The long wait for the year’s best Southwest reading is over.
“Southwest Books of the Year,” Pima County Public Library’s (PCPL) annual review of regional literature, will arrive in libraries this week.
This free, library-produced publication connects readers with books that are new, noteworthy, and sure to keep you turning pages. They are selected by the “Southwest Books of the Year” panel of reviewers, composed of librarians and subject specialists, who read the books as they become available and meet regularly throughout the year to discuss them. Their favorites become the “Southwest Books of the Year” Top Picks.
The panelists are:
Bill Broyles, author, retired teacher and research associate at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center; Bruce Dinges, Arizona Historical Society director of publications; Vicki Ann Duraine, adult services librarian for PCPL; Christine Wald-Hopkins, longtime high school and college English teacher, book reviewer, and occasional essayist; and Helene Woodhams, literary librarian for Pima County Public Library and coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year. Ann Dickinson, retired librarian and children’s book selector for PCPL, reviews Southwest books for children and youth.
This is the publication’s 40th year. The Arizona Daily Star began the program and the library took it over in 2000. Books considered for Southwest Books of the Year are set in the Southwest (in the case of fiction) or focus on a southwestern subject or personality. This year 10 terrific titles — both fiction and nonfiction — rose to the top of the 200 books that were considered. Here they are, with reviews from the panelists who recommended them:
By Chris McCormick. Picador
Characters cycle in and out of the stories in this wise, affecting debut collection set mostly in Antelope Valley, California, in the western Mojave. Opening with a tale of three boys who test themselves in paintball wars, experience 9/11 only remotely, and come of age during the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts, Chris McCormick introduces Daley Kushner, the sensitive son of an Armenian immigrant, who serves as the pivotal presence in the interrelated collection. Kushner goes off to Berkeley, comes out as gay, becomes a writer, and lives in San Francisco, but the stories he’s part of and that he narrates—about his Uncle Gaspar’s tenant and the two reckless girls; the black kid who plays the Confederate mascot at Antelope High; the struggling alfalfa farmer — fondly recall the paintball-shooting, dirt-bike riders we started out with.
Also selected by Bruce Dinges
The Disappearances: A Story
loration, Murder, and Mystery in the American West
By Scott Thybony. University of Utah Press
Master storyteller Scott Thybony does it again, and gives us Southwest mysteries ripped from sandstone canyons and lonesome byways. He sets out to find three people who suddenly vanished in the Four Corners Country in 1935: Dan Thrapp, out exploring for Indian ruins and long overdue; Lucy Garrett, a 13-year-old girl abducted by a man who had murdered her father; and, Everett Ruess, a bright young artist gone walkabout who disappeared without a trace. Ever the detective, Thybony walks the ground of one of America’s most remote regions, quizzes insiders to shake out the truth, and ponders the cold-case evidence and newspaper morgues. His riveting verdicts weave regional history into touching personal stories with startling endings. If we close our eyes we can imagine these sagas being filmed in Monument Valley by a master movie-maker like John Ford, or being uncorked like ghost stories around a flickering campfire, sip by sip.
— Bill Broyles
Also selected by Helene Woodhams
The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting
By Fernanda Santos. Flatiron Books
A stark diagram showing the placement of nineteen bodies sets the somber tone for this mesmerizing account of wildland firefighting and the tragic deaths of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots at Yarnell Hill on June 30, 2013. Santos, the New York Times Phoenix bureau chief, combines impressive skill as an investigative reporter with a novelist’s feel for character and pacing to describe the ecology and culture of wildfire and unravel, minute-by-minute, the events of a day when nature and human error turned the world upside down for a band of dedicated men and the families who loved them. Santos writes with passion, knowledge, and empathy about an overwhelming tragedy and the lessons it holds for fire management and the built environment.
— Bruce Dinges
Also selected by Vicki Ann Duraine
Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918
By Amy Von Lintel and Georgia O’Keeffe. Radius Books/Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
No Southwest artist is more revered than Georgia O’Keeffe as her paintings continue to please and her legend endures as the “mother of American modernism.” But far lesser known is her art from the period of 1916 to 1918 when she “came west” and lived in Canyon, Texas, teaching art in a small college while exploring techniques, color palettes, and subjects. During that period she grew confident in “composing spaces creatively through the rhythmic patterns of tight lines, flowing curves, and open spaces,” and, according to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, it was a time when she found her “self” as well as bridged from watercolors to her later, more recognizable oils under the influence of Santa Fe. This edition, arguably 2016’s most beautiful Southwest book, reproduces 46 of her watercolors at full-scale in a bound book and slips in a 57-page back-pocket bonus booklet of gallery notes and biographical photos. At $60 the set is a bargain.
