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.
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. []
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. []
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.
Take a raging river in full flood, a crumbling dam, three scofflaw river runners trying to set a speed record through the Grand Canyon, and you have the makings of one of the best Colorado River books ever. This spellbinding true story leaps from the inner workings of Glen Canyon Dam and the psyches of river guides to boat-eating whirlpools and a wooden river dory named The Emerald Mile. Kevin Fedarko’s prodigious research and breathtaking narrative transcend the Southwest. It’s a roaring adventure with wave after wave of spills and thrills. Let’s hope Fedarko owns the movie rights. []
Fedarko, an award-winning journalist and part-time river guide, captures in all its heart-stopping twists and turns the epic 1983 speed run of three daredevil boatmen through the flood-gorged Grand Canyon. Iconoclast extraodinaire Kenton Grua occupies center stage as the mastermind behind the astonishing feat, but Fedarko's supreme accomplishment lies in his remarkable ability to place Grua and his companions within the pantheon of other great canyonland adventurers from Spanish times to the present, and in his equal respect for the engineers and dreamers whose attempts to tame the Colorado River averted disaster when put to the test. "The Emerald Mile" earns its place among the classic accounts of Grand Canyon adventure and exploration. []
Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club
By Benjamin Alire Saenz. Cinco Puntos Press. 222pp. $16.95.
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. []
Saenz explores boundaries, both physical and emotional, in this luminescent collection of short stories that won the 2013 Pen/Faulkner award for fiction. The Kentucky Club on Avenida Juarez is the place where Saenz's characters come to assess the cost of love lost and won, and where readers are reminded of the endless possibilities of lives lived without borders. With poetic precision, Saenz charts the human heart's travertine course across landscapes of heartache and loneliness. []
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.
Deft plotting and crisp, clean prose transport readers into the cartel underworld where a young gunman makes a break for the Arizona border after killing the brother of a Sonoran drug kingpin. There are rules even among killers and few writers are better than Blake when the time comes to tally the price of honor among thieves. Without a wasted word, he has crafted a pitch-perfect borderlands thriller. []
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. []
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. []
Pima County Website