Best Reading 2011

Arizona: A Celebration of the Grand Canyon State
By Jim Turner. Gibbs Smith. 336pp. Index. $40.00.
Recently retired as Outreach Historian at the Arizona Historical Society, Turner brings his decades of study and research on Arizona topics to this bravura--in the best sense of that word—effort. Ten topical chapters allow scope for sub-chapters that get at the details of events, and more than 300 illustrations show us how those people and events appeared to their contemporaries. A bibliography, divided by subjects, will allow readers to do their own searching, and the index is thorough and easily accessible. []
Turner has accomplished a seemingly impossible feat, to create a primer on Arizona, from its prehistory to its future, which makes a broad and complicated topic easily comprehensible to the uninitiated while including some information likely new to seasoned Arizonans, all the while creating a visual feast with beautiful photographs, mostly by the author, and arresting color reproductions of art by Maynard Dixon. This book, an antidote to ugly partisanship, made me proud to be a part of Arizona and it will probably have the same effect on you. []
Border Runs Through It, A: Journeys in Regional History and Folklore
By Jim Griffith, Caroline Cook. Rio Nuevo Publishers. 128pp. $17.95.
Everyone calls him Big Jim (except perhaps for his diminutive wife, Loma). I know one person who calls him, affectionately, “Large James.” His presence in research and literature of the lore and folk-life of Southern Arizona and the entire Sonoran Desert region has been as large as the name. Griffith was host of a long-running series of vignettes on Tucson’s public TV station, KUAT. Here he takes those snippets about history, cultures, places (and place names), food and everythingelse human, and turn’s them into delightful short essays. The indefatigable David “Fitz” Fitzimmons provides visual spice with his trademark cartoons, including, on page 33, one of Big Jim himself. In case you weren’t paying attention, let it be known far and wide that Jim was one of nine recipients this year of the NEAs National Heritage Fellowship. []
Jim Griffith is like your favorite uncle who always took time to give you a wink and a good story, and maybe slip a little candy into your pocket during weddings or funerals. He is also a folklorist, a scholar who studies the culture, songs, arts, myths and tales of that vast nation of us common folks. As Jim puts it, “In the Great Store of human activity…, [folklorists] work in the Toy Department.” He regales us with Southwest water lore, ghosts and heroes, music and corridas, holidays and history, telling about Padre Kino bringing wheat and cattle to the Southwest, bringing a legacy of flour tortillas and beef tacos to our Sonora-Arizona menu. "A Border Runs Through It" should be at the top of any literary menu. []
Cow Country Cooking: Recipes and Tales from Northern Arizona's Historic Ranches
By Kathy McCraine. Prescott, AZ: Kathy McCraine. 192pp. Index. $29.99.
This may be the first cookbook I’ve ever read from cover to cover, but its mix of kitchens, horses, cooks and recipes lassoed and hogtied me. I couldn’t get away from it. Authentic recipes, ranging from camp corn to chuck wagon goulash, from eggs Dijon to gingerbread with lemon sauce, can be prepared in a chuck wagon, cow camp, or ranch house. They’re designed to fill up hungry cowhands but tasty enough to delight picky guests. My favorite story was told by a cowboy-cook named Spider Dailey, who one ferociously cold winter had to sleep each night with his sourdough starter to keep it warm so it wouldn’t die. The book features paintings by Mark Kohler and splendid color photos of prepared dishes, cooks, and horses. McCraine and her husband ranch north of Prescott. This book is the real McCoy. []
Mouth-watering recipes, from appetizers to desserts, are the least of this inspired book. McCraine, a native Arizona rancher, journalist, photographer and cooking aficionado, was motivated to complete this dreamed-of project by Mark Kohler’s offer to paint accompanying watercolors. Interspersed among text about round-ups, branding and cookery are recipes, colored photos, paintings with commentary by Kohler, and humorous country-cooking anecdotes in the sidebars. Appealing art, photography, history, humor, clear and readable text, and author-tested recipes, all add up to a paean to northern Arizona ranch life, past and present. []
Crazy From the Heat: A Chronicle of Twenty Years in the Big Bend
By James Evans. University of Texas Press. 192pp. $55.00.
