Back to School Reading List for Grown-ups
We will admit it. No one at SFR is ready for summer to be over. Not at all. While some of us detest the heat and some of us love to be steamy, our staff agrees on one salient point: This season seems to have flown by at an incomprehensible speed.
The Back to School Reading List for Grownups is a regular annual feature intended to counter those summer reading lists you clip out of magazines and noodle into your bullet journal. It’s meant to signal that reading to learn things and escape shouldn’t be relegated to sunshine and lounge chairs. But, if you’ve read this far, we’re pretty sure you already know that.
Even if you’re not a 10-books-in-one-season kind of reader, there’s something here for you, too.
Choose a few titles from this compilation of new and new-ish books. Maybe try a graphic novel that grapples with the theme of loneliness? Some of the writers have long local and regional connections to Santa Fe and the Southwest (such as Gregg Turner’s memoir and Jamie Figueroa’s new novel), others take on topics that are deeply concerning for the nation and the world (think opioid epidemic, climate change, immigration.)
Take them all at your own speed.
Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan
By Gregg Turner
August 2021, Rare Bird Lit
For those rare few Santa Feans who don’t know bonafide punk rock royalty resides in Santa Fe, let it be known that Angry Samoans co-founder Gregg Turner has called our hamlet home since 1993—but before that, he was a driving force in the very California band that waxed poetic about Hitler’s cock (among various other eyebrow-raising lyrical feats). These days, Turner’s more of a retired math professor following a tenured stint at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, but just as he had a way with words in the 1980s, so, too, does Turner now in his debut book, Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan.
Fair warning: It’s gonna get weird, but then, Turner’s editor Dave DiMartino tells us as such straight away in the editor’s foreward, simultaneously warning that Turner will indeed later present a story about (and titled) “A Cup of Pus.” Even this call to steel yourself won’t properly prepare you for Turner’s twisted words, but the surprising reality of his compendium of short tales—some of which may be true, some of which may have been embellished over time, some of which might actually belong to other people—is that they’ve got a lot of heart and a lot of humanity.
Think Vonnegut meets John Waters here, or at least a well-wrought take on gross-out, bad taste nonsense. Just know you’re also in for strangely human insights. In particular, stories that present sleeping math geniuses, clumsy exterminators who formerly impersonated Elvis and skeptical teenaged punk purists shine in the earlier half of Turner’s opus, though don’t forget his abbreviated time as a public radio host enamored by S&M (he was fired) or tall tales from New Mexico’s underbelly. Later in the tome, find reminiscent pieces on Roky Erickson and Dogh Sahm (obviously musical titans themselves), the sad tale of an invalid diploma and, yes, that forewarned cup of pus. Surely you won’t know exactly what to think, but then, the punk set never did much care about your comfort so long as they got their stories across. (Alex De Vore)
After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made
By Ben Rhodes
June 2021, Random House
Six years of global chaos has left Americans asking what the hell is going on everywhere. After The Fall offers an explanation for the common person who might have a vague understanding of things outside our borders, but wants to dig a little deeper. In short, why does it feel like the world is falling apart?
Author Ben Rhodes (who worked in the National Security Administration under Obama) takes us down a handful of distinct regions in the world where democracy is backsliding into authoritarianism, blind nationalism and violent dictatorships with a dash of coup attempts to spice things up.
We begin in Hungary, where President Victor Orban has promised to bring back the halcyon days of the Hungarian Empire, to Russia where Putin has built an anti-Western empire of corruption. China and its subsequent crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic system are a focus point, as is Egypt’s disturbing detain-and-torture system of pro-democracy prisoners. The book brings these worries disturbingly close to home, as the same vein of nationalism is clearly thriving here.
After the Fall is geopolitics made for everyone. Rhodes is an exceptional writer, taking interviews from various opposition figures around the globe who are fighting back against this violent tide flooding every corner of the planet. This is not merely theoretical, either—Rhodes makes it plain that cultural frenzies like we’re seeing have brought the world not-so-pleasant results (see the Wikipedia page for the entire 20th century).
The Great Recession of ‘08 is one of those consequential events we’re only now seeing results from. When the Cold War ended, we promoted capitalism in newly open countries—but a dangerous, deregulated form that gave new liberal democracies income inequality and government corruption. Who wants to believe in something like that? When government and economic opportunity fail people, they tend to go insane.
