Books

Best Reading 2010

Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West
By Stephen Fried. Bantam Books. 518pp. Index. $27.00.
Harvey changed the culture of restaurants that catered to train travelers through his attention to food and service in what he called a “Harvey Worthy” environment. That environment included using the finest European linens, cutlery and glassware in his legendary establishments along the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroads. Also legendary were the famed “Harvey Girls,” created in the belief that women should tend to the restaurants’ customers. Harvey’s empire grew to include hotels, created by designer and architect Mary Jane Coulter, and Indian Detour Couriers, women trained in Southwestern history and lore, who guided travelers to spectacular sites. This is an enjoyable and well-researched history of food and travel through the Southwest! []
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. []
Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico
By Steven J. Cary. New Mexico Magazine. 167pp. Index. $27.95.
Open this book at random and you can be sure to find a butterfly ready to fly right off the page. This remarkable publication contains hundreds of photographs of every butterfly known to sojourn in New Mexico—some 400 beauties, each one unique. Mother Nature has outdone herself in designing colorful gossamer wings. The author provides a map of all the state’s counties, coded for the number of species to be found in each. Included are striking photographs of the terrain preferred by the various species. Also included is a check list, a butterfly glossary, recommended reading, maps, and an index. This is indeed a winner, and one need not leave his armchair to fully enjoy a butterfly hunt. []
Steve Cary loves butterflies and you will, too. He tells where you can find them in New Mexico, shows how to identify them, and excites you with page after page of intriguing winged characters with names like Arizona skipper, orange spiderling, lustrous copper, and dotted checkerspot. Informative sidebars explain that butterfly eggs may survive several years until conditions are right, discuss why some habitats are better than others, introduces us to some famous lepidopterists, and explains why we need butterflies. The approach is fresh, and this is an attractive book in all respects.

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Death of Josseline, The: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands
By , Margaret Regan. Beacon Press. 221pp. $26.95.
She writes for the Tucson Weekly so it should come as no surprise that Regan’s stories have the quality of directness, as if she were speaking to us one on one. There are few happy endings along the modern border between Arizona and Mexico; among many kinds of disasters, children get separated from their parents, injuries force walkers to just sit and wait for La Migra, and those truly bad men called coyotes simply abandon those whom they are supposed to be leading to el norte–but you can rest assured they do not return the money. Fine book, well-written, maybe we should make it required reading for all Arizonans! []
Margaret Regan has covered border issues for ten years as a reporter for the Tucson Weekly. She has interviewed crossers, humanitarian rescuers, ranchers, and traveled with the Border Patrol. Given her credentials as a journalist, it’s not surprising that she writes economically and clearly. This book delineates the problems and realities of the troubled border. All concerned citizens should read this collection to better understand the issues in the Borderlands today. []
Dreamland: the Way Out of Juarez
By Charles Bowden, Alice Leora Briggs. University of Texas Press. 160pp. $19.95.
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. []
Think of Dante’s Inferno coupled with Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Apocalypse and you’ll have a sense of Charles Bowden’s Dreamland. Illustrated by the Alice Leora Briggs, the drawings are unsettling, sinister, and rife with symbols -- I dare you to turn the page before closely studying every painful detail. Together the text, art, and design smash our dreams –dreams that a murderous city will grow calm, that that the sick will be cured, that the dead will be revived, that good will prevail. The nightmare continues, as Bowden denies all hope for Paradiso. If Bowden’s Murder City is his reporter’s voice, Dreamland is his soul screaming. In Murder City he chronicles all 1,607 murders in 2008; in Dreamland he follows the trail of murders committed by one man, Lalo, who kills and buries his victims in Juárez while, by the way, he is also a paid US informant. The book is savagely haunting, but that’s how nightmares go. I’ll leave you to discover the way out of Juárez. []
Exploring Desert Stone: John N. Macomb's 1859 Expedition to the Canyonlands of the Colorado
By Steven K. Madsen. Utah State University Press. 296pp. Index. $34.95.
