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The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest

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In this abundant space and isolation, the energy lords extract their bounty of natural resources, and the curators of mass destruction once mined their egregious weapons and reckless acts. It is a land of absolutes, of passion and indifference, lush textures and inscrutable tensions. Here violence can push beauty to the edge of a razor blade. . . . Thus Ellen Meloy describ In this abundant space and isolation, the energy lords extract their bounty of natural resources, and the curators of mass destruction once mined their egregious weapons and reckless acts. It is a land of absolutes, of passion and indifference, lush textures and inscrutable tensions. Here violence can push beauty to the edge of a razor blade. . . . Thus Ellen Meloy describes a corner of desert hard by the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a place long forsaken as implausible and impassable, of little use or value—a place that she calls home. Despite twenty years of carefully nurtured intimacy with this red-rock landscape, Meloy finds herself, one sunbaked morning, staring down at a dead lizard floating in her coffee and feeling suddenly unmoored. What follows is a quest that is both physical and spiritual, a search for home.


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In this abundant space and isolation, the energy lords extract their bounty of natural resources, and the curators of mass destruction once mined their egregious weapons and reckless acts. It is a land of absolutes, of passion and indifference, lush textures and inscrutable tensions. Here violence can push beauty to the edge of a razor blade. . . . Thus Ellen Meloy describ In this abundant space and isolation, the energy lords extract their bounty of natural resources, and the curators of mass destruction once mined their egregious weapons and reckless acts. It is a land of absolutes, of passion and indifference, lush textures and inscrutable tensions. Here violence can push beauty to the edge of a razor blade. . . . Thus Ellen Meloy describes a corner of desert hard by the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a place long forsaken as implausible and impassable, of little use or value—a place that she calls home. Despite twenty years of carefully nurtured intimacy with this red-rock landscape, Meloy finds herself, one sunbaked morning, staring down at a dead lizard floating in her coffee and feeling suddenly unmoored. What follows is a quest that is both physical and spiritual, a search for home.

30 review for The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest

  1. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    So beautiful. I love this book. Poetry meets apocalyptic landscape born of the Manhattan Project. Great writing. Funny but sad.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Charlie Quimby

    The day after I finished this book, I met a nuclear physicist in Wisconsin who worked on the sort of programs Meloy describes. Now he owns a bookstore. The universe is a wondrous mystery.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    I enjoy a book that surprises me, and this one did that. At first glance you expect it to be a book of nature writing about the Southwest deserts. However, the quirky title should be a give away. Meloy's subject is the relationship between the arid regions of the American Southwest and the birth of the nuclear age. Not a duck-and-cover memoir of someone growing up in the 1950s, this book is a thoughtful inquiry into what is for the author a great irony: that nuclear weaponry emerged from uranium I enjoy a book that surprises me, and this one did that. At first glance you expect it to be a book of nature writing about the Southwest deserts. However, the quirky title should be a give away. Meloy's subject is the relationship between the arid regions of the American Southwest and the birth of the nuclear age. Not a duck-and-cover memoir of someone growing up in the 1950s, this book is a thoughtful inquiry into what is for the author a great irony: that nuclear weaponry emerged from uranium deposits mined from near where she lives in southern Utah and then processed and assembled into the first atomic bombs in the deserts of New Mexico. The contrast between the awesome, quiet beauty of the desert and its use to develop weapons of mass destruction is a supreme contradiction that drives Meloy on a journey that takes her to ground zero at White Sands Missile Range, Los Alamos, and a natural gas field bounded by Navajo, Ute, and Apache reservations. The book closes on a walkabout across the mesas and through canyons near her home in the San Juan River valley, which cuts across the Southwest's Four Corners. Also a surprise is the ironic humor she brings to the subject. While never forgetting the threat to survival of humanity that nuclear weapons represent, Meloy also marvels at the incongruities in the details of a story that encompasses the worlds of physicists, environmentalists, biologists, geologists, naturalists, anthropologists, Native Americans, tourists, and the ordinary working people and residents of present-day small towns and rural areas. On a parallel course with the story she tells are the incongruities of her own story, which starts with the accidental scalding death of a lizard in a coffee cup and ends on a high bluff in a tumultuous electrical storm. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the American Southwest, its history and geology, and a kind of nature writing that engages subjects beyond itself and attempts to reconcile them. Instead of using wilderness to escape from the realities of the modern world, Meloy attempts to embrace the two, with a wry smile, even while experiencing a shudder that sometimes shakes her to the core. Comment

  4. 5 out of 5

    Britta Stumpp

    I always decide whether or not I want to read a book within the first few paragraphs. Very few books have ever drawn me in as quickly as The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest by Ellen Meloy. Rather than "review" this book, I will simply let you preview this opening sequence and let you decide whether or not you want to read it: "One morning in a rough-hewn, single-room screenhouse, in a cottonwood grove but a few wingbeats beyond the San Juan River, I poured scald I always decide whether or not I want to read a book within the first few paragraphs. Very few books have ever drawn me in as quickly as The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest by Ellen Meloy. Rather than "review" this book, I will simply let you preview this opening sequence and let you decide whether or not you want to read it: "One morning in a rough-hewn, single-room screenhouse, in a cottonwood grove but a few wingbeats beyond the San Juan River, I poured scalding hot water through a paper coffee filter into a mug that, unbeknownst to me, contained a lizard still dormant from the cool night. I boiled the lizard alive. As I removed the filter and leaned over the cup to take a sip, its body floated to the surface, ghostly and inflated in mahogany water, its belly the pale blue of heartbreak. I sat on the front step of the screenhouse with the sunrise burning crimson on the sandstone cliffs above the river and a boiled reptile in my cup. I knew then that matters of the mind had plunged to grave depths. I was either helplessly unmoored from my Self or hopelessly lost in the murk of Self. The problem, obviously, was that I could no longer make the distinction between the two." And the rest of the book continues in this same vein of violent poetry, perfectly capturing the personality of the terrible beauty that is the Southwestern desert. From her love affair with the land, to the history of its people, and the mining of this place sacred to the Navajo people as the navel of the world for uranium, Meloy paints a portrait of my homeland in all its glory and its tragedy. For me, the strangest thing about this region is that its Native people considered it to be the birth place of all life and yet Western scientists produced from it the destruction of the world, the atomic bomb. Womb and tomb of life on Earth. This is a fantastic book by Ellen Meloy. I also highly recommend her book The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chana

    I didn't understand everything that I read in this book; some of the science was beyond what I am familiar with, some of her thoughts were too lofty or confused for me to follow. However, I am familiar with the fear of nuclear war. I grew up hiding under the school desks during nuclear war attack drills, and listening to the weekly testing of the air raid sirens. It was like this big amorphous fear that underlie all of normal daily life. I didn't know the details of the testing that was being don I didn't understand everything that I read in this book; some of the science was beyond what I am familiar with, some of her thoughts were too lofty or confused for me to follow. However, I am familiar with the fear of nuclear war. I grew up hiding under the school desks during nuclear war attack drills, and listening to the weekly testing of the air raid sirens. It was like this big amorphous fear that underlie all of normal daily life. I didn't know the details of the testing that was being done in the New Mexico desert during my childhood. Hearing the details now, in this book, is as upsetting as it ever may have been. I found particularly appalling the museum of the atomic bombs that sold chocolates in the shapes of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't want to talk about the morality or immorality of killing to save lives, but the whole bomb building and bomb testing smacks of boys with their toys. But what terrible toys! I am also familiar with love of the desert, another part of my childhood was the time I spent in the Mojave desert and the love I felt for it. The desert environment was the environment that made me an environmentalist. I feared the destruction of the desert then, little did I know what was going on in New Mexico. In the main I found Ellen Meloy's writing was very intelligent, creative, and passionate. She was sometimes laugh out loud funny. Yeah, sometimes she lost me but I kept on and would be able to understand her again. I also like the history, both of the earth and of the people, how she takes a long view of everything that is going on and has gone on.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jane Hammons

    All four of Meloy's books are fantastic. This one is closest to my heart because she treks through the atomic geography of my childhood: the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. Meloy died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004 after writing four books. I have an essay about her writing at Bloom where I discuss all of the books. In my opinion, she's an overlooked American writer and was even during her lifetime. She came to my attention with The Anthropology of Turquoise, which was nominated for a Pulit All four of Meloy's books are fantastic. This one is closest to my heart because she treks through the atomic geography of my childhood: the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. Meloy died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004 after writing four books. I have an essay about her writing at Bloom where I discuss all of the books. In my opinion, she's an overlooked American writer and was even during her lifetime. She came to my attention with The Anthropology of Turquoise, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 (though I didn't discover it until 2004). She's a clear-headed naturalist whose agenda is to preserve desert wilderness. I highly recommend all of her books. http://bloom-site.com/2014/01/13/elle...

  7. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    "I am never able to tell the difference between luminosity and lunacy," How I love the way Ellen Meloy soars into the visionary phrase like this: "The rich, far-lost beauty of my home curved my breath." And at the same time she is hilarious about being vertiginously exposed on a mesa's edge in a lightening storm. How I love Ellen Meloy.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Monique Stevens

    Beautifully written and very thought-provoking!

