducated, simple, sometimes greedy, and almost always wise. Their stories are often funny and always to the point.
New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It
By Nancy C. Benson. Museum of New Mexico Press. 168pp. Index. $23.50.
The word colcha refers to a particular stitch in sewing but is often applied to finished products such as bedspreads and coverlets decorate with it. Benson describes its evolution in the New World, and particularly in the Southwest where it arrived with immigrants from farther south in Mexico. In addition to showing designs in excellent color photos she provides details of the lives of women in north central New Mexico, around Espanola, whom she credits with keeping the colcha tradition alive.
It is safe to say that there has never been one morning that I awoke thinking about embroidery, certainly not “colcha”-style which is a long, couching stitch typically used on bedspreads. But this book certainly merits eye-opening attention on any of several levels: its perfect photos of altar cloths, clothes, quilts, rugs, including revealing details; its well-told blending of history and domestic life; its knockout design that features a fine mix of color, font, and layout; its heartwarming stories about the New Mexico women who kept this tradition alive for the past four centuries; or its pure passion for the craft. It is a superb, cheersome book, and interesting also in that it is a softcover book with a jacket. []
No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels
By Jay Dobyns. Crown. 328pp. $25.95.
ATF agent, and former UA football player, Dobyns recounts in suspenseful detail his two-year assignment infiltrating the notoriously secretive Hells Angels motorcycle gang in Arizona. Dobyns' ability to portray his targets as flesh-and-blood human beings (some of whose traits he admires) and the edgy description of his own descent into the shadow world of drugs and casual violence open a revealing window on law enforcement's war on outlaw motorcycle gangs and elevate his story above run-of-the-mill true crime memoirs. []
You’re riding your chopper motorcycle in tight formation with the Hells Angels at 90 miles an hour down a Phoenix freeway at night. Your front wheel is a foot from the bike in front and you are about to die. You are Jay Dobyns, ex-football player, aka Bird Davis, undercover cop for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, and you’ve infiltrated the baddest outlaw motorcycle gang on the planet. Now that you’re in, how do you get out? And how do you ever return from your biker persona to your old self? How do you salvage your family and sanity? Fiction? No bro, true story. Most of the action takes place in Arizona, with big scenes in Nevada, California, and Mexico. Meeting the characters, especially Big Lou, is worth the trip – none of them is totally evil nor totally good, even Dobyns, but all are dangerous. Ignore this tight, vivid narrative at your own risk. []
Poetry of Remembrance, A: New and Rejected Works
By Levi Romero. University of New Mexico Press. 159pp. $21.95.
Sometimes serious, sometimes humorous Romero’s “works” [sly humor in the subtitle; all the works are poetry and normally one says “new and SELECTED...”–did your eye skip that one?]. Wonderful, creative images are sprinkled throughout along with the humor; for example these lines from “Simple Math”: “I don’t know what today will bring tomorrow...what it may add or is a process of trial and error and I’m known to leave a path like eraser grains on paper...”
Too many poets write to become something they are not; Levi Romero writes to be someone he is. And his poems are wonderful. Dragon flies, low rider cars, grandmothers, and adobe homes appear with ease and depth. This book is exceptionally comfortable and satisfying, even if you don’t read the bits of Spanish or know the particular geography of New Mexico. His images flow easily, such as “along the walking trail/ of the west rim/ the shadows of our noses/ fall into coyote paw prints/ etched into the damp soil’ (p. 66). His ‘High School English” is universal in its moods and insight into adolescence. His “Dance of the Hollyhock” welds reader with poet in its lines “as we move on, knowing that the palm heat of plenty/ at times burns with the cold hand of not enough” (p. 104). One especially touching poem, “El vientinueve de agosto,” is a tribute to mothers, and includes the lines “and the stories are spoken/ as if they matter.” Romero’s poems matter. []
Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West
By Annette McGivney. Braided River. 174pp. Index. $29.95.
Of this year’s fine crop of books about water in the West -- James Lawrence Powell’s Dead Pool, Char Miller’s Water in the 21st–Century West, and Robert Glennon’s Unquenchable -- this one is the best, for it vividly shows what water means to those who live here. In 1963 Glen Canyon dam harnessed the Colorado River and created a massive reservoir, Lake Powell, a favorite spot for house boaters and fishermen. But Nature has not cooperated, and the West faces a draught and changing climate. Boat docks are now high and dry; stream bottom sediments are now erosion badlands, and high overhead a bathtub ring mars the canyon walls. On the other hand, cottonwoods and cattails are returning to riverbanks that just a few years ago were covered by 140 feet of lake water; hikers can now take remote canyons to river’s edge. Lake Powell may never again be more than half full, and like the proverbial glass of water, we in a changing West must decide if life is half full or half empty. Our expectations need a realignment. McGivney’s clear, objective prose is matched with stunning photos by James Kay. The book is a visual parable.
