Best Reading 2013

Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres
By David Burckhalter, David Burckhalter, Mina Sedgwick. University of Arizona Press. 184pp. Index. Foreword by Bernard L. Fontana. University of Arizona Southwest Center Series. $24.95.
More than 100 excellent color photographs (by author Burckhalter and Mina Sedgwick) supplement the fine text. The authors visited all eight of the still-functioning missions, from San Borja in Baja California Norte to San Luis Gonzaga, the southernmost, near Loreto in Baja California Sur. Photographs include both interiors and exteriors and, in one case, a group photo of a crew working on restoration at Santa Rosalia. Text are straightforward historical accounts mixed with contemporary descriptions. Fine book. []
Baja California Missions is part coffee table art-and-architecture book, part travel account, part guide book, and a little 17th and 18th century history. David Bruckhalter and Mina Sedgwick present the eight Spanish missions remaining on the peninsula where Roman Catholic missionaries established thirty-four missions to “conquer, congregate, and convert” Baja’s four indigenous tribes. The missions were abandoned after more than 90 percent of the population perished from European-introduced disease, but the stone buildings survive. Bruckhalter and Sedgwick’s photographs are hauntingly beautiful--from landscapes through exterior and interior architectural shots, to details of the baroque altars, statuary, and art; they capture caretakers, restorers, participants in festivals, even Sedgwick herself. The book offers maps and directions for reaching the sites by car; it invites a road trip. []
Emerald Mile, The: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon
By Kevin Fedarko. Scribner. 0pp. Index. $30.00.
In June, 1983, the iconic Glen Canyon Dam was in crisis. Unprecedented runoff from a massive snowmelt was flooding into Lake Powell faster than it could be discharged, and the dam was vibrating, groaning, and spitting out huge chunks of concrete. To avert a cataclysm, engineers increased the flow of water through the dam to the maximum amount possible, unleashing a torrent that roared through the Grand Canyon. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a band of river guides to realize their dream of speed and make history in a wooden dinghy named The Emerald Mile. Eluding the authorities, the crew launched the dinghy in the dead of night into a maelstrom of savage white water, deadly whirlpools, 30-foot standing waves, and psychotic river hydraulics to take a hurtling ride of mythic proportions. Their heart-stopping story is masterfully recounted by Kevin Fedarko, a former staff writer for Time magazine and a part-time river guide who clearly knows his stuff. His expertise and enthusiasm are evident on every page of this compulsively readable book. []
Journalist and part-time river guide Kevin Fedarko has produced a work of jaw-dropping scope and page-turning action in this account of a speed record of rowing the length of the Grand Canyon that remains unmatched. In 1983, as a result of an unprecedented snow pack in the Rockies, the Colorado River flow was abnormally high and fast. Knowing this was the chance to set a new speed record for rowing the canyon, three long-time river guides flouted Park Service rules, and slipped their wooden dory, the Emerald Mile, into the river. Over exhaustive (but not dreary) background on the development, exploration, and history of the Grand Canyon; and the monumental human attempts to harness (and for some, to liberate) the energy of the river, Fedarko overlays and interweaves two compelling narratives: that of the river runners and that of the managers of the mammoth Glen Canyon Dam, which was in serious risk of overtopping and collapse. An unforgettable read, rendered in vivid, sometimes majestic, prose. []
Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club
By Benjamin Alire Saenz. Cinco Puntos Press. 222pp. $16.95.
The eponymous bar of this Pen/Faulkner Award-winning collection of seven short stories is located a few blocks south of the Rio Grande. It is the nexus for the otherwise unconnected souls who drift back and forth across the border between El Paso and Juarez, searching for answers, longing for love, and sometimes just looking for trouble. Saenz’s stories, rendered elegantly and with compassion, tell of interior lives that are rich with complexities, restricted psychologically and emotionally by internal boundaries that bind and suffocate. Although we struggle as individuals, our need to break free of the borders that confine us is universal. These are stories to savor, both for their grace and for the truths they reveal. []
The Kentucky Club of this collection of Borderland short stories is a once-elegant Juárez bar, the Tiffany dome and gleaming wood and glass of which remind one character of a church. "[I]sn't that what bars are,” he muses, "churches for people who'd lost their faith?" That sense of loss, of emotional isolation, and of the yearning to connect are common to Sáenz's seven thoughtful, sculpted stories: an aging writer doesn’t know what he’s missing until he gains—and then loses—a lover; the grown children of wealthy, negligent parents seek emotional connection through risky behavior; a boy raised in Juárez is dumped unwanted on his American father’s doorstep and needs to negotiate his fractured world. At some point, they all pass through the Kentucky Club. And in his spare, luminous poet's voice, this one-time priest grants each a measure of redemption. []
Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona, A
By Richard C. Brusca, Wendy Moore. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press. 232pp. Index. $24.95.