The allure of a glorious and non-existent past is a powerful one, like dreams of an ancient orderly China, Imperial Russian days or 1950s Americana. We influenced the world to do our bidding and then threw it aside, and now we gasp that those leadership voids are filled by a bunch of ugly old men who take special joy in killing their own citizens.
Rhodes is openly critical of himself, his former boss and the decisions made by both political parties. This isn’t a feel-good #resistance read, but a clear cut explanation of why the world seems to be splitting apart at the seams and how we Americans set fire to a dried forest. (Riley Gardner)
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty
By Patrick Radden Keefe
April 2021, Doubleday
The opioid crisis has left no community unscathed. New Mexico’s health department in 2019 found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed reported they knew someone who was or has been addicted to opioids, such as oxycodone, codeine, morphine, heroin and fentanyl. Just last month, DOH reported that provisional 2020 death data showed a rise in fentanyl-related deaths from the year prior, surpassing both heroin and prescription-opioid-related deaths in the state.
And last month, 15 states (not including New Mexico, which is pursuing its own litigation) struck an agreement with Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, for a settlement of at least $4.5 billion and resolution of thousands of opioid cases (from 1999–2019, nearly 500,000 people died from an overdose involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Empire of Pain delves into the history of the family behind Purdue Pharma: the Sacklers, a dynastic three-generation clan known for their wealth—Forbes listed them at $10.8 billion in worth last year—and philanthropy, particularly in the arts.
The New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, also the author of the 2019 book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction), begins his exhaustive tale in early 20th century New York—Brooklyn, to be exact—where Arthur Sackler was born, a first-generation American with seemingly endless ambition and wits. Arthur becomes a doctor, as do brothers Raymond and Mortimer, and develops an interest in psychiatry and a concomitant interest in pharmaceutical solutions to psychiatric problems (if reading about electroshock experiments on bunnies sounds upsetting, skip Chapter 2). Arthur also turns out to have a genius for marketing, so his combination of medical expertise and advertising prowess dovetails with the earliest specter of today’s pharmaceutical market; his marketing campaign for an early Pfizer antibiotic is “credited” with “revolutionizing the whole field of medical advertising.”
Spoiler alert: Arthur Sackler, about whom the first third of the book concerns, died nearly a decade before OxyContin came on the market, but reckoning with his legacy recurs throughout the book. After Purdue declared bankruptcy in 2019, amid the calls for the Sackler name to be removed from the myriad institutions that had received the family’s money (the source of which was once somewhat of a mystery—no more!), Arthur’s third wife and widow begins trying to “disentangle” his legacy from that of his brothers’ families, who ran Purdue (she even coined the term the “OxySacklers” in that effort).
Keefe set out, he writes, not to detail the opioid crisis, but to tell the saga of a family and “the ways in which it changed the world, a story about ambition, philanthropy, crime and impunity, the corruption of institutions, power, and greed.” In this, he succeeds, in a compelling if occasionally exhaustive narrative detail. But if one reads hoping for any sense of personal culpability among these people, one will be disappointed. (Julia Goldberg)
Under the White Sky
By Elizabeth Kolbert
February 2021, Crown
It’s a close tie between the electrified river and aerosolized-diamond atmosphere for the winner of the most bizarre solution to an environmental crisis. As the natural world faces an onslaught of climate-related disasters, brought on by human activities, concerned scientists around the world are working doubletime to avoid environmental collapse. The stories of these wizards take center stage in Under the White Sky, another compelling climate-inspired book from The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.
Kolbert does a wonderful job of making her readers even more anxious about the climate crisis—if that was possible. She also excels at placing the crisis in context of global leaders’ insufficient efforts to address climate change.
The task gets support from genetic engineers, microbiologists, atmospheric entrepreneurs and others who understand that reducing emissions will not be enough to mitigate climate change and stop Louisiana from dissolving. Instead, these scientists have taken a DIY approach to engineering a future that looks different from the present, while trying to preserve some things that society holds dear: endangered pupfish, the Great Barrier Reef and New Orleans.
Kolbert’s elegant, human reporting keeps readers hooked while she lays out some pretty sophisticated science. With over two decades of science journalism under her belt, breaking down complex concepts for a non-technical audience is her specialty. For the climate nerds out there, Kolbert glosses over some questions just a bit too quickly. For example, using trees to sequester carbon only works if trees are cut down, in a mature state, and buried—which seems less like a realistic climate solution and more like a fun science project.