In 1859, Career Officer John N. Macomb, Jr., led the first survey of the region transected by the Old Spanish Trail, and particularly the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau. Publication of his Report of an Expedition was held up due to the Civil War and did not receive the recognition it deserved. Madsen has resurrected and compiled an outstanding report on the expedition by adding recently unknown letters and diaries of Macomb's companions. Madsen located sites and natural features appearing in the report and documented each one using the technique of re-photography. Included with the book is a monumental facsimile map published by Frederick von Egloffstein in 1864. This reviewer would like to have seen a map that traced the journey showing modern location of expedition sites to help readers unfamiliar with the area. []
Drawing from extensive historical documents and personal trips, Steven Madsen unrolls the first big adventure to explore and record the topography of Canyonlands. The first half of the book narrates the details of the survey, with all of its fascinating characters and descriptions of “new” country, including copies of original maps and landscape sketches. The second half is a bonus: diaries of engineer Charles H. Dimmock and geologist John S. Newberry, a color folio of landscape views from the original report, letters written by Newberry and Frederick W. von Egloffstein, and a back-pocket copy of the survey’s map. []
Gift of Angels, A: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac
By Bernard Fontana, Edward McCain. University of Arizona Press. 376pp. Index. $75.00.
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. []
Some years ago Bernard “Bunny” Fontana wrote what may be the smallest book on a Southwest mission; it was a postage-stamp-sized miniature book on Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo in Texas. With publication of A Gift of Angels about mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, he has now written what is arguably the largest book on a Southwest mission and certainly the grandest. The text is splendid, covering statues, paintings, relief sculptures and angels of this 18th century living church. In the color photos, shot by Ed McCain from scaffolds and with special lights, we see this international treasure more clearly than anyone has ever seen it before or will again. []
Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West
By Mark Wyman. Hill and Wang. 336pp. Index. $28.00.
It is hard to believe that tramps, hoboes, and various wanderers without roots were put in jail or scurried out of town. The author’s impeccable research covers a sorry time in history between 1870 and 1920, a time of discrimination against almost any cultural group that traveled from one seasonal job to another. Their work was critical to economic development. We find them logging and harvesting fruit in the Pacific Northwest, sugar beets in the Great Plains, picking cotton in Texas and Arizona, and vegetables, fruit, and hops in California. Railroads made it possible for large farms and ranches to ship their products and for workers to ride the rails to help with the harvest. These men were poorly paid, poorly housed, and poorly fed. Carl Sandburg traveled as a Hobo in 1897; the experience no doubt had an influence on his works. Wyman’s story gives us a better understanding and appreciation of the contribution that these homeless migrant workers made to a growing economy in the American West. []
With railroads came farms—cotton, fruit, grain, vegetables—and those same rails brought cheap labor needed to work those farms. The workers included migrant hoboes, drifters, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans, whose slogan was not “Westward Ho!” but “Al Norte!” They all struggled against bad bosses, hunger, prejudice and poverty. The story is framed as century-old history, but the issues are as modern as today’s newspaper: immigrant labor that is indispensable, but disposable until the next harvest. []
Life of Maynard Dixon, The
By Maynard Dixon, Donald J. Hagerty. Gibbs Smith. 256pp. Index. $30.00.
Born in Central California in 1875, Dixon’s residences and studios were usually in northern and southern California, but his heart was in the desert. He often took trips of weeks and months duration to New Mexico, Arizona, the Mojave Desert and down into old Mexico. With well-chosen quotes from Dixon’s letters and published writings, Hagerty does much more than just describe Dixon-the-artist; he gives us the whole man with his flaws and his triumphs, his loves and losses, his growth and change. More than 180 reproductions of sketches, paintings and murals are carefully keyed to the text, which is extremely readable yet provides all the documentation to make this a comprehensive scholarly biography. []
Even if you don’t know the name Maynard Dixon, you’ll easily recognize his work, for his paintings, drawings, magazine covers, and murals have become emblems of our Southwest. This biography is rich with his art, making it an excellent introduction. The book has the friendly feeling of an artist’s studio and the vigor of the man himself. Family photos, excerpts from letters and Dixon’s poems, and many stories bring him to life, and what a life it was. He believed, “The artist’s job, as I see it, is to try to widen people’s horizons—show them the wonder of the world they live in" (p. 185). To double your fun, add its companion book, The Art of Maynard Dixon. []
Lonely Polygamist, The: a Novel
By Brady Udall. W.W. Norton. 602pp. $26.95.