Rockhounds, naturalists, and sightseers visiting the Santa Catalina Mountains now have an exceptionally fine guide to help them appreciate a unique Southern Arizona destination. One of the Madrean Sky Islands that connect the northern end of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the southern Colorado Plateau, the iconic Santa Catalinas rise straight up from the desert floor and transition rapidly through a series of biomes that are rich in biodiversity and geologic history. It’s a lot of information to sort out, but authors Brusca and Moore have sorted it brilliantly, beginning with the big picture (the significance of sky islands) and then moving on to the geologic, natural, and even the cultural history of the Santa Catalinas. This lavishly-illustrated volume provides maps, pictorial guides to flora and fauna, and profiles of people and events that have impacted the area. All the information is presented in easy-to-understand language and so is accessible to the most casual visitor, and travelers on the Mount Lemmon Highway will appreciate the landmark map. If you’re heading for the hills, don’t leave home without this excellent book. []
This spectacular book has many qualities and characteristics that make it outstanding, not the least of which is a text that describes the mountains north of Tucson in terms we can all understand. Side bars give us special insight into such things as tree rings and grasslands. The illustrations are in fine color. And the entire book is printed on heavy "slick" paper and bound with metal spiral "rings" for easy opening and many years of use. []
Rules of Wolfe, The: A Border Noir
By James Carlos Blake. Mysterious Press. 240pp. $17.92.
Readers who like mysteries that have a good “sense of place” will applaud Blake’s handling of scenes that range across the border from Mexico into Texas. But fans of action will be equally pleased as the graphic scenes of mayhem, high-speed auto chases, and a fast-moving plot keep us turning the pages at a rapid clip. []
Master creator of the sympathetic outlaw, James Carlos Blake has cast another good bad boy in this “border noir.” When nineteen-year-old Eddie Gato Wolfe, a hot-headed and ambitious junior member of the Texas Wolfe crime family, tries to jump the line to promotion by joining a Mexican cartel in Sonora, he manages to defend the wrong girl, and the two have to flee north. The cartel pulls out all the stops to capture them, so Eddie and the girl are forced on foot into the desert. Blake’s narrative is drum tight: the action never flags, his signature violence is creative (consider the efficacy of punishing tippling employees by preserving them naked—and dead-- in a glass-topped vat of rum), and he includes the harsh realities of the undocumented attempting to trek across the border. A killer read. []
Son of a Gun
By Justin St. Germain. Random House. 242pp. Memoir. $26.00.
In the late summer of 2001, Debbie St. Germain was brutally murdered by her fifth husband in their trailer outside Tombstone, Arizona. In his soul-searching memoir, Debbie's son sifts through the shards of his mother's tragic life for clues to her death and to make sense out of his own fractured childhood. More than just another meditation on personal loss, this stubbornly unsentimental book, spun out against the backdrop of Tombstone's glorification of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight, is a sobering commentary on unmoored personalities and the violent mythology of the Old West. []
Ten years after his mother was shot to death by her unstable fifth husband in the desert outside of Tombstone, Justin St. Germain returned to the Southwest to try and make sense of the tragedy. No apologist for her unconventional lifestyle or her penchant for unsuitable and sometimes violent men, St. Germain instead ponders how his mother’s life (and his own dysfunctional childhood, by extension) might have been different had she made other choices. Most tellingly, would she have escaped death at the hand of an angry man had she not opted to live in a town that celebrates its culture of gunplay, anger and violence? Rather than allowing her passing to be dismissed as “…a real old Wild West murder,” as it was characterized by the local news affiliate, the author offers a clear-eyed portrait of a woman who tried to be tougher than her surroundings. With deft prose and the even-handedness born of a decade of retrospection, St. Germain makes an interesting case for the way the mythology we allow to define us as a community can impact the way we live and, tragically for some, the way we die. []
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