Under the White Sky follows the same structure as her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, tracing Kolbert’s travels to fancy labs and remote islands—though she notes that not all islands are surrounded by water—as she talks with the inventors behind the novel technologies and techniques. Through these vignettes, Kolbert slowly introduces readers to new ways of thinking about nature’s future.
The reproduced structure in this follow-up piece of environmental writing reads less interesting a second time around. But for fresh eyes, her narrative style goes down easy and reflects thoughtful structuring. Kolbert’s characterization of Icelandic geoengineers and Australian geneticists provides a much needed humanness to balance out the existential crisis facing the planet.
The inventors of these shoot-for-the-moon solutions—which Kolbert understands will read preposterous to the average person—don’t just see their mad science as essential to the future, they know altering nature is inevitable. Through the eyes of these futuristic thinkers, Kolbert encourages the public to imagine living under a not-so-blue sky. (William Melhado)
Send a Runner: A Navajo Honors the Long Walk
By Edison Eskeets and Jim Kristofic
April 2021, University of New Mexico Press
Books about running, even ones based in New Mexico, are easy to come by. But there’s nothing easy about what Edison Eskeets and Jim Kristofic have to say in their newest contribution to this genre. Besides that, it’s hardly fair to lump Send a Runner: A Navajo Honors the Long Walk into a single category.
Kristofic’s books about Rez life come from the perspective of an Anglo kid who grew up there (Navajos Wear Nikes) and Ekseets—well, he is there, born of the four directions that frame the sense of place for his Diné kin. The authors pass the baton back and forth, their relay race in book form crossing the finish line with aplomb. Its language observes the color of the modern world alongside the nuance of complex history. This is not a parachute job, but people who live and feel right here.
The book’s subtitle might suggest a retracing of the terrible steps upon which the US government sent the Navajo people—from the land officials said would be theirs forever to a barren tract with poisoned water called Bosque Redondo, in what is now the southeastern reach of the state of New Mexico. Thousands of people died on the way there, after they arrived and on the treacherous return home in the late 1890s.
Eskeets, however, sets about to honor the lives of his forebears with what he called a “ceremonial run” from Canyon de Chelly in the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation to Santa Fe, staying far from Kit Carson’s Fort Sumner and ending with soft words at the Plaza (at the time still adorned with the obelisk). At the age of 59, he will intensely feel each of the 330 pounding miles he maps out over 15 days. And along the way he’ll hear the voices of those who went before, and he’ll tell the story of the Long Walk right beside the stories closer to today—past lands made “wretched by cattle” and blonde mesas contaminated as their guts were extracted of uranium and radioactive tailings used for houses.
And yet, the book is about running too—not just the history of how running contributed to communication between tribal groups, but in a sprint right to the present. The obligatory Runners’ World writeup in 2018, the year he completed the run, paints Eskeets as an accomplished ultrarunner who worked as a track coach for Native students. As an author along with Kristofic, the narrative flow about how he feels and what he thinks as his legs move beneath him feels authentic. He prays. He breathes. He listens. He shakes a rattle. He dances. He’s alive and, despite efforts to extinguish them, so are his people. (Julie Ann Grimm)
Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth
By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford
June 2021, Penguin/Random House
“Screw you, we’re from Texas,” sings Ray Wylie Hubbard. That song seems to sum up the swagger our neighbors sometimes exhibit when they visit our fair city. Santa Feans’ most complicated relationship may be with Texan tourists, but our most difficult interior relationship is with our own bloody history. It’s one thing we have in common with the Lone Star State, which has wrestled with the legacy of the Battle of the Alamo since 1836.
In Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, three sons of Texas confront the creation myth of the “shrine of Texas liberty.” For nearly two centuries, amateur historians, pop culture and Texans hell-bent on celebrating whiteness have helped propagate a heroic American tale: Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Barrett Travis and their Anglo-American homies died after 13 days fighting the Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio. They croaked so Sam Houston could defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto six weeks later, securing Texan independence with the rallying cry of “Remember the Alamo!”
The true story is, of course, much more complex. In this freewheeling, breezily readable new history of the Alamo’s causes and effects, author Bryan Burrough (Public Enemies, Barbarians at the Gate), Houston Chronicle journalist Chris Tomlinson, and writer and political consultant Jason Stanford throw out the lies their Texan teachers taught them.