Above all, photographer James Evans wanted to avoid the 30 cliché views of Big Bend National Park, and with this book he hit a home run out of the park. His images of a vinegaroon, broad horizons, a mud-covered mother-to-be, boys on a trampoline, and canyon walls are more than exquisite --- they are unique and spirited. Evans describes himself as a portrait photographer who loves to shoot landscapes, and this payoff of living in the Big Bend country for 20 years shows his enormous talent for both. His portraits reflect the countryside and his countryside images are as inviting as portraits. Rebecca Solnit’s fine essay “dirt and light” complements the images. One test of good books requires their images and stories pop-up again at odd moments days or weeks after being read, and this one earns an A+. Crazy from the Heat is at once funny, inspiring, and memorable. []
In a certain mood this reviewer might say, of Evans’s title, that it should be “Crazy like a Fox” as his images zig and zag among subjects and styles and techniques. The range of his photographs is startling; from six young Hispanic males knee deep in water, to a Mexican hognose snake with its long shadow on a stark white background, to a double-foldout of a desert scene that is surely West Texas but could as easily be Arizona. Sprinkle in a few nudes (including one, extremely pregnant, after a mud bath) and some time-lapse shots of night sky and, finally, the adjective that I settle on to describe this collection is stunning! []
Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock
By Steve Bartlett. Sharp End Publishing. 350pp. $49.95.
What a beautiful labor of love this history of tower climbing in the desert Southwest is. The author, who himself spent more than 20 years in such climbs, conveys a sense of the beauty, the unique challenges, the teamwork, and the positive addictiveness of this sport. A clear map opposite the table of contents shows the towers discussed. With an accessible chronological format, beautiful color photographs, a large coffee table format, and firsthand accounts by some of the climbers, this is a book to be savored not only by outdoorsmen but everyone. []
This remarkable, very large format, book might give some readers an attack of acrophobia with its photos (a few are early black & white) of rock climbers suspended over hundreds of feet of “nothing” or clinging to the faces of rock towers, just specks far above ground. Interspersed among the 500 or so color photographs are 30 essays with titles like “First Ascent of Spider Rock” and “Sundevil Chimney Free”. The majority of these towers are in southern Utah, but a few (perhaps a dozen) dot northern Arizona, and of course western New Mexico’s iconic Shiprock is here. []
Field Man: Life as a Desert Archaeologist
By Julian D. Hayden, Diane Boyer, Bill Broyles. University of Arizona Press. 352pp. Index. $45.00.
Julian Hayden was the real deal, and the world seems like a smaller and less interesting place without him. Fortunately, Bill Broyles had the foresight in the 1990s to turn on a tape recorder and ask Julian, a consummate storyteller, about his life. Here is his opinionated account of eight decades in search of adventure and knowledge that brought him into contact with many of the great names in southwestern archaeology and enabled him to formulate his own innovative theories. Broyles and Boyer resist the impulse to intrude so that what we read are Julian's own words expressed with his characteristic smile and a sly twinkle in his eye. Those of us who knew Julian are transported to his back yard, where we heard many of these stories for the first time. For others, this absorbing book provides a fascinating account of a life well lived and a vivid portrait of what now seems like a heroic era in the desert Southwest. []
A few of the words that come to mind while reading this book--remarkable, amazing, unique and unforgettable—describe Julian Hayden, who was all of these, and much, much more. Self-taught, he made archaeological discoveries and propounded theories unrecognized and sneered at by the professional community. That’s what his weekends were dedicated to; on weekdays he and his crews trenched sewer lines and installed septic tanks in Tucson. Then he “discovered” the Pinacates (that clump of desert rock due south in Sonora) and spent, by his estimate, 160 weekends exploring them and thinking about the implications of the artifacts found there. Editors Broyles and Boyer let him speak for himself, no questions, no interruptions, and boy does he say what is on his mind! []
Killer is Dying, The: A Novel
By James Sallis. Walker Publishing Company. 232pp. $24.00.
Los Angeles has Raymond Chandler. San Francisco has Dashell Hammett. And now Phoenix has James Sallis. In this compelling novel, the author of "Drive" probes in supple language the minds of a trio of outsiders - a dying hit man, a battered cop, and an abandoned youngster. As the characters circle one another in the wake of a botched assassination, Sallis takes readers on a tour of the twenty-first-century urban psyche fueled by loneliness and isolation. More than just a satisfying mystery, this is great literature. []
Sallis has authored nearly 30 books, about half of them novels. His sizzling, non-stop "Drive" was recently turned into a highly-praised movie. In this latest, set in Phoenix, three lives which seem fated to meet in some disaster find their destinies in other ways. The killer-for-hire of the title has cancer. He has one last job to do, but someone beats him to it, and he finds himself compelled to find out who and why. Meanwhile, the wife of one of the two detectives assigned to the case is also dying of cancer. A third story line introduces a young man whom we may think will later become a killer-for-hire. Terrific writing that will capture the imagination of any mystery fan. []
Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man
By David Remley. University of Oklahoma Press. 320pp. Index. $24.95.