Readers may wish to revisit Eliot Porter’s The Place No One Knew and Tad Nichols’ Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World.
Glen Canyon has long been mourned as The Place No One Knew, more beautiful than the Grand Canyon and just upstream from it on the Colorado River, yet so remote that few realized what would be lost when it was drowned by Glen Canyon Dam. After retiring, former Senator Barry Goldwater, the lead advocate for the dam in the Senate, said sadly that if he could un-do one thing he had done, Glen Canyon Dam would have been it. The plummeting water level of drought-starved Lake Powell recently receded from a good portion of upper Glen Canyon, drawing people from all over the world to explore that lost world. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs, this volume gives witness to the wonders of Glen Canyon and celebrates what once was, as well as what could be again. Also an important lesson in water development run amok, this is a reminder that sustainability is not just about saving trees, it is about saving our selves and the things that really matter to us.

For readers who would like to explore this subject, I too highly recommend “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado,” and “ Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World.”
Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History
By Karl Jacoby. Penguin Press. 358pp. Index. $32.95.
Add the illuminating multiple perspectives of Rashomon to the taut psychology in The Oxbow Incident, and we have Karl Jacoby’s superb study of a little known 1871 “lynch-mob” massacre of Apache women and children in southern Arizona. In four views we are shown four competing cultures—Anglo, Hispanic, Apache, and O’odham. Two of them had lived in the territory for centuries, two were new-comers, and each had its own heritage and agenda. For example, the Apaches took anyone’s horses as they would wildland game and didn’t consider it to be theft. The O’odham disliked warfare, but were spirited and capable warriors who fought to save the tribe, not to gain another group’s possessions. Jacoby weaves clear pictures of each culture before the massacre at Camp Grant, and then shares each group’s memory of the aftermath. His research is original, laser-sharp, and highly illuminating. Shadows at Dawn is model of how to go beyond the narrative of an event and explain its reasons and consequences. If 2009 has a “must-read,” this is it. []
On April 30, 1871, in the early morning twilight, a group of 146 men from Tucson surrounded an Indian village and attacked, killing 144 Indians without suffering a single loss of life among themselves. Was this a victory of settlers over bloodthirsty Indians? No, the village was on a designated reservation for peaceful Indians near an Army camp. The attackers were vigilantes acting secretly and their victims were almost all sleeping women and children. The attack sparked national outrage. President Grant declared it “purely murder” and ordered a federal investigation. In this remarkable new look at the Camp Grant Massacre, historian Karl Jacoby examines what happened from the point of view of each of the participating groups - the Anglo-Americans, the Hispanics, the Tohono O’odham and the Apaches - and thereby transcends the event itself and illuminates the broader history of the Southwest in a revealing and moving way.

Readers who wish to explore this subject further might also be interested in two other exceptional recent books that explore other aspects of this part of our history:
* Big Sycamore Stands Alone: The Western Apaches, Aravaipa, and the Struggle for Place, by Ian W. Record;
* War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, by Brian DeLay []
Telling New Mexico: a New History
By Frances Levine, Louise Stiver, Marta Weigle. Museum of New Mexico Press. 488pp. Index. $45.00.
