Time magazine recently released a list of 29 books to enrich your inner literati and enable you to call yourself well-read.
The list categorized books and went for breadth not depth. It encouraged readers to dig into a few books of different genres, time periods, points of views, ancient and modern Western classics, dystopia and Great American novels.
It’s an interesting, overarching list, and we agreed with many selections. Not all of them, however. “To Kill a Mockingbird” should have been included on the list of “zeitgeist works (that) practically defined a time period of U.S. history.”
The Time list piqued our interest and inspired us to ask: What books should be read to be “well-read” from a Southern Arizona perspective? To be a member of the Southern Arizona literati, if you will.
We gathered a list of 18 books that capture and enhance readers’ understanding of the heart and soul of Southern Arizona and help establish a sense of place. The list has a distinct Southern Arizona emphasis, and favors authors who’ve had a presence at the Tucson Festival of Books.
Some the books have been around for decades and others are new to the shelf.
Some of you may scratch your head, wondering, “Why did they put that one on the list?”
Others will say (we hope), “They nailed it.”
The Time article concludes that a truly well-read person will never feel well-read. “They’re always on the lookout for their next book .... If you feel well-read, you’re probably not.”
We concur with that notion and hope that you will tell us what we should or should not have included — what to read in the continued pursuit of being a well-read Southern Arizonan. We’re always on the lookout for the next book, too.
“Bad Country,” CB McKenzie, 2014: This book won the Tony Hillerman Prize for best first mystery set in the Southwest. It is packed with recognizable landmarks and places in and surrounding Tucson, including the Boondocks Lounge and the Buffet. A former teacher at Pima Community College, McKenzie calls “Bad Country” a literary book with a mystery plot that involves a private investigator who is retired from the rodeo circuit and the death of a young Yaqui gangbanger.
“The Bean Trees,” Barbara Kingsolver, 1988: Tucson, family and a smattering of feminism are featured in the author’s first novel. Kingsolver no longer lives in Tucson, but she wrote her first novels here and she used the city as her palette. You’ll spot many elements of downtown in the story of Taylor Greer, driving into town from Kentucky, and daughter “Turtle,” who was thrust into Taylor’s life along the way. The characters and the setting are revisited in her 1993 novel “Pigs in Heaven.”
“The Bounty Hunters,” Elmore Leonard, 1954: The popular author of Westerns and of gritty crime novels — think “Get Shorty” and “Raylan,” one of the stories on which the TV show “Justified” was based — shows his gift for story telling in his debut Western novel. When asked to explain the brisk pace of his novels, Leonard notably said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” Leonard, a book festival fan favorite, died in 2013.
“Hour of the Hunter,” J.A. Jance, 1992: The author, who was a K-12 librarian at Indian Oasis School District in Sells for five years, integrates Tohono O’Odham legends into this mystery. This book and the three others in the Walker Family series “reflect what I learned during the years when I was teaching on the Tohono O’Odham reservation,” Jance says on her website. Jance, who graduated from Bisbee High School, sets her Joanna Brady series in Cochise County. Jance’s scene setting is so realistic that fans travel to Southern Arizona to find the places the author has described.
“Telegraph Days,” Larry McMurtry, 2006: McMurtry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Lonesome Dove” and an Oscar for his work on the screenplay adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain,” spins a good yarn of cowboys, gunfights and a feisty heroine. Of all McMurtry’s books, why did we pick this slim volume? Simple, those cowboys and gunfights include Billy the Kid, the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the O.K. Corral.
“These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901: Arizona Territories,” Nancy E. Turner, 1998: Inspired by the author’s family memoirs, the historical novel told in diary form, presents the hardships and expectations in turn-of-the-century Southern Arizona. You’ll recognize some spots, like Cienega Creek.
“Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir,” Alberto Álvaro Ríos, 1999: Named Arizona’s first poet laureate in 2013, Ríos brings elegant language to stories of growing up in Nogales. A selection of the 2003 Caliente Summer Reading Group, “Capirotada” reveals an open, seamless Nogales that is very different than the one we hear about today. Rios has written 10 books of prose and poetry, including “The Iguana Killer: Twelve stories of the heart,” which includes “The Child,” the story of a group of women on the way north to a funeral in Nogales who find a dead boy stuffed with opium on a bus. Have a tissue handy.
“Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State,” Ken Lamberton, 2014: The author and his wife packed up their Kia Rio and headed out for a 52-places-in-52-weeks, 20,000-mile adventure through Arizona’s 15 counties during the state’s 2012 centennial and the result was a book filled with facts and mixed with his descriptive prose and his richly detailed pencil sketches of critters and vegetation.
“El Charro Cafe: Favorite Recipes and the Story of its Colorful Past,” Carlotta Dunn Flores, 1989: There are recipes of Tucson’s famous Mexican restaurant, which Monica Flin opened in Tucson in 1922, of course. Flores, chef-author and Flin’s great grandniece gives the reader-cook plenty of info about the food that helped make El Charro a quintessential Tucson eating experience. The stories behind the food and the restaurant make this more than a cookbook.
“Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer,” Richard Shelton, 2007: He’s a writer, poet and emeritus
Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona. Shelton’s “Going Back to Bisbee,” is what you’d expect to see on a list like this. In this 1992 work, Shelton returns to the area where he once taught school and reflects on the history of the area, on the landscape, and on his life. However, Shelton’s not-to-miss book is “Crossing the Yard,” the collection of his experiences and views that extend from a writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison that Shelton established in 1974. It’s packed with his candid insights on the prison system and the risks and rewards of working with prisoners like Charles Schmid, the serial killer nicknamed the “Pied Piper of Tucson.”
“The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country,” Gary Paul Nabhan, 1982. Ethnobotanist Nabhan lived with the Tohono O’odham, known as the Papago at the time, and shares some insights into the history of desert plants and shares an agricultural tradition and a desert-adapted way of life. The 2002 edition changes the title to “The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O’Odham Country,” updating the name after the tribe changed its name to Tohono O’odham (Desert People).
“Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,” Edward Abbey, 1971: Even though the book’s foundation is Abbey’s experience in Moab, Utah, his colorful, passionate language offer an insightful perspective on the desert. The environmental advocate and critic of public-lands policies, his novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” is often cited as an inspiration to radical environmental groups. Abbey died in Tucson in 1989.
“The Devil’s Highway: A True Story,” Luis Alberto Urrea, 2004. The author shares the harrowing trek of a group of men trying to cross the Mexican border into the desert of Southern Arizona in this Pulitzer Prize finalist. Urrea’s fiction, like the “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “Queen of America” are sprinkled with romance and humor.
“Frog Mountain Blues,” Charles Bowden, 1987: With photos by Jack Dykinga, the Tucson resident explores the Santa Catalina Mountains and the delicate balance between the environment and the encroaching urban development. (Frog Mountain is the Tohono O’odham name for the mountain range.) Bowden’s collection of books depicting the desert, border violence and life in the edgier, darker sides of Mexico, is eye-opening reading. The former Tucson Citizen reporter died in August.
“Long Ago Told (Huh-Kew Ah-Kah): Legends of the Papago Indians,” Harold Bell Wright, 1929: The Tucson resident’s collection of the myths and legends from the Tohono O’Odham go back go as far back as 1300 to 1400. (Finding a reasonably priced copy of this book will be difficult.)
“Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life,” Carmen Duarte, 2000, 2014. The award-winning 36-part series that ran in the Star on the life, challenges and triumphs of the author’s mother, Leonarda “Nala” Bejarano Duarte, is a rich, textured, compelling narrative nonfiction. “Mama’s Santos” originally ran in the Star in 2000 and is available in e-book and printed book formats.
“Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir,” Tony Hillerman, 2001. Hillerman is one of the Southwest’s prominent authors and his books are filled with the landscape of the desert. He wrote 30 books including his memoir, books about the Southwest, and his crime-fiction Navajo Tribal Police series featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His daughter, Anne, who is writing books featuring her father’s characters, suggests the memoir and “A Thief of Time” (1988) from the Leaphorn/Chee series as books that represent her father’s work. Tony Hillerman died in 2008.
“Tucson’s Most Haunted: A Collection of Ghostly Tales from the Old Pueblo,” Katie Mullaly and J. Patrick Ohlde, 2009. Want to find — or avoid — some of the scare-the-bejeebers-out-of-you spots around town? Pick up this book.
Find what other readers would add to the list and let us know which books you’ve read on our poll at Tucson.com/bookfest