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Short bursts of life history, a look at the making of Baja California's missions and more

Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories

By Aurelie SheehanBOA Editions $14; 126 pages

Not quite prose poems, not quite flash fiction, not quite memoir—nonetheless all of the above—the little pieces in Aurelie Sheehan's new collection that she calls "histories" do, in fact, hint at her life history. Sheehan, a University of Arizona creative writing professor who has previously published two novels and a short story collection, goes miniature here. Her entries—some as short as a single paragraph; none longer than a few pages—explore feminine sexuality, motherhood, daughterhood, and the writer's life related to feminine sexuality, motherhood, daughterhood.

In the title story, which opens the collection, a small child examines the contents of her mother's jewelry box. (Sheehan says she began writing these when her daughter was very young.) Each bangle, strand of beads, ring and brooch she pulls out evokes a sweet or poignant or painful memory for the mother. The child has replaced a slightly tarnished dragonfly pin (this has "symbol" written all over it), and reached for a bag containing the mother's wisdom teeth (this, too). The story pauses reflectively, acknowledging a fleeting moment of innocence. "The girl has not yet cut herself; not on a pin, not on anything," Sheehan writes.

These "histories" can shimmer exquisitely jewel-like.

Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres

By David Burckhalter, with photos by Mina SedgwickUniversity of Arizona Press$24.95; 184 pages

Those 17th- and 18th-century Spaniards were pretty busy guys, what with the conquistadors subjugating the Aztecs and exploring what's now Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., and the priests following to wrangle souls for the Roman Catholic Church. The eerily beautiful Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres relates the history of the Spaniards in the Baja. Mountainous and arid, the peninsula was notoriously resistant to conquest and colonization. But intrepid (and smallpox- and measles-bearing) Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican priests managed to establish 34 missions on it. Conversion also included containing the people on mission property, and it continued until nearly all the souls not immune to the diseases were dead. Three of the four indigenous tribes in the area were obliterated within decades of the priests' arrival. Most of the missions were constructed of adobe, and they have long since dissolved. But eight stone churches remain, and Burckhalter and Sedgwick present them here. With a little history, some informative architectural and art explanation—along with maps and driving directions to reach them—Burckhalter and Sedgwick offer these missions through rich, evocative images of handsome landscapes, building interiors and exteriors, baroque altars and art, and a few caretakers and restorers.

Leaving Tinkertown

By Tanya Ward GoodmanUniversity of New Mexico Press$19.95; 240 pages

Even a memoir about Alzheimer's can't be too disheartening when it is set in a funky, do-it-yourself museum in the New Mexico mountains. Essayist Tanya Ward Goodman, who is married to a television writer and presumably lives a fairly conventional life in Southern California, was raised in a manner anything but conventional. Her father, a set painter for carnival rides, met her mother on the road. With the responsibilities of a child, they decided to retire from traveling, so they bought a cabin in the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque and set about turning it into a folk museum. Around "Tinkertown," the tiny town Goodman's father had built and carted from carnival to carnival, he raised a warren of rooms surrounded by bottle-and-concrete walls and stocked it with folk art—including his 200-piece collection of plastic wedding cake figures. When her father developed early-onset Alzheimer's, Goodman returned to her family home and museum to help out. This very appealing memoir chronicles both the writer's coming into herself and her father's losing himself, set against a quirky, creative, altogether New Mexico-alternative lifestyle.

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