Books

Christine Wald-Hopkins' Picks

Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres
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.
Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Onate
This very readable history chronicles the 1541 expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado up Mexico’s west coast, and the 1601 trip of Don Juan de Oñate, up Mexico’s interior, into Tierra Nueva—today’s New Mexico—and beyond, as far as Kansas. Characterizing the conquistadors’ motivation to explore as a desire for riches (gold and silver, particularly, as had been discovered by Hernan Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru), University of Central Oklahoma former Professor Emeritus Hoig presents the Spaniards’ arrogance, single-mindedness, and cruelty in credible and disturbing detail. Pursuing the “City of Gold” might prove fruitless for the conquistadors, but not pursuing it and thus missing it would have been disastrous personally and professionally, even if it cost the lives of the indigenous population. Illustrations, maps with current landmarks, and comprehensive annotation provide welcome assistance to the reader.
Emerald Mile, The: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon
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
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.
Old Man's Love Story, The
Fiction-, play-, and children-book author Rudolfo Anaya has sometimes drawn from his own experience for his work. This latest novella, which he acknowledges to be a response to the 2010 death of his wife, is a meditation on grief, love, and aging. Opening with the line “There was an old man who dwelt in the land of New Mexico, and he lost his wife,” it is stylistically fable-like. The language is simple, the characters are abstracted, and at some points the action morphs into a realm of magical realism. Much of what passes for action takes places in the old man’s mind: he talks to his wife (and she actually periodically appears as a point of view character); in his effort to hold onto her, he muses on such subjects as the natures of love, memory, God, time, place, the imagination, the shamanic role of the writer.
Lyrical and affecting, it’s a must-read for anyone who loved Bless Me, Ultima.
Pidge, Texas Ranger
You know the subject of this Texas Ranger biography is not going to make it through the last chapter (or to his 30th birthday) alive, but the more you read, the more you want to step in, shake him, and save him from himself. In 1874, young Thomas C. Robinson fled Virginia for Texas to escape some unpleasantness with a neighbor over his sister. Joining the Texas Rangers, Robinson quickly rose to lieutenant and served through three significant campaigns, but his talents lay in recording what he experienced and witnessed. Under the penname “Pidge,” he sent regular dispatches—reports, poems, parodies, articles laced with Shakespearean, poetic, Biblical, and contemporary references—to Texas newspapers. Clever, lively, often self-deprecating, they reveal a gifted wit. Unfortunately, wit couldn’t trump reckless; on leave, in a fit of misbegotten chivalry, Robinson returned to confront the Virginia neighbor, who unfortunately shot first. Historian Chuck Parson has provided excellent literary, linguistic and historic notes to support his smart, entertaining text.
Rules of Wolfe, The: A Border Noir
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.
Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
So, apparently there's more to getting to Carnegie Hall...or Madison Square Garden than "practice, practice, practice." That girl from Tucson who became a huge rock star did the practice thing, but she was also smart and consideredxx about the route she took through her career. In addition to tracing her own career trajectory, Ronstadt celebrates the work of other musicians and discusses the nature of music in this memoir.

To her credit, Ronstadt wrote the book herself-- her prose very accessible--tumbling, descriptive, sometimes politically tinged, very like her speaking voice. She writes of her childhood in Tucson, of the music traditions of her Mexican-American family, the roots in performing in local venues; of her move to LA instead of going to the UA; of the heady musical environment of the sixties, and of how she went from being part of a band to solo girl singer...and then versatile star, as she crossed genres, and ventured out of rock into musical theater, American standards, opera, and mariachi. She doesn't dish (well, aside from one unattractive portrayal of a drunken Jim Morrison), doesn't take us into her famous romantic partnerships, but the memoir reveals a musician appreciative of other musicians, and a serious student of musical styles, forms, and expressions.

About Christine Wald-Hopkins

Wald-Hopkins writes book reviews for the Tucson Weekly and teaches composition at the University of Arizona.

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