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. []
Polygamist Golden Richards’ life is clearly not golden. His four wives bicker, his 28 children are hungry for attention, he’s in desperate financial straits, his construction job out of town is behind schedule; his boss is a low-life; and he’s hankering for the boss’ seductive wife. I wanted to hate this whole scene, but somehow Udall got me hooked on these comic-tragic Dickensian characters and outrageous plot sequences. Many of these characters are victims of abuse or ignorance and while I wanted to shake them, I grew to respect and empathize with them, warts and all. []
Moctezuma's Table: Rolando Briseño's Mexican and Chicano Tablescapes
By Rolando Briseño, Norma Elia Cantú. Texas A&M University Press. 174pp. Index. $42.00.
“Tablescapes” may not be a word familiar to all readers. It means art of a special kind as Briseno, using acrylics and other colorful media, paints on napkins, tablecloths, dish towels and, occasionally, on other surfaces. The images themselves almost always relate to food, such as a three-dimensional rendering of the Alamo in corn dough. Fourteen essays explain, or at least comment upon, Briseno’s art, and often on the social-construct of the endeavor as well: what in the world is Briseno up to anyway? A concluding chapter, edited from a lengthy interview of the artist by Cary Cordova, is titled simply “Epilogue–Rolando Briseno: An Artist’s Life.” Every book collection dealing in any manner with contemporary art must own this lavishly illustrated volume. []
Rolando Briseno, a contemporary Chicano artist born in San Antonio, gives a whole new definition to table artistry. This lavishly illustrated book shows the breadth of his work. Interpretive essays enhance understanding. Briseno’s subject matter is food and its presentation; the food represented is Precolumbian, Mexican, and Tex Mex, often in a single work of art. Not only does he use table dressing such as cloths, towels and napkins as his canvases, he actually mixes traditional foods such as masa, chocolate, or peppers with the paint or alone for sculptures. It would a treat to view his work firsthand, but this book is the next best thing, with the added bonuses of helpful essays and an interview with the artist. []
Murder City: Cuidad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
By Charles Bowden. Nation Books. 320pp. $27.50.
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. []
Bowden’s killing fields are those city streets, back alleys, buildings, farm-fields, and anywhere else that drugs and money are exchanged in large quantities. But he’s been concentrating on that huge Mexican city across the river/border from El Paso where the murder rate has accelerated beyond belief. Bowden’s style in this book, with its on-the-spot interviews, newspaper obituaries, and staccato paragraphs will remind some readers of the hard-hitting pieces he wrote when he was editor of Tucson’s City Magazine. The reader has no time to recover from visions of decapitated bodies and de-bodied heads before being plunged into the next ugliness! This a truly powerful presentation of what modern life is like at a major crossing point between the U. S. and Mexico. []
Santa Fe Nativa: a Collection of Nuevomexicano Writing
By Enrique R. Laladrid, A. Gabriel Melendez, Rosalie C. Otero. University of New Mexico Press. 244pp. $29.95.
