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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Julie Birnbaum, Blake de Pastino, Devin O'Leary, Valerie Yarberry

MARCH 16, 1998: 

The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness
by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $23)

Exploring the relationship between humans and the land they inhabit, Bass puts himself in a league with celebrated American nature writers such as Gary Snyder and Annie Dillard with this collection of novellas. His work combines a naturalist's familiarity with the details of his environment with a fiction writer's imagination and understanding of human character. Each of the three works contains a form of tension between predator and prey. In "The Myths of Bears," a trapper follows the seductive track of his runaway wife; in "Where the Sea Used to Be," a man hunts for oil and discovers a more profound truth, and in the title story, a lone woman on her family's Texas ranch searches for the place of the past in the scheme of the landscape. This year's Regional Book Award winner for fiction (See "Books" opposite), The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness evokes the powerful balance between the poetry of nature and its hard-edged reality. (JB)

La Vida Norteña
by David Burckhalter et al. (UNM Press, paper, $19.95)

Three Arizonans have pooled their perspectives to create this, a chronicle of life in the Mexican desert state of Sonora. Chief among them is David Burckhalter, a Tucson photographer who has spent the past 25 years among Sonora's Indian settlements and Hispanic colonias, documenting the slow encroachment of commercial culture into an otherwise bucolic world. His 52 black-and-white pictures--mostly portraits of people at work and at play--are both subtle and deeply revealing, more sociological than the average documentary. But the distance in these images is offset nicely by a more personal account from museum curator Thomas Sheridan, whose anecdotes about exploring Sonora in the early '70s are witty, lyrical and often somewhat debauched. Only in the very opening of the book--in an essay written by a desert scientist--is there a hint of overweening, as the author bemoans the modernization of Sonora to such heights that at times it sounds like the "Vanishing Indian" rhetoric of the last century. Fortunately, the later strengths in La Vida Norteña win out, making it an enriching account for anyone who wants to get a real taste of life beyond the border. (BdeP)

Tall in the Saddle
by Peggy Thompson and Saeko Usukawa (Chronicle, paper, $14.95)

Is there no scrap of pop culture that's too weird for Chronicle to commission a text on? This book, subtitled "Great Lines From Classic Westerns" would appear to argue the negative. Thompson and Usukawa most recently joined forced on Hard-Boiled: Great Lines From Classic Film Noir. This follow-up book is, like its predecessor (and like all Chronicle books for that matter), beautifully designed. From layout to artwork to typesetting, Tall in the Saddle makes for an eye-catching piece of coffee table candy. There are plenty of golden dialogue nuggets buried here: "We've had enough of this Wichita. We're going out to a brand-new two-fisted, rip-snorting country full of Indians, rattlesnakes, gun toters and desperadoes. Whoopee!"--Richard Dix in Cimarron. Unfortunately, cowboy movies don't have quite the same creative tough-guy argot as detective films. This one's not a bad gift for the Western fan in your life, but it's not nearly as fun as its precursor, consarnit! (DO'L)

Catch the Fire!
edited by Derrick I. M. Gilbert (Riverhead, paper, $13)
Catch the Fire! is a brilliant encapsulation of the evolution of African- American culture. Through uncensored poetry and interviews, this cross-generational anthology details the complex components of love, family and the enduring human spirit. Gracefully yet relentlessly, authors such as June Jordan, Haki R. Madhubuti and Keith Antar Mason lead readers through widespread ignorance, chaos and defiance, and into hope. Obviously a reflection of individual (and cultural) hardship, the poetry aims to intrigue and educate a society that seems lost in malevolence.

Alone, the poems can seem harsh and even neurotic, but when combined, they create a kind of music book: sheet after sheet of rhythmic, passionate tales built on tradition. Each author has his/her own impetus, but the book itself has a singular purpose--to endure as a work that introduced people to themselves and to their environment. Catch the Fire! is a work of interdependent generations who sought and then found both revelations and revolutions in the power of poetry. (VY)

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