Crown Publishing Group: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

A Desert Harvest

Bruce Berger (Facing the Music) grew up in suburban Chicago, but the desert of the American Southwest is the place he calls home. In his gorgeous essay collection, A Desert Harvest, Berger paints a portrait of a place that's much stranger and more beautiful than most popular presentations would suggest. "Despite cartoons," he writes in "The Mysterious Brotherhood," the desert isn't riddled with "melodramatic bones." Instead it offers "quieter revelations of the vegetable world." He goes on to describe the elusive loveliness of different varieties of cacti at various stages of decay. The intricate patterning of the prickly pear's internal leaves, readers learn, discloses itself only in death.

The subject of death appears again in the collection, most notably in "Comfort That Does Not Comprehend," in which he describes the aftermath of his mother's passing. She had been living in a home in the Arizona desert, having made the move from Chicago when her husband was still alive. Berger draws heartbreaking parallels between the loss of his mother and the loss of several desert acres that succumbed to fire.

The collection isn't all macabre, however. "Cactus Pete" introduces the eccentric titular character, an elderly man who claims to have learned how to map the surfaces of other planets with a handmade "gizmo." The essay is part character study, part celebration of the founding of the small desert town Pete lives in. Moving and enthralling, A Desert Harvest proves that wonder and beauty can be found in even the most desolate places. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor