Help me get to know the American Southwest.
May 23, 2013 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I've lived all my life in the shadow of the Appalachians. Now, I'm moving to Arizona. What are some books that I should read, or music that I should hear, to help me get the feel of the Southwest?

Ever since I've known for sure that I'm moving, I've realized how much I know about my home state. I know the birds, the animals, the plants and rocks and mountains, what the people are like; I have a rough grasp on the history and I know some of the cultural influences. I'm familiar with the local writers and musicians and the food. This gives me a nice sense of situated "place".

Now I'm moving to Arizona for the foreseeable future, and I'm very excited about getting to know somewhere new! Of course there's no substitute for getting out and wandering around, but in the meantime I would like to prepare to have a new home by learning some of the same things. What books and music say Southwest to you?

I'm looking for history (particularly a good history of the state itself), biography, fiction, poetry, music and everything between, as long as it's interesting. Naturalist guides are fine, but I would prefer to steer away from visitors' guides unless they are really exceptional and full of things that I would otherwise miss. Thank you very much, Mefites of the Sunny Southwest!
posted by WidgetAlley to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Novels: all of Cormac McCarthy's later work (Blood Meridian on).
posted by nathancaswell at 9:30 AM on May 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire is not specifically about Arizona, but it "captures the heat, mystery, and surprising bounty of desert life. Desert Solitaire is a meditation on the stark landscapes of the red-rock West, a passionate vote for wilderness, and a howling lament for the commercialization of the American outback."
posted by rtha at 9:34 AM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and pretty much anything by Tony Hillerman.
posted by rtha at 9:35 AM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Abbey's Desert Solitaire and Hillerman's novels. Also this site: I have explored the southwest extensively since 2004 or so with the help of this site. It is a guide, yes, but non-commercial and exceptional.
posted by jnnla at 9:48 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recommend Barbara Kingslover, especially The Bean Trees, High Tide in Tucson, and Holding the Line. The first is fiction, the second is a collection of essays, and the third is a history of a mining strike that will give you an idea of the race and class issues that have shaped the history of the state.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:49 AM on May 23, 2013 [11 favorites]

I always thought Bob Boze Bell was pretty funny, he's got an online magazine now. Here's a listing of illustrated stories. I always liked Honkytonk Sue.

Pehaps the music of Jerry Riopelle.

Arizona Highways
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:49 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Absolutely spend some time listening to Growing Native with Petey Mesquitey out of Tucson's KXCI. No one will familiarize you with the flora and fauna of Arizona faster or better. Here is KXCI's page for him: Petey Mesquitey. But you can also download his pieces as podcasts from iTunes.
He's funny, self-effacing, and can make you love life a little better through his effusive joy for it all, even the sad things.
posted by smuna at 9:56 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Edward Abbey, almost anything by him.
posted by mareli at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try reading Geronimo's autobiography and the related memoir of Charles Gatewood.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:09 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. A long but super fascinating history of how the Southwest gets its water. It doesn't focus on AZ exclusively, but AZ plays a major role, obviously. I grew up in Phoenix surrounded by canals and man-made lakes but never really "got" them until I read this.
posted by mullacc at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Music-wise, it's hard to beat Calexico for desert rock. Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers are also a good bet for rock music about southern Arizona; knowing when to shout "the whole damn night" in "Jack vs. Jose" may be an official part of Arizona initiation in certain rowdy crowds.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert, by Craig Childs, was a good read for me. He has other books about the Southwest as well. I also recommend anything by Leslie Marmon Silko.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Aww, mixedmetaphor beat me to Calexico, but if you like Roger Clyne you might also like Giant Sand.
posted by smuna at 10:26 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh! And I've just started Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner, and it's fantastic.
posted by rtha at 10:29 AM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

I grew up in New Mexico, and the music that most feels like the Southwest to me is, believe it or not, The Eagles- especially Witchy Woman, One of These Nights, Peaceful Easy Feeling, and Take it Easy. Ok, really any Eagles music from that time period. Also, early ZZ Top, like La Grange.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:29 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Edward Abbey for sure.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner is a great telling of one of the most bad ass dudes the desert ever knew.

As a former Appalachian resident and now Utah resident, welcome to the desert.
posted by trbrts at 10:39 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
posted by datarose at 10:48 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My colleague who is a transplant from Arizona recommends Arizona Highways Magazine as a "print NPR" of the state. The photos look awesome.
posted by TravellingCari at 10:55 AM on May 23, 2013

If you're at all into mystery novels J.A. Jance's Joanna Brady series is good.
posted by mareli at 11:18 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead is a deeply weird and long, ambitious novel that takes place in the Southwest and Latin America, including Arizona. I've never been able to finish it but always enjoyed reading the parts of it I did.
posted by threeants at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Where in Arizona? Tuscon is going to be very different from Flagstaff. Both of them are going to be very different than Window Rock or Page.
posted by yohko at 11:54 AM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

This isn't what you're looking for, but for a true desert experience, get a swamp cooler and learn how to properly use it instead of AC on all days except for the most humid days during monsoon season.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:14 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Where in Arizona? Tuscon is going to be very different from Flagstaff. Both of them are going to be very different than Window Rock or Page.

