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On the Bookshelf
Books to give and receive
Intriguing regional reads to put under the tree

By: Barbara Theroux
Fact and Fiction
for Mountain West News
Dec. 6, 2012

Books about the American West have two strong selling seasons. During the summer many visitors want to add a book (or two) as a souvenir, and during the holidays many locals like to remind friends near and far what a great place they live in. A book can be opened again and again and take you to wonderful places of adventure, imagination and knowledge. Here are a few titles worthy of another look.

National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West: Capturing 125 Years of Majesty, Spirit, and Adventure,  edited by James McNutt,  published by National Geographic

This book gathers the best images of the West published by National Geographic over its 125-year history, and also reveals some surprises from the National Geographic Image Collection. Many of the images will be instantly recognizable for their subjects. The Wild West is perhaps the most enduring of American myths, but the reality is even more compelling. It's a magical place of extraordinary people, exciting events, and stunning scenery-big sky, wide-open spaces, epic grandeur, and pristine wilderness

Divided into four chapters---Legends, Encounters, Boundaries, and Visions---renowned photographers from the past and present bring the magic and the mystery of the American West alive through the best of National Geographic’s collection. From red-rock waves of stone to rugged snow-capped mountains, from ghost towns to prairie dog towns, from cowboys to wild horses, National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West captures it all in spectacular color photography augmented by periodic archival photographs. The photographs weave together a visual tapestry-complemented by informative captions-of this rich, varied, and enduring landscape that is the American West.

Custer by Larry McMurtry, published by Simon & Schuster

On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry attacked a large Lakota Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. He lost not only the battle but also his life—and the lives of all his men. It was the U.S. Army’s worst defeat in the long and bloody Plains Indian War. Yet with no survivors and only unreliable Indian accounts, "Custer's Last Stand" reached mythic proportions and achieved Custer’s name immortality.

Larry McMurtry has long been fascinated by Custer and his rightful place in history. He once owned of a vast collection of Custer-ology, much of which is reproduced here, including photos, maps, paintings, lithographs, posters, magazine covers and newspaper headlines, all of which attest to the national fascination with this endlessly revisited story. McMurtry cuts through the immense body of Custer literature to write a biography for a 21st-century audience more familiar with pop culture than detailed academic accounts of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer is brought to life in all his complexity—as the perpetually restless man whose complicated marriage, hunger for glory, and unwavering confidence in his abilities led him to ignore the warnings of scouts and comrades at Little Big Horn.

McMurtry explores how the numerous controversies that grew out of the Little Bighorn combined with a perfect storm of technological developments---the railroad, the camera, and the telegraph---to fan the flames of his legend. He shows how Custer's wife, Libbie, worked for decades after his death to portray Major Marcus Reno as the cause of the disaster of the Little Bighorn, and how Buffalo Bill Cody, who ended his Wild West Show with a valiant reenactment of Custer's Last Stand, played a pivotal role in spreading Custer's notoriety. In Custer, Larry McMurtry delivers a magisterial portrait of a complicated, misunderstood man and once again redefines our understanding of the American West.

Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection by Nick Mann, photographer and Simon Winchester, author Published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

Some people like to collect natural objects on their travels--a shell, bone, rock, on leaf. I have a flamingo skull that recalls a fascinating afternoon looking for bones in hot pools in Africa. So I was delighted to find a book with photographs of the large private collection of Alan Dudley.

Digging deep into Dudley's collection of more than 2,000 skulls, author Winchester and photographer Mann highlight the rarest and most unusual of world-class assortment (which is housed cozily in a spare upstairs bedroom in his home in England). Though some, like the hard-to-find elephant skull, are replicas, the vast majority are the real thing, including that of the extinct dodo bird.

More than 300 different animal skulls—amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles—from the collection are featured in this book. Every skull is beautifully photographed to show several angles and to give the reader the most intimate view possible. The primarily black pages set off the striking images and short explanatory paragraphs and data boxes with information on the animal's taxonomy, behavior, and diet. Winchester presents details about the parts of the skull (including the cranium, the mandible, the shape and positioning of the eye sockets, and species-specific features like horns, teeth, beaks and bills), information about the science and pseudoscience of skulls, and a look at skulls in religion, art and popular culture.

Birds of a Feather by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais published by Chronicle Books

This lush, oversized book about birds features a variety of interactive guessing games and special features, including more than 40 lift-the-flaps and more than 15 pop-ups, plus facts about each bird, providing readers of all ages with hours of educational entertainment.

Giant silhouetted profiles of a cockatoo and emperor penguin appear in black against white flaps; underneath, full-color images of the birds appear with informative tidbits.

On another spread, rounded flaps depicting bird wings are layered like feathers, with their respective birds identified underneath.

One of my favorite pages has pop-up birds spring from beneath flaps that mimic their eggs. Birds of a Feather is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.

David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work: An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in the Pacific Northwest by Jack Nisbet published by Sasquatch Books

Jack Nisbet first told the story of David Douglas, the botanical explorer in the Pacific Northwest and other areas of western North America, in The Collector. Readers learned of his humble birth in Scotland in 1799 to his botanical training under the famed William Jackson Hooker, and followed his adventures in North America discovering exotic new plants for the English and European market. Despite his early death, colleagues in Great Britain attached the Douglas name to more than 80 different species, including the iconic Douglas fir of the region.

David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work is a colorfully illustrated collection of essays that examine the Scottish naturalist's three trips to the Northwest between 1825-1834 and connects them to modern reality. From the Columbia River's perilous bar to luminous blooms of mountain wildflowers; from ever-changing frontiers of technology to the quiet seasonal rhythms of tribal families gathering roots, these essays collapse time to shed light on people and landscapes.
This volume is the companion book to a major museum exhibit about Douglas' Pacific Northwest travels that opened at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane in October.

"David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work" runs through
Aug. 24, 2013. The exhibit highlights not only Douglas' works but also the contributions of Nisbet---teacher, naturalist, and nonfiction writer who focuses on the current intersection of human and natural history in the Pacific Northwest. Nisbet leads tours of the Columbia River and his lectures are highly attended.

Naturalist David Douglas traveled the Columbia River and interior Northwest (1825-1833), identifying and collecting over two hundred species of plants, animals, and birds previously unknown to science. Learn of his interactions with native tribes and fur traders of the Columbia country. Explore a unique scientific legacy, including his namesake, the Douglas fir. Enjoy a multi-disciplinary experience that links geography, science, art, and cultural history.

This is worth checking out. Jack Nisbet, guest curator for the David Douglas exhibit, was interviewed on Spokane Public Radio. You can hear that interview here.

You can find these books at:

"N o one is better suited to look after Utah's interests than the people who live and work in Utah. The [Obama] administration asked the state to come up with a plan to protect the bird. Utah did. It was a good plan. The administration rejected it for its own flawed plan."

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, applauding Utah's decision to sue the federal government to invalidate land-use plans in the Beehive State put in place to protect sage grouse and its habitat.
- Salt Lake Tribune

On The Bookshelf
Barbara Theroux provides a preview of coming book attractions for 2016


Mountain West Perspectives
The TransPacific Partnership could affect Rocky Mountain States' local measures


Mountain West Voices
Hear weekly stories from the Rocky Mountain West as gathered by Clay Scott

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