Here are wonderful Santa Fe stories written through the ages. They celebrate the city’s 400th year and honor its contribution to the foundations of Nuevomexicano culture, with themes that include observations of change over time, lament for the past, and traditions that have stood the test of time. More than 30 authors contributed stories in English and in Spanish that range from a curandera’s recipe for a lovelorn ex-husband to the romance of the chili pepper, with many delightful stops in between. []
This extraordinary compendium of literary writings from 1630 on promotes the theme that the blending of Hispanic and Native Americans has created the unique historical, artistic and cultural center Santa Fe is today. Selections are chosen to share history, creativity, and diversity, all with Santa Fe as the heart, the metaphor for what New Mexico stands for, as opposed to what modern Santa Fe with its upscale galleries and restaurants represents. The “nuevomexicanos” have been left out of the equation and these writings help to set the record straight. This collection is superb with its organization around love for the city, history, neighborhoods, and enduring traditions. Included are 38 short biographies of contributors, editor and the photographer []
Turquoise Ledge, The: a Memoir
By Leslie Marmon Silko. Viking. 319pp. $25.95.
Novelist and artist Leslie Marmon Silko sets out to “construct a self-portrait” and in turn gives us a wonderful glimpse of ourselves as she talks about ants, relatives, rain, and rattlesnakes as seen from her Tucson home on the edge of a desert wilderness. Her house needs fixing, her life occasionally teeters, and the world sometimes rumbles out of control, but her gentle story-telling and penetrating observations keep us on the move as we laugh and walk with her. The result is universal Southwest, an utterly refreshing blend of Native ways and modern science as she and we find joyous fragments of unexpected turquoise in our lives. It’s a desert lover’s delight. []
Silko writes a memoir fueled by her speedwalks along Tucson Mountain trails near her home. Nature’s plants and critters, weather phenomena and objects found, such as turquoise rocks, become springboards for reminiscences and commentary about life, past and present. We learn some biographical details, but that’s only part of it. This is a book to be savored in small portions, much like the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whom Silko admires. She perfectly captures the rhythm of Tucson’s seasons and reverence for its plant and animal inhabitants, and includes the whole universe in her musings. []
We are an Indian Nation: a History of the Hualapai People
By Jeffrey P. Shepherd. University of Arizona Press. 282pp. Index. $45.00.
The Hualapai people of northern Arizona have long fought to retain their traditions and rights to land and water through Spanish, Mexican, and American periods. Well researched, this first definitive history of the tribe is one that author Jeffery Shepherd wrote with the Tribal Council and residents as active participants. The tribe has long sought ways to search for economic stability but was often rejected because of outside politics. There is hope that the seventy-foot long horseshoe-shaped Hualapai Skywalk that juts four thousand feet over the Grand Canyon, will bring much needed funds through tourism. Here is a well-researched history from the earliest times that will be treasured by the Hualapai people and welcomed by scholars of American Indian history. []
For too long the Hualapai, a proud people living in northwestern Arizona, have been one of the least visible Native Nations, but their story is that of many First Nations. Historically they battled the U.S. Army pushing them off their lands, eastern settlers grazing their grass and cutting their timber, railroad companies taking their water and Indian agents sending their children to abusive schools, but few outsiders knew or understood them. Shepherd has taken his prodigious research and written a thoroughly readable, balanced book that brings to life the Hualapai and their struggles. This is a major contribution to understanding Arizona’s history, just in time for the state’s centennial. []
Working the Line
By Monica Ramirez-montagut, David Taylor, Luis Alberto Urrea. Radius Books. 148pp. $50.00.
In addition to Taylor’s large-format, you-are-there photographs, this wondrous, and simultaneously depressing, book has two Spanish/English essays (by Luis Alberto Urrea and Hannah Frieser) that tell us in words what the photos help us interpret. In addition an “accordion” of an additional set of color photographs depicts what 88 points along the border (going west from number one near El Paso) look like today. A remarkable accomplishment. []
If you haven’t been able to wrap your mind around the explosive U.S.-Mexico borderline, maybe David Taylor’s large photographs will help explain its vastness, dangers and disarming beauty. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who believes a border fence will cure an immigration malady. Taylor walks in the shoes of Border Patrol agents to see the world as they see it—and live it. He enjoys access to places that few of us will ever go or dare to go. You may not believe your eyes. Essays by Hannah Frieser and Luis Alberto Urrea complement Taylor’s powerful lens-work. This artful slip-case edition includes a 23-foot-long accordion-fold book of photos as well as a large hard-bound book. []
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