This is true. To my mind, much more than other places in the country, the cities in AZ have very different personalities even though there are many commonalities.
posted by bongo_x at 12:54 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

for a true desert experience, get a swamp cooler and learn how to properly use it

It's a wonderful suggestion, but I think the OP just might have a little tiny bit of trouble getting their swamp cooler to work in the shadow of the Appalachians. The swamp cooler may just have to wait.
posted by yohko at 1:16 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Howard Lamar is an amazing historian and he wrote a book called The Far Southwest, A Territorial History 1846- 1912. It's about the four Four Corners states, and about how and why they developed so differently. And I haven't read it yet, but Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos by Eric V. Meeks looks really interesting.

You are moving to a part of the country where the landscape is made out of rock, and it is not covered by green growing things the way it is in the East, so it's good to learn a bit about Geology. The Roadside Guides are usually a pretty good place to start: here is the Roadside Guide to Arizona Geology.

Arizona is home to a large part of the Navajo Reservation and the Hopi Reservation (which is the size of Rhode Island and is inside the Navajo Reservation). The Navajo Reservation is approximately the size of West Virginia. I don't know of any good books about the Navajo or the Hopi particularly, but if you're interested in learning about life on the Indian Reservations in this country, there are some common denominators, so you should read anything by Sherman Alexie even though he's writing about Eastern Washington, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and at least the first half of On the Rez by Ian Frazier. And go to a Pow-Wow or two.

Larry McMurtry writes mostly about Texas, but I think a lot of it is relevant to most of the Southwest because he's talking about the borderlands. Read Lonesome Dove. Read Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. And Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. And Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Watch something about The Minutemen, who are the vigilante militia group who started patroling the the Mexican/Arizona border in 2005, trying to catch illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S. because they don't believe the U.S. govt is doing a good enough job. A documentary came out in 2010 about them that got a lot of awards and you can rent it on iTunes.

Also, two things that I don't have any books for, but that always surprise Easterners: in the Southwest, most of the precipitation falls as snow in the winter in the mountains. In the spring it all melts, and there are a lot of dams in place to hold the snow melt back and that allow that water through gradually, so that there's still water available in August. This is why everyone talks about the snowpack all the time: that's going to affect how much water you have in the summer. In Arizona, people get most of their water from the Colorado River and from groundwater. In 1912 (I think) the states of the Southwest agreed to share the Colorado River water, called the Colorado River Compact, but they misjudged how much water there actually was in the river, and so they've been fighting ever since about who gets what. Western water law goes: use it or lose it. So Arizona is fighting right now (or was 5 years ago, last time I lived in the SW) to prove that they really DO use as much water as they said they would, because California has been using a large part of Arizona's claim to the Colorado River, and Arizona's getting scared they won't have a claim on it any more if/when they do need it. As Mark Twain supposedly said, "In the West, whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting." Watch Chinatown: it's about people in California scrambling for power, which means controlling the water.

Second: in the West, the Federal Govt. still owns large chunks of land. Back in the day, the newly formed Western states didn't want to deal with the large swaths of desert and what-not that their new states had to officially encompass, so they solved the problem by giving control of those lands back to the Federal Govt. Some states in the West are mostly Federal Lands (see map here). Nevada, for example. The Bureau of Land Mangement (the BLM), and the Forest Service are both federal agencies that are supposed to be stewards of the public lands. Mostly they give cheap grazing permits to ranchers and cut down a lot of trees for timber. A lot of modern-day conservatives in the West don't like the fact that the Federal government owns large parts of their states, and they periodically raise a big fuss about "getting it back."

Oh wow, I just wrote you a book. As you can tell, I like this region. Welcome to the Southwest!
posted by colfax at 2:28 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

No Life for a Lady, a memoir of growing up in rural New Mexico.

The Milagro Beanfield War, a 1970s story about land and water rights that remains relevant today.
posted by jfwlucy at 3:07 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson; spend a day there and you'll emerge feeling like a native Arizonan. When I was a kid, there was a man named Hal Gras who went around to the public schools with wild desert animals and inspired love for the desert and all its flora and fauna in schoolchildren. The museum/zoo now earns awards for its exhibits and teaching - it's just an outstanding introduction to desert life.

Hope your experience in the desert enriches your life as it has mine.
posted by aryma at 9:27 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of great answers in this thread! Thank you all so much, I wish I could mark everyone as "best answer" because all of these are invaluable. Looks like I have a lot of reading and listening ahead.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:19 AM on May 24, 2013

Best answer: I always liked the book What Kind of Cactus Izzat? by Reg Manning. He was an editorial cartoonist for the AZ Republic years ago. His drawings of cacti look like caricatures, but it made them really easy to remember, as opposed to more formal nature books.
posted by CathyG at 2:13 PM on May 24, 2013

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