Books

Bruce Dinges' Picks

Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West
For six decades Fred Harvey restaurants, dining cars, and hotels provided the gold standard for quality and customer service in America, while shaping the popular image of the West in general and the Southwest in particular. In this appealing history, Fried follows the fortunes of the family business through three generations, highlighting the successive visions of fathers and sons, describing legendary innovations such as the Harvey Girls and indoor shopping malls, and assessing Fred Harvey's creative impact on the Grand Canyon, southwestern architecture, American Indian arts, and even Disneyland. A terrific read and a fascinating study of American entrepreneurship and culture.
Country of Vast Designs, A: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent
Towering personalities and intense political battles propel Merry’s lively narrative of mid-nineteenth century American expansionism. Describing the eleventh president as a man of “limited imagination tied to a propulsive ambition and an unceasing tenacity,” Merry, the former editor of Congressional Quarterly, describes how, during his single term, Polk harnessed the forces of Manifest Destiny to expand the nation’s boundaries to encompass Texas, the Southwest, California, and Oregon. While painting history in broad strokes, Merry captures the drama, and tragedy, of an exuberant young nation flexing its muscles.
Dreamland: the Way Out of Juarez
Occasionally, a book stops us dead in our tracks and forces us to take notice. In this stunning collaboration, artist Briggs's evocative drawings provide the pitch-perfect accompaniment to writer Bowden's visceral portrait of a Juarez charnel house. In images reminiscent of Durer and Bosch, Briggs captures the open-mouthed horror and intricate details of a world Bowden describes spinning out of control as drug cartels battle each other and the state. The effect is at once horrifying and mesmerizing. Credit is also due graphic designer Kelly Leslie and the University of Texas Press for producing a book that is as much an artistic masterpiece as it is a literary tour de force.
From Cochise to Geronimo: the Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886
Sweeney, the author of landmark biographies of Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, chronicles the epic struggle of the Chiricahua Apaches to survive as a people and culture in the face of the federal government’s efforts to confine them on reservations. Sweeney’s astute analysis of published sources and three decades of exhaustive research in U.S. and Mexican archives, combined with extensive use of Apache oral tradition, elevate his story of heroism and betrayal head and shoulders above anything else in print. This engrossing book is an instant classic.
Gift of Angels, A: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac
In this sumptuous feast of a book, historian Fontana and photographer McCain highlight the treasures and explore the mysteries of southern Arizona's iconic "White Dove of the Desert." Drawing on a wealth of scholarly research and nearly two decades of intimate involvement with restoration efforts at the mission, Fontana wields a facile pen as he traces the church's two-century history and explains in mesmerizing detail the how and why of its art and architecture, placing it all within the broad framework of Catholic iconography and Old and New World culture. McCain's stunning color photographs (there are literally hundreds of them) transport readers into the darkest corners and farthest reaches of the structure Fontana so eloquently brings to life. Fontana, McCain, graphic designer Bill Benoit, the UA Southwest Center, and the University of Arizona Press have produced a volume for the ages.
Hell on the Range: a Story of Honor, Conscience, and the American West
Herman focuses a scholarly eye on the Pleasant Valley War, a topic that heretofore has been almost the exclusive province of novelists and amateur historians. In his painstaking dissection of the 1880s’ bloodbath that inspired Zane Grey’s To The Last Man and Earle Forrest’s Arizona’s Dark and Bloody Ground, Herman explores alliances and conflicts among Mormons, Hispanics, Native Americans, merchants, cattle companies, ranchers, sheepmen, and cowboys that spawned violence in the wake of economic depression and the competition for open range. The roots of the bloodshed, he argues, are found in competing notions of honor and conscience. While acknowledging that Don Dedera’s A Little War of Our Own (A Southwest Books of the Year pick in 1987) remains the best and most readable narrative of the Pleasant Valley conflict, Herman performs a huge service by casting his loop wide enough to provide a rich interpretive framework for Arizona’s legendary range war and its cousins elsewhere in the West.
Lonely Polygamist, The: a Novel
Brady Udall doesn’t shy away from the big questions. In this sprawling novel set in southern Nevada and Utah’s Dixie, the author of the acclaimed The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (A Southwest Books of the Year pick in 2001) explores the expansive boundaries of love, the redemptive qualities of grief, and the ineffable comforts of family ties. Golden Richards, a Mormon patriarch haunted by the death of a daughter and beset on all sides by feuding wives and two dozen children, experiences an existential crisis when he falls for the wife of a Las Vegas brothel owner and is confronted by the death of a rebellious son. Writing with his characteristic blend of rollicking humor and gut-wrenching tragedy, Udall paints a memorable portrait of longing and salvation in a world that is at once utterly foreign and achingly familiar.
Murder City: Cuidad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
The statistics are so mind-numbing – more than 1,600 homicides in 2008 – that it’s virtually impossible to identify the faces of the victims or make sense of what’s happening in Mexico’s sprawling border metropolis. Bowden does both as he guides readers through the city he has called the “laboratory of our future,” seeking out the people (a street preacher, a brutalized Sinaloan beauty queen, a newspaper reporter, and a born-again assassin) who live, and may die, there. In measured prose and with an unflinching eye for detail, this remarkable book paints a disturbing portrait of society on the brink of disintegration and of men and women whose lives, literally and figuratively, are on the line. Here is Bowden, the investigative journalist, at the top of his game.
To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West
Gardner catapults into the front rank of western writers with this riveting account of the pursuit and slaying of the Southwest’s most notorious outlaw. Drawing on meticulous research, coupled with a keen eye for character and plot, Gardner constructs a compelling portrait of two men locked in a death struggle that captured the contemporary imagination and reverberates down to the present day. Sallie, the niece of cattle baron John Chisum, put it best when she told the writer Walter Noble Burns (quoted in Gardner’s final paragraph) that “there was good mixed with the bad in Billy the Kid and bad mixed with the good in Pat Garrett . . . .Both were real men. Both were worth knowing.” Gardner shows why that was so, and why it matters. Along the way, he provides one hell of a good read.
Turquoise Ledge, The: a Memoir
The award-winning author of "Ceremony" and "Almanac of the Dead" uses her New Mexico childhood in a family of storytellers as the canvas upon which she paints a delicate portrait of her adult life in the Tucson Mountains, where everyday tasks expose the beauty of land and sky and highlight the intense connections of human beings with plants and animals. Rattlesnakes and birds, clouds and boulders, evoke memories of distant ancestors and of immediate family, even as a bulldozing neighbor desecrates the landscape. Throughout Silko's walks and ruminations, turquoise stones appear like drops of grace, reminding her, and readers, of the enduring power of the natural world. Her mesmerizing blend of keen observation and lilting prose, grounded in Native American tradition, furnishes a persuasive argument for the proposition that in life and art context is everything.

About Bruce Dinges

Bruce Dinges is director of publications for the Arizona Historical Society.

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