  9. 5 out of 5

    David Robertson

    An extended meditation on mushroom clouds and claret cup cacti in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The Trinity site in New Mexico's Jornada del Muertos where the first atomic bomb was detonated lies firmly at the intersection of a multi-lobed Venn diagram of human history, science, ecological decline, despair and hope. Meloy starts at Trinity and makes forays (both physical and psychic) into each of the lobes, always returning to Trinity. Artfully and skillfully crafted, lyrica An extended meditation on mushroom clouds and claret cup cacti in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The Trinity site in New Mexico's Jornada del Muertos where the first atomic bomb was detonated lies firmly at the intersection of a multi-lobed Venn diagram of human history, science, ecological decline, despair and hope. Meloy starts at Trinity and makes forays (both physical and psychic) into each of the lobes, always returning to Trinity. Artfully and skillfully crafted, lyrical, "trippy," absurd, and sometimes sardonically funny, the book is a triumph.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    One writer’s take on the history of the atomic energy business of New Mexico. I was not really impressed with her writings as it was more a litany of complaints interspersed with a more interesting story of her building a dwelling on the San Juan River and the discovery of an ancient Pueblo midden and what was found in this burial site. She also was focused on sex and I question what her sex ideas had to do with the nuclear fall out from atomic bomb experimentation. This book rambled on and on a One writer’s take on the history of the atomic energy business of New Mexico. I was not really impressed with her writings as it was more a litany of complaints interspersed with a more interesting story of her building a dwelling on the San Juan River and the discovery of an ancient Pueblo midden and what was found in this burial site. She also was focused on sex and I question what her sex ideas had to do with the nuclear fall out from atomic bomb experimentation. This book rambled on and on about many things.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kirk Astroth

    Another outstanding book about the Southwest by Ellen Meloy. Her lyrical writing is so descriptive--both sad and humorous. Much of the book is framed around her visits to Los Alamos and the Trinity site where people labored to create some that could destroy everything. She was obviously a tormented soul but also saw beauty in lizards, snakes and even spiders.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Edward Nugent

    Feeling unmoored in familiar surroundings, Ellen Meloy embarks on a journey to find what teathers us to this world and what informs our consciousness. It is story told with the lyricism, beauty, and expansiveness of the landscape of it's setting. Ellen Meloy is in the pantheon of great American nature writers and philosophers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    Beautiful descriptions of desert communities from perspective of an inhabitant, naturalist and artist. It’s creative nonfiction so is small part her discussing her own way of finding herself at home, and mostly world history centered on Los Alamos, the nuclear age, and how her geo specific landscape has changed over the last fifty thousand years or so, into the future.

  14. 4 out of 5

    William Graney

    This was my first Ellen Meloy book and when I finished it, I immediately started reading another one. I had to go back and re-read the Prologue when I was done because the brilliantly writing contained in those pages stayed with me through the end of the book and beyond.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lea

    This one was focused more on the nuclear testing in the desert than on the desert landscape. Important but not as interesting to read, for me. I loved her descriptions of the landscape and skimmed a lot of the nuclear based writing. Okay but not a favorite.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    The language in it just really *sparkles* -- pretty consistently.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ronald Wise

    From the outset, when author Ellen Meloy discovers she has boiled a lizard to death in her mug while making her morning cup of coffee, I began to realize that this book was not exactly what I had been anticipating. I had to respect the poise with which she dealt with that surprise, saving the dried lizard as the marker for her home on her knowledge map and later making respectful references to it throughout the book. It said much about her attitude regarding nature and her relationship with it. F From the outset, when author Ellen Meloy discovers she has boiled a lizard to death in her mug while making her morning cup of coffee, I began to realize that this book was not exactly what I had been anticipating. I had to respect the poise with which she dealt with that surprise, saving the dried lizard as the marker for her home on her knowledge map and later making respectful references to it throughout the book. It said much about her attitude regarding nature and her relationship with it. From the subtitle of this book, I had hoped it would supplement what I had learned of life in the Southwest from Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses. My family had driven through the desolate parts of the U.S. a three times during my childhood, and I recall wondering a lot during those boring stretches what it would have been like growing up there, and what had caused those strange geographic features. I learned that Meloy and her husband were recent implants to the Colorado Plateau, so she did not provide much to answer the first question., but the scientific and historical details in this book provided many answers to the latter. I learned a great deal. What took me by surprise was the focus on her and Mark’s attempt to establish themselves in a new environment in which they had to deal with indigenous life forms and a variety of human influences – mysterious ones from antiquity, threatening ones from the last century, and everyday interactions with their neighbors. It seemed ironic, at first, that her praise for the local fauna and flora were couched in a story of their effort to fence the perimeter of their 8 acres of land on the San Juan River. It then seemed strangely tangential when she later dedicated much of this book to the development of the atom bomb, with a visit to Ground Zero and then with what seemed to be a guilt-ridden obsession with the role her new home, the Colorado Plateau, had played in the Manhattan Project and the numerous nuclear explosions after the war – both as a supplier of fissionable material and a site for tests. Having read the Wikipedia article about her, I was aware that she died five years after this book was published, at the age of 58. So while I felt that her constant concern about radiation may have bordered on neurotic at times, I kept hoping that she had not died of cancer. So I read her obituaries still available online and learned a couple of interesting things. First, she died suddenly in her sleep from either a heart attack or a cerebral aneurysm. Secondly, from reading about her other works and community activities, I believe that this book was not representative of her overall philosophy and that it should probably be taken as from a time of slight disequilibrium in her career that I’ll attribute to her recent research on White Sands. I look forward to reading her other books.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kate Savage

    I first read Ellen Meloy in 2007 (Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild), and decided I was going to hitchhike to the San Juan River and apprentice myself to this person who could write like this about my southern Utah desert. And then I read she had died three years before, and felt lost and angry she wasn't following around desert bighorn anymore and couldn't teach me how to live the life I wanted to live. She calls the desert southwest a cheater, but what makes Meloy meaningful to I first read Ellen Meloy in 2007 (Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild), and decided I was going to hitchhike to the San Juan River and apprentice myself to this person who could write like this about my southern Utah desert. And then I read she had died three years before, and felt lost and angry she wasn't following around desert bighorn anymore and couldn't teach me how to live the life I wanted to live. She calls the desert southwest a cheater, but what makes Meloy meaningful to me is that she doesn't cheat when she writes about this desert. Sure, sometimes she'll slip into the numbing incantations of plants and rock formations that is a nature-writer's mantra, but hold on because before long it will be beagles killed by radiation at ground zero or a red velvet swimsuit found at the landfill or her own astonishing breaking brain. She is tough, she is ruthless, she is mad as hell, she is in love. This deranged jungle of ironies coinhabits my skull like feathers and fireworks. My heart fills with stones. I am the mad aunt who laughs her head off at the funeral. There rises in me the most inappropriate hysteria in this most somber of places. p.s. She's the aunt of Colin Meloy -- so if you ever wonder where he gets those lyrics . . .

  19. 5 out of 5

    Liz Gabbitas

    Normally I would not read naturalist nonfiction, not in a million years. In this case however, Meloy is an engaging and personal author, so much so that it makes it easy to personalize things as distant as 300 million year old wildlife. If I were looking to learn more on this particular subject, I would definitely chase down a few more of her books. However, I feel a little natural-scienced-out with just this one title. Maybe I'd enjoy it more paired with a long trip to southern Utah and hours t Normally I would not read naturalist nonfiction, not in a million years. In this case however, Meloy is an engaging and personal author, so much so that it makes it easy to personalize things as distant as 300 million year old wildlife. If I were looking to learn more on this particular subject, I would definitely chase down a few more of her books. However, I feel a little natural-scienced-out with just this one title. Maybe I'd enjoy it more paired with a long trip to southern Utah and hours to reflect on lizards and the Cold War.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    Meloy's books are so confusing, I waver between loving her brilliance and being put off by the stream of consciousness babble that occurs throughout the pages. In this book, Meloy constructs a map of her Known Universe and seeks to find her place within it. Wholly, the book is supposed to be about the violence enacted upon the Southwest by governmental ambitions for nuclear warfare, but like most of her books it is mostly a collection of natural observations and lamentations about the lack of con Meloy's books are so confusing, I waver between loving her brilliance and being put off by the stream of consciousness babble that occurs throughout the pages. In this book, Meloy constructs a map of her Known Universe and seeks to find her place within it. Wholly, the book is supposed to be about the violence enacted upon the Southwest by governmental ambitions for nuclear warfare, but like most of her books it is mostly a collection of natural observations and lamentations about the lack of connectedness we as humans have with the natural world.

  21. 4 out of 5

    James Easterson

    This was a re-read of this book, my first reading of it was in 1999 and it has been on my bookshelf since then. Ellen Meloy writes with great intelligence and a vast knowledge of many subjects. The book itself is 90% poetry, 70% views of a naturalist, 50% science journalist. An interesting mix. The only drawback to this book I can see is my own impatience as a reader.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Carrie A

    Excellent! I have now read all three of Ellen Meloy's books. All are exceptionable and have been books that I want to share with family and friends. This book is centered in the desert southwest and covers Trinity and the story behind the atomic bomb or more truthfully the site at which it was created. Having read Hiroshima earlier this year this was sequenced before that horrible tragedy.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    Short and Interesting.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Denise

    Not the best of Meloy's work but good.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    This book takes a different look at the Southwest by looking at the desert after it was transformed by Trinity, the 1st Nuclear tests in New Mexico.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary

    Wonderful, but disturbing topic. I didn't know about the radioactive beagles. : ( Ellen Meloy is my hero (heroine)!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    Just not a style of writing I can fall into easily--for me it was a chore to try to finish the essays, though they are at times beautiful and quite well written overall. Not for me.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jessica MacQueen

  29. 4 out of 5

    Michael John

  30. 4 out of 5

    Matt Pearson

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