What a great way to get a history lesson! Sit down, open this book anywhere and enjoy. Perhaps this is because forty-three New mexico historians wrote in their area of expertise in such a way that one can hardly wait to turn the page. For sure, the Land of Enchantment has an exciting history from the Spanish entrada to Denis Chavez and the making of modern Mexico. Here we have the Santa Fe Railroad and American Indians promoting tourism, the dramatic story of Los Alamos and World War II, commentary on the artistic community from Mabel Dodge Lujan to Georgia O'Keeffe, Rosewell and its flying saucers, Buddy Holly and his music, hippies in Taos, and Mexican immigrants. Let us not forget the flag, Camino Real, acequias, and oh yes, Billy the Kid. This is for a general reader, the scholar and probably should be in every New Mexico classroom. []
To know New Mexico’s soul, read Telling New Mexico, a compilation of 51 essays about the state. Try Jason Silverman’s story about the Clovis recording studio that propelled rocker Buddy Holly’s meteoric rise, or Roland Dickey’s ode to wind and windscapes, or Gail Okawa’s search for her grandfather once confined to WWII Japanese internment camps in Lordsburg and Santa Fe, or Marta Weigle’s illuminating piece on “engineering” New Mexico as the land of enchantment for tourists. Each of the essays in this book is excellent and many are superb. The book has seven parts --- Light, Land, Water, Wind; Beyond History’s Records; The Northern Province; Linking Nations; Becoming the Southwest; The ‘New’ New Mexico; and My New Mexico --- but feel free to plunge in anywhere. Other states should do so well. []
Through the Lens: Creating Santa Fe
By Mary Anne Redding, Krista Elrick. Museum of New Mexico Press. 268pp. $50.00.
From earliest days (of photography, that is) through the booming railroad years to contemporary scenes (the magical, open-air opera, for example), this collection of images, beautifully reproduced, captures the essence of the oldest capitol city in the U.S., and the first U.S. city to be designated by UNESCO as a “Creative City”. Fine visual browse with excellent text(s). []
Long known for its arts and crafts, Santa Fe was designated a UNESCO “creative city” in 2005. As this book shows in several hundred superbly selected and presented photographs covering 140 years, Santa Fe is also a photo city. The cameras of luminaries such as Gilpin, Vroman, Adams, Porter, and Lown have caught the magic of the town’s sense of place, identity, and history. The combination of fine art, historical photography, and documentary work makes for more than just a magnificent volume – it gives a full and inviting sense of North America’s oldest capital. Personally, I’ve always felt Santa Fe is too glitzy, commercial, and snobby – a home for reclusive rich folks and aesthetes, but this photo celebration portrays a vibrant and diverse community. Now I will look forward to strolling around town this book in hand. It is wonderful. []
To Walk in Beauty: a Navajo Family's Journey Home
By N. Scott Momaday, Stacia Spragg-Braude. Museum of New Mexico Press. 200pp. $45.00.
Heartfelt, a word not used much these days, would be a good choice for a single-word review of this large-format, handsome production. The illustrations, all black-and-white and mostly shot in soft-focus, provide us outsiders with a realistic view of what it is like to be a Navajo family living on the reservation today. Each of nearly 100 photos is “captioned” with a quote from some member of the Begay family. []
This profoundly moving book is about a Navajo family, the Begays. Their story is told in compelling, personal photographs by Stacia Spragg-Braude and in the family’s own words, excerpted from recorded interviews. It is the story of identity, who we are, and what is our place in the world. Steeped in history, Churro sheep, and modern afflictions, the family struggles to survive by relying on “the old ways” to heal both the body and the spirit. In the words of Alta Begay, “My dad’s analogy was that we need to be like the sheep – be hardy and resilient” (page 122), and they were. The forceful images take us inside the family as if it were our own, for in many ways it is.
If you have driven the highways of our Native nations and perhaps wondered “Who are these people?” and “What’s it like to live here?”, then read this book. In an afternoon you’ll gain the insight of a lifetime.
West of the Imagination, The
By William H. Goetzmann, William N. Goetzmann. University of Oklahoma Press. 640pp. Index. $65.00.
In 41 chapters, this book displays and discusses the gamut of Western art and photography. It is much more than an art history that portrays culture and regional identity, that explains aesthetics and artistic technique, and that pays tribute to artists and photographers. In essence, it is uniquely an American history. This is the second edition and it adds five new chapters, including ones on Currier & Ives, Jackson Pollock, and postmodern Western photography. The book has a host of my old favorites by Moran, Remington, Bierstadt, and Russell, and ones new to me such as Patrick Nagatani, David Hockney, and Richard Hovendon Kern – and even a new favorite, Mark Tansey’s oil on canvas “Constructing the Grand Canyon” (pages 542-543). Your favorite will be in here someplace. The West of the Imagination will be an excellent addition to your home library. []
One of America’s foremost modern historians pioneered in exploring the imagery of Western American mythology and the people who created it, in cultural and historical context. Breaking academic bounds, his studies previously resulted in an innovative six-part documentary series that was a big hit on PBS television and a companion book of the same title. This is a major update and expansion of that work in a fascinating and beautifully illustrated volume that is highly readable and very enjoyable. It remains one of the greatest surveys of western American culture. []
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