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Books on Nevada’s colorful past, cast of characters make great gifts

It’s been a big year, Nevada.

You’ve celebrated the 150th anniversary of statehood throughout 2014, and as ever plenty of books were published that attempt to capture your irascible spirit. Those books are sure to spark debate and make memorable Christmas gifts.

Those celebrating statehood have several worthy options, the latest of which is offered by Stanley W. Paher and titled “Nevadans: Spirit of the Silver State.” Paher has chronicled the history of the state for decades as a writer and publisher. His 20th book combines a lively history of Nevada with the fond memories of 70 observers.

It’s a worthy companion to “Nevada: 150 years in the Silver State.” Edited by longtime journalist and author Geoff Schumacher, this is a big, colorful exploration of the state’s history.

But it’s not all Nevada Day parades and sentimental speeches in the Silver State. As always, there’s no shortage of intrigue to be found.

One book that should have received more notice is Doug J. Swanson’s compelling biography of legendary downtown casino man and former Dallas racketeer Benny Binion titled, “Blood Aces.” It managed to capture the complex character of Binion’s life and times and is sure to remind readers that the transition from mob-linked frontier town to corporate mega-casino culture was tumultuous, indeed.

Las Vegas has been home to some great characters, and Circus Circus creator Jay Sarno was perhaps the most remarkable. UNLV’s David G. Schwartz tells his story in “Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas: How Jay Sarno Won a Casino Empire, Lost It, and Inspired Modern Las Vegas.” Sarno’s life and style were surely a challenge to describe, and Schwartz did an incredible job.

As ever, Las Vegas continues to fascinate investigative reporters and authors. Its place in the history of the modern West is the subject of Judith Nies’ intriguing “Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West.” An experienced reporter and author, Nies blends the exploitation of Native Americans and the rapacious use of water in arid lands with the development of Las Vegas as an international city with a river of greenbacks running through it.

A more conventional but no less interesting take on the community is found in longtime UNLV history professor Eugene Moehring’s latest, “Reno, Las Vegas, and the Strip: A Tale of Three Cities.” It deserves a place on every Nevada lover’s bookshelf.

It was a breakthrough year for College of Southern Nevada English teacher Laura McBride, whose “We Are Called to Rise: A Novel” received high praise from a variety of sources. In a USA Today interview, McBride said, “I wanted to write a Las Vegas story, about the good and the bad of being in a boom-town place.”

She accomplished that and much more.

One of my surprise books of 2014, “Vegas Dynasty: The Story of Darwin Lamb,” might be a little hard to find, but it’s worth the search. Written in an interview style by Carol Bellhouse, it’s filled with colorful anecdotes from the almost-famous Lamb brother, whose interests included acting, ranching and politics.

Darwin’s stories of playing on screen with Lee Marvin, Jason Robards, Clint Eastwood and Ben Johnson are self-deprecating and entertaining. His stories of how the Lambs survived following the death of their father might bring a tear to your eye.

Although these days Darwin is best known as the last surviving brother of former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb, I’ll wager his memories of the Lamb family’s hardscrabble years in Alamo will be remembered long after he’s ridden off into his last sunset.

Like all good parties, Nevada’s 150th must come to an end. But count on these books to help you appreciate the intriguing character of the Silver State for years to come.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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