The deal at the featured table.
Photo of the 2007 World Series of Poker by on2wheelz used under a Creative Commons license.

A. Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town (Chronicle Books, 2002).
Originally published in 1983, an account of the 1981 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Much of it was first published in The New Yorker as character sketches of the card players, like Amarillo Slim, Nick the Greek, and Doyle Brunson. The players are different now, the center of Vegas has moved from downtown to the Strip, and the tournament has gone big-time, but Alvarez’s writing still holds up. You don’t have to play Texas Hold ‘Em to enjoy it, though it probably wouldn’t hurt.

Google BookSearch gives you a preview.  Wikipedia has this bio of Alvarez. This appears to be an excerpt of sorts. C. Max Magee sees the early days of big money. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (The New York Times) says Alvarez writes with elegance and wit, but decides that the book is less than the sum of its parts. Saul Goodwin (National Review) says Alvarez offers a memorable view of Las Vegas. Joseph Epstein (The New Yorker) cals it an excellent account. Troy Patterson (EW) calls it a linked series of subtly freakish portraits. Nick Christenson calls it a pillar of the poker literary canon. John Skow (Time) says Alvarez’s account is as close to Binion’s as a prudent soul will venture. Observer says this is the one book to read about the Las Vegas poker culture. Todd Wheeler says it’s a great book even if you don’t know poker. Joon-Soo Kim likes the historical perspective on Vegas poker. Laurence Phelan (The Independent) says it’s a fascinating study of extreme gamesmanship. Murphy James is fascinated by Alvarez.

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Double Negative
Photo of Double Negative, by Michael Heizer, by Chris Fullmer used under a Creative Commons license.

William L. Fox, The Void, the Grid & the Sign (University of Utah, 2000).
Three perspectives on the Great Basin. The first section, “The Void,” considers the sculpture of artist Michael Heizer, including City, an immense project in the Nevada desert he has been working on since 1970. Fox is interested in how this work sheds light on people’s reactions to large, empty spaces. The second section, “The Grid,” traces the evolution of cartography and the exploration of the Great Basin. The last section, “The Sign,” examines language and meaning, from petroglyphs to the neon of Las Vegas. Fox acknowledges the influence of Rebecca Solnit, and those who appreciate her work might do well to check out this book.

Fox’s web site has biographical information and more. Google Book Search offers a preview. This survey of desert writing by Scott Slovic calls Fox one of the major writers of the Great Basin landscape at the turn of the twenty-first century. Here is a website about Michael Heizer, with more about City.

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Binion's Horseshoe
Photo of Binion’s Horseshoe by wallyg used under a Creative Commons license.

James McManus, Positively Fifth Street (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).
In 2000, McManus persuaded Harper’s to send him to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker and the trial of the murderer of Ted Binion, of the family that founded the No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em event. McManus gambled his entire advance to enter the competition, and ended up doing far better than he could have hoped.  In the telling, his success on the felt gives the book a certain velocity, even as he steps away to cover the murder trial and relate some of his own life. If you have no time for Texas Hold ‘Em, then I suppose this book might not grab you, but then why are you reading about Vegas?

Google Book Search offers a peek at McManus’s hand. January Magazine offers an excerpt too.  Jodi Wilgoren profiled McManus in The New York Times in 2003. James Browning’s review in The Believer stands out. Lots more reviews: Hagen Baye (Mostly Fiction), Joe Hartlaub (, Jason Kirk (, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Robert R. Harris (The New York Times), Jamie Berger (San Francisco Chronicle), Deano (BlogCritics), Nick Christenson (, Todd Leopold (CNN), John, David, Mark Flanagan (, Aaron Todd, Daniel Fierman (, Observer, C. Max Magee (The Millions), Milbarge, Lev Grossman (Time), and Ian Anderson. Here’s an interview at, and here’s one you can watch. Tim Harford drew on the book to write about poker reasoning. Jack Bogdanski notes that the “murderers” got a new trial and eventually were acquitted. After the book came out, McManus wrote “Further Adventures in Poker” for Esquire. He wrote “The Biology and Eros of No-Limit Hold ‘Em Tournaments” for He also has written for The New Yorker about Senator Obama’s poker game. And he appeared on To The Best Of Our Knowledge, on Wisconsin Public Radio.