— Bill Broyles
Also selected by Christine Wald-Hopkins and Helene Woodhams
By Ron Hansen. Scribner
His slight stature and cocky good looks secured him his soubriquet, but it was his deadeye aim and proclivity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people that earned Billy the Kid his reputation as a remorseless murderer. Mrs. McCarty’s favorite son spent his short career wreaking havoc on the run while seeking to be exonerated of murder charges for killings he didn’t actually commit. But whether or not it was wholly deserved, his legend loomed large and became the one jail he couldn’t bust free of. His story has been frequently told, but it would be hard to beat Hansen’s well-researched and fast-paced account. No formulaic Western this — Hansen populates his meticulously researched novel with characters who are three-dimensional and richly realized. Far from being the blood-thirsty sociopath of Wild West lore, Hansen’s Billy lives and breathes, at times tender, often conflicted, loyal to his friends, always articulate and frequently very funny.
— Helene Woodhams
Also selected by Bruce Dinges and Vicki Ann Duraine
Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest
By Melissa Sevigny. University of Iowa Press
Imagine a world in which a river’s conservation was as important as the community it supports. With the insight of a hydrologist and the heart of a poet, Sevigny champions this ideal in her lyrical and exhaustively-researched science journal cum memoir, interweaving the centuries-old paradigm of unlimited natural resources with the facts as she knows them: the Southwest is running out of water and rain does not follow the plow. The mythical Buenaventura River is a case in point. Spanish explorers believed the nonexistent river ran from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean. Despite all evidence to the contrary it remained on U.S maps for a century, a testament to the same kind of wishful thinking that supports our current reliance on the Colorado River — which has been litigated, dammed, and drained almost to death — and our faith in technological sleight-of-hand to produce water where there is none. Realizing that what can’t be fixed by politics may be remedied by love, and in keeping with recommendations from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Sevigny promotes conservation at the local level. It is a call to arms: Mythical River may be the most important book you read all year.
— Vicki Ann Duraine
Also selected by Bill Broyles
News of the World
By Paulette Jiles. William Morrow
It’s a familiar theme, the unlikely pairing of a gruff old guy and a poor little orphan girl — think “True Grit,” or better yet, “Heidi.” Now, take Heidi out of the Alps and set her down in Indian Territory, where she’s just been freed after four years as a captive of the murderous Kiowas. She needs to make the perilous, 400-mile journey across Texas back to her family, and 70-year-old Capt. Jefferson Kidd is the (unlikely) man for the job. It’s an unpromising start — fully indoctrinated into the ways of her captors, 10-year-old Johanna speaks only Kiowa and her Indian ways are as inexplicable to Capt. Kidd as his old-man manners are to her — but he is patient and courageous and she is plucky and resourceful. In the face of adversity, they learn to trust and value each other. Jiles is a gifted storyteller, and in her capable hands the familiar becomes fresh — she never sounds a false note in her delivery of this truly captivating narrative.
— Helene Woodhams
Also selected by Christine Wald-Hopkins
The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Guide
Edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos; illustrations by Paul Mirocha. University of Arizona Press
This field guide celebrates the very best of Sonoran Desert biodiversity — its plants, invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians — and its essayists, artists and poets. Drawing from The Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park, a 2011 project that invited 80 writers to create literary pieces addressing species found in the park, this book presents more than 60 species. Paul Mirocha illustrated them, Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos scientifically described them, and writers from the region responded to them. Mirocha’s drawings are clean and lovely, the text by Magrane and Cokinos is informative and entertaining, and the accompanying writings are delightfully diverse. Check out Alberto Rios on jackrabbits (“Those ears have heard things/ And they’ve brought back/So many stories to tell about you”); and, Valentina Quintana on the parthenogenetic Sonoran whiptail lizard (“Personal ad: ... SWL seeks independent companion for fun in Sonoran desert.”)
— Christine Wald-Hopkins
Also selected by Bruce Dinges
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement
By Andrés Reséndez. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In his riveting chronicle of “good intentions gone bad,” UC Davis historian Reséndez recounts the dismal story of enslavement of native people in the New World from Columbus’s landing through Spanish and Anglo settlement of the American Southwest up to the present day. Combining a firm grasp of the scholarly literature, deep research into documentary sources, and a facile writing style, he describes in moving detail how warfare and conquest over five centuries created an economy of involuntary servitude in the Western Hemisphere, and its impact on conquered peoples. This landmark book opens a window on an important but overlooked chapter in American history.
– Bruce Dinges
Also selected by Christine Wald-Hopkins
By T. C. Boyle. Ecco
Beginning where the real-life Biosphere left off (its mission compromised when one of the occupants was released to treat a finger injury and returned with pizza), Boyle envisions a second mission in which four men and four women enter the sealed glass compound outside Tucson in a two-year experiment to test human beings’ ability to survive in an artificial environment. Told from alternating points of view, this insightful and often hilarious novel deftly examines the foibles of human nature viewed through the eyes of a supremely self-involved cast of characters committed to achieving a cause that is at once transcendent and totally banal.
— Bruce Dinges
Also selected by Vicki Ann Duraine and Helene Woodhams