Remley steers a steady course through troubled waters in this interpretive biography of the legendary, and controversial, guide, soldier, and Indian agent. When viewed within the context of his time and culture, Remley concludes, Carson emerges as “a common man of mind and feeling, a human being of his day and place, misrepresented in his own time as a great white hero, and in ours as another damned killer.” Tightly argued, clearly written and backed by an impressive bibliography, this volume in the University of Oklahoma’s western biographies series offers a balanced appraisal for scholars and general readers, alike. []
This biography of Kit Carson maintains a balanced view between the 19th Century adulation of an American superhero and the more recent revisionist view of Carson as an inhumane slaughterer of Native Americans. Kit wore many hats, traveled many places in the not-yet US in his 40 year career, but he was always guided by principles of loyalty, integrity, and duty. The author credits his keen sense of self-preservation to his border country background (Scots-Irish), but points out that as Carson matured, he understood the importance of compromise as opposed to bloodshed. This book seems unbiased, easily understood, and while well documented, not overly academic. []
Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky
By Stephen Bogener, William Tydeman. Texas Tech University Press. 177pp. Index. $45.00.
One can see forever driving across the southern high plains, some 50,000 square miles bounded by the Canadian and Pecos rivers on the west and the canyon lands of the Red, Brazos, and Colorado on the east. Here are Coronado’s legendary “staked plains,” and “island of grass.” Much has changed. Gone are the Comanche and the buffalo. Vast ranches have changed the terrain and over time wind, drought, rain, and lightning have left a vast wasteland. Six photographers set out to tell the modern story in large-format photographs accompanied by thoughtful vignettes from nine fine writers. []
This stunning coffee table book is a compendium of photographs commissioned to record the Llano, with complementary essays by authors knowledgeable about the region. Neither the essayists nor the photographers were given specific direction, but what evolved is an amazingly unified interpretation of the vast, diverse, unique area. Insiders should be proud of this accomplishment and outsiders have a window to understand the fierce love and pride people have in their region. []
Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life
By Jim Kristofic. University of New Mexico Press. 230pp. $26.95.
Kristofic writes with wit, insight, and affection of the formative years he spent as an Anglo kid, or "White Apple" to his Navajo classmates, at the reservation school at Ganado and later at public high school in Page. Kristofic's adventure begins when his divorced mother accepts a nursing job with the Indian Health Service. He quickly and painfully learns how to be a Tough Nut ("the Navajo Way"), forms bonds with neighbors and classmates, and discovers the complicated answer to The Question: "Are you a Navajo?" His thoughtful and entertaining memoir opens a revealing window on contemporary reservation life and sheds light on the important matter of how we view others and define ourselves. []
Jim Kristofic presents a compelling autobiography detailing his early years as one of the few Anglo kids attending school in Ganado, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Arriving on the Reservation with his mother, a nurse, he soon learned what it was like to be a bilagáana (white person) and to be bullied both physically and with words he didn’t understand. He recalls how he tried to fit in, and retells many of his experiences with what he calls “a Rez accent,” mixed with variations of the Navajo language. Over time, Kristofic began to understand the complex world of the Navajo and appreciate his brief sojourn in this beautiful place. Ed Chamberlin, Curator of Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, has observed that this book should be used as a primer for non-Navajo newcomers needing to learn the ins and outs of living in the Navajo Nation. Included is a glossary of Navajo words and phrases and insightful questions. The book is a must for the classroom. []
Old Border Road: A Novel
By Susan Froderberg. Little, Brown and Company. 292pp. $23.99.
Froderberg reaches for the literary heavens in her lyrical debut novel and, by and large, she hits the mark. In a drought-stricken corner of the Southwest (the town is unnamed, but Froderberg clearly means Yuma), a teenage bride struggles to define herself in a parched physical and emotional landscape where dreams evaporate and trust is as elusive as the life-sustaining rain. Abandoned by her parents and betrayed by her husband, she draws biblical lessons from the natural world and from the resilient people who make their way through this hard land. At once stark and evocative, this compelling story explores terrain that is achingly personal and boldly universal. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy are inevitable, but they underscore rather than diminish Froderberg’s stellar accomplishment. []
The unidentified Southwest border area, which must be Yuma, is a major character in this novel set in the present yet with a sense of history. Katherine, 17, escapes her dysfunctional parents, drops out of school, and mesmerized by Son, scion of wealthy ranchers, finds she’s moved from frying pan to fire. Son is a womanizer; Katherine gains wisdom from her in-laws and expands her ability to cope with hard work, learning new skills, and developing insight into others while all are coping with an overwhelming drought. The language is lyrical, biblical, unusual and a reason for the success of the novel. Highly recommended. []
Queen of America
By Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown and Company. 479pp. $25.99.