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Hoover Dam
Photo of the Hoover Dam by ubik14 used under a Creative Commons license.

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (Penguin, 1993).
The epic tale of water and the American West. Water is scarce throughout the West, and so its history is one of water rights, irrigation, dams, and lots and lots of politics. Two federal agencies – the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers – have battled for years to control the floodgates. Reisner’s research was comprehensive, and he recounts events over several decades and explains water projects in several states. If this subject matter sounds dry (pun intended) to you, rest assured that it isn’t. This book will change the way you understand half of the country, and should be required reading for anyone living in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.

Here is a bio of Reisner. Here is his obituary from The New York Times. Outside of term-paper sites, there is less discussion of it on the web than the book deserves, but here are Jerry Keeney, Faith, Marty, Ray Swider, and Branislav L. Slantchev. And Camron Assadi agrees that it’s a must-read.

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Lawless Center
Photo of Las Vegas by Roadsidepictures used under a Creative Commons license.

Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962).
A Western set in and around the (fictional) cow town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, and taking place in one long day in 1885. A boy from a ranch outside town arrives in a cloud of dust with the news that rustlers have killed a cowboy named Kinkead. The sheriff is away, and there is little appetite to wait for the law to act so a posse forms and sets out after the rustlers. A novel that works as a story and also as a parable about what happens when men take the law into their own hands. First published in 1940 and made into a 1943 movie.

Wikipedia has a brief bio of Clark. The Nevada Writers Hall of Fame at University of Nevada – Reno has a short bio and a long bibliography. Writing about the book are Jonathan Yardley, Melissa Howard, Bryan R. Terry, and Willa. Law professor Robert Louis Felix writes about the book and the film in Legal Studies Forum.

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U.S. 40 at Donner Pass
Photo of Donner Pass by Telstar Logistics used under a Creative Commons license.

Thomas Sanchez, Rabbit Boss (Vintage, 1989).
The first novel by Sanchez, originally published in 1973. Rabbit Boss is an epic, the story of four generations of Washo Indians living east of and in the Sierra Nevada range in Nevada and California. The first of these generations watch the progress of the Donner Party, and its descendants watch “progress” wash over the Washo, whose story is a tragedy writ large. Sanchez skips back and forth chronologically and shifts the narrative voice as he goes, all the while chronicling what was lost.

Sanchez’s web site has a bio. The web pickings are sparse, but here’s a great link: KQED ran this program about the book. John Christensen is a fan (scroll down). And James D. Houston includes Rabbit Boss in his survey of the literature of the Far West.

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Photo of Nevada by Danny McL used under a Creative Commons license.

John McPhee, Basin and Range (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982).
An accessible and well-written guide to Nevada’s geology. If you don’t want to read a book about geology, or if your experience of Nevada will be limited to Las Vegas, then this may not be for you. But in much of the state, little obstructs an appreciation of geological features, and McPhee explains the rock you see. The title comes from the structural characteristic of much of the state, the alternating mountain ranges and valleys (basins). McPhee starts in New Jersey, and digresses to cover plate tectonics and the geologic time scale. Note also that this book also is included with McPhee’s other writing about geology in Annals of the Former World.

Paul Zweig reviewed the book in The New York Times. Bill Cameron’s post on it is worth reading. John Regehr liked it too. Stephen Jay Gould reviewed in The New York Review of Books but it will cost you $3 to see what he said. Douglas McCollam reviewed Annals of the Former World in the Columbia Journalism Review. So did David Quammen, in The New York Times. Tommbert appreciates McPhee. NPR did this story on McPhee in 2006, and has a 1978 interview with him as well.

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