Helene Woodhams' Picks

All the Land to Hold Us
What possible sustenance can a love sick young geologist, a despairing woman whose marriage withered 30 years earlier, and a one-legged treasure hunter take from the forbidding West Texas desert? It’s a place where passions bleed out and dreams come to die, where only the toxic greed for artifacts, salt and oil survive. But, “a strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings,” according the author, so even though the searing heat can roast an elephant and the quicksand of the deadly drifting salt flats are dotted with the skeletons of luckless adventurers, the possibility of redemption persists at the place where their stories intersect. In this lyrical tour de force, Bass, the winner of multiple awards for both fiction and nonfiction, creates a desert dreamscape somewhere beyond the edge of reason, where the improbable meets the surreal and the surreal bumps up against the truly bizarre, and populates it with characters as vivid as their extraordinary setting is starkly unforgettable.
Emerald Mile, The: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon
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.
Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club
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.
Leaving Tinkertown
The Tinkertown Museum beckons travelers from its perch on the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque to come marvel at the memorabilia, miniatures, and folk-arty oddities that were created and gathered by carnival painter Ross Ward over the course of 40 years. Ward is the subject of this memoir, lovingly written by daughter Tanya Ward Goodman who cared for him from the time he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 55 until his death six years later. Her no-holds-barred account paints a vivid portrait of a free-spirited artist-- eccentric, unpredictable, and non-conforming to his core, simultaneously a stubborn man and an affectionate father. Goodman, who grew up in the unconventional surroundings of Tinkertown, is a graceful writer and she exhibits a clear-sightedness and humor (unexpected in an Alzheimer’s memoir) that nuances--but in no way diminishes--the daily frustrations and underlying tragedy that are the portion of a family caring for a patient with dementia.
Mapping Wonderlands: Illustrated Cartography of Arizona, 1912-1962
There has been little scholarship on the methods used to package Arizona and promote it as a tourist destination in the first half of the twentieth century, but now "Mapping Wonderlands" provides an insightful look at the role cartography played in luring tourists to a little-understood state. Eye-catching illustrated maps that painted an Arizona rich in culture and natural wonders established it as a tourist mecca in the minds of the traveling public. Enhancing the state’s vacation appeal was the goal, even when it led cartographers to include a highway or two that were yet to be built, or to fudge the distance between attractions. Author Dori Griffin gives historical context to the themes employed by the mapmakers (natural landscape, man-made environment, indigenous culture) and seals her case for the importance of cartography in picturing Arizona as a vacationer’s wonderland with the inclusion of sixty-six well-explicated maps that, had they been presented in color, would have increased reader appeal, but are no less intriguing for the lack of it. This fine book has important things to say about how the way Arizona told its story in the past impacts the way Arizonans, and the rest of the world, perceive the state today.
Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona, A
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.
Son of a Gun
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.
He’s unemployed and broken-hearted, but Sid Dulaney’s no criminal and he certainly didn’t set out to be a drug runner when he left Massachusetts and his two-timing girlfriend and came back to Tucson to care for his Grandma. But the rent for his beloved Grandma’s assisted living won’t pay itself, so to keep her in comfort he makes regular forays into Mexico to smuggle out cut-rate medications for her quirky neighbors in the retirement village. Sid is an anti-hero for our times, flying beneath the Border Patrol’ radar in an un-air conditioned Honda Civic while dodging a decidedly off-beat Mexican drug lord, all for the most compassionate of reasons. Dan Waters, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, offers a first novel rich in quirky characters and gentle humor, and it’s a charming and very readable take on filial love triumphant.

About Helene Woodhams

Woodhams is a librarian for the Pima County Public Library and has been the Coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year since 2006.

Pima County Website