Urrea wields his pen like a magician waving a wand. In this luminous sequel to "The Hummingbird’s Daughter" (Southwest Books of the Year Top Pick, 2005), he recounts the further adventures of Teresita, the “Saint of Cabora,” as she flees revolutionary Mexico, pursued by assassins and acolytes, to Tucson, El Paso and eventually Clifton, AZ. It is obvious that Urrea has something exceptional in store for readers when he depicts his heroine as a Gilded Age superstar. Struggling to find herself and her place in a world bent on using her saintly image for its own purposes—good, evil and downright crass—Teresita makes her way across America, looking for happiness and testing the boundaries between faith and commercialism. Beautifully written, with wry wit and gentle wisdom, Queen of America separates the woman from the saint and offers up profound, sometimes aching, and always entertaining insights into the nature of faith and the pitfalls of fame. []
Urrea, a distant relative, re-names Teresita Urrea, known as the Saint of Cabora (see “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” in our 2005 list), a queen for the adoration that those who believe in her healing powers bring to her. Driven out of Mexico by politicos who fear her following among the people, she struggles to find out who she truly is while she is hounded both by those who wish her dead and those who wish to tap into her power. In it’s episodic style Teresita’s story may remind some readers, as it did this reviewer, of those grand Victorian literary adventures experienced by the likes of Huck Finn, or even the much earlier Tom Jones. []
Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist
By Vera Marie Badertscher, Charnell Havens. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.. 240pp. Index. $50.00.
During a decade of research assembling material for this fine biography of Quincy Tahoma, the authors interviewed people who knew him, studied his work, and compiled a hefty list of awards and exhibits of this outstanding artist. Orphaned at an early age with one arm partially atrophied due to an accident, he entered Santa Fe Indian School. Dorothy Dunn played a major role in developing Tahoma’s artistic talent. His later output was astounding and some 260 examples are reproduced in vibrant color. Tahoma painted action photos of buffalo on the hunt, horses flying through the air, delightful little animals, and Navajo women tending their flocks. Some of his Santa Fe contemporaries were Harrison Begay and Gerald Nailor, and in those early days, they often sold painting for a quarter or half dollar for spending money. Today, they auction for thousands. A problem with alcohol caused his early demise at 35. The authors have deftly told the story of how it came to be. []
This is not only a beautiful art book and thoroughly- researched biography of Quincy Tahoma (c. 1920-1956), but is also the complete story, told for the first time, of a gifted artist whose life reflects not only his own personal challenges but the multiple difficulties of being an American Indian trying to thrive in an Anglo American-dominated culture. The reproductions of Tahoma’s are stunning, the text clearly organized and presented with easy to follow endnotes, helpful appendices on exhibits, collections, awards and a timeline of his life. This is a keeper. []
Rio Grande, The: An Eagle's View
By Barbara McIntyre, Adriel Heisey. University of New Mexico Press. 240pp. $75.00.
Over a period of ten years, photographer Adriel Heisey flew his ultra-light airplane some 1,900 miles from the headwaters of the Rio Grande to its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico. During this time he produced some 25,000 images of this meandering giant, America’s third largest river, and more than 200 of those one-of-a-kind photographs enrich this majestic volume. One can see that the river rarely follows a straight line but instead finds the route of least resistance, resulting in thousands of bends that have formed oxbow lakes before moving on to create a new river path. New Mexico Senator Tom Udall noted in an afterword that “the American West is scattered with the dry remains of ghost rivers,” and went on to say that the Gila, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles rivers are good examples of those that have been “channelized, dammed, diverted and deprived of [their] lifeblood.” This publication, by WildEarth Guardians, is an effort to save the Rio Grande from a similar fate, and protect its beauty and delicate ecology. []
To many of us the Rio Grande is a sluggish, ugly river, its waters borrowed by towns and farms, and only a trickle of its former self. But if we can believe our eyes, stretches of it remain vigorous, beautiful, and healthy. Photographer Adriel Heisey takes us on an unforgettable low-level flight in his ultralight aircraft, following the river through its canyons and valleys, meanders and fields and even lakes, to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. What a trip! It’s visually stunning, gorgeously beautiful, and soulfully inspiring. We believe again! Rio Grande! Rio, Bravo! []
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