Among the facts scrubbed from the historical record? The “criminally overlooked” Tejanos of San Antonio and South Texas not only fought alongside the Anglo rebels, but were some of the first to spark the Texas Revolt. Just why were the white Texians—whose illegal immigration to Texas was a problem that Mexicans, in a 21st-century irony, were trying to limit—so hell-bent on fighting Santa Anna’s troops? Slavery, of course. The booming cotton industry down south represented a primo economic opportunity for the new residents, who needed slaves to work the land, and the Mexican government was anti-slavery.
Burrough, Tomlinson and Stanford’s book is just the latest salvo in a wave of Alamo “revisionism” that began 40 years ago. For some Texans, these kinds of fact-based examinations amount to what a drunk Ozzy Osbourne was caught doing while wandering downtown San Antonio one day in 1982: pissing on the Alamo.
“Its legends comprise the beating heart of Texas exceptionalism, the idea, deeply held among generations of Texans, that the state is special, somehow a cut above the Delawares and Rhode Islands of the world,” the authors write. That kind of pride is all well and good (and insidious and dangerous, too), and it has its own long history. As Isaac Asimov said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” (Molly Boyle)
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
By Kristin Radtke
July 2021, Penguin/Random House
Have you ever hired a professional cuddler for a snuggle? Have you dedicated a song on the radio to someone far away? Are your posts on social media a true representation of who you are? All of us experience alone time, but what makes us lonely? It’s our feelings and shame about being alone that impact how we perform for others—and the effort we make to connect. COVID-19 has amplified this experience for all of us with lockdown as we masked up, engaged in digital socializing and even feared one another because of the virus. This is why Kristin Radtke’s Seek You is perfect for this moment; so we can understand our current feelings of social isolation.
Radtke’s graphic novel is a heartbreaking exploration of the rise of American loneliness and isolation. She begins with her father: “He was obsessed with ham radio.” Radtke didn’t know her father was interested in that particular form of communication—he was stoic and orderly, she writes. Yet he still sought out connection, he still looked to verify the existence of others.
Some people crave interpersonal contact while others prefer to be alone, but everyone needs connection somehow, Radtke hypothesizes as she chronicles research into the health repercussions of the chronically lonely. It’s a dire situation, she reports:
“Loneliness will be classified as an epidemic by 2030.”
Perhaps especially now. After more than a year of COVID-19, people are finally truly considering the trauma of social isolation and the detrimental effects of loneliness on our health with grave seriousness. How can we recover from this trauma and find our way back to each other? Radtke goes on to reveal how the myth of American individualism and the prevalence of lonely cowboy characters in popular film and television properties warp our sense of reality; the epidemic of loneliness also fuels aggression, terror and mass shootings.
Radtke even digs into the horrific social deprivation and attachment experiments conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow on young monkeys to illustrate the desperate need animals have to be touched and loved. If it weren’t for these nightmarish experiments, perhaps children would still be raised without touch for fear they’d become weak and soft. My father still kisses me on the mouth to this day, probably a plus in Radtke’s world.
In the end, she posits, to gain a deeper understanding of love, we must understand its polar opposite. Maybe we’ll always be lonely to some extent, but Radtke illustrates it’s vital for us to keep trying so we can find our way back to each other. (ADV)
Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer
By Jamie Figueroa
March 2021, Catapult
In Santa Fe’s fictional twin, Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, Rufina and Rafa are haunted by the ghosts of their recently-deceased mother Rosalinda and the trauma of their childhoods. Rufina, trying to save her brother, conceives a bet: If they can make enough money to buy plane tickets by performing for tourists in the Plaza in a single weekend, Rafa has to go on living.
Jamie Figuero’s haunting debut novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer grapples with identity, grief and personal and cultural trauma, weaving in elements of folklore and magical realism. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, it flows back and forth in time and memory. It becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real, what’s in the past—especially as we’re introduced to the white man, called the Explorer, who was Rosalinda’s lover and exploited the family of three for his own profit and Rufina’s stillborn baby, along with a few other minor characters, all compelling in their own right.
Particularly powerful is Figuero’s exploration of race and the dynamics between white people who view the inhabitants of the distant places they vacation in as “exotic” and people, like Rufina and Rafa, who are forced by economic circumstances to cater to these tourists. The first set of tourists the siblings interact with during the weekend is a married couple who are utterly captivated by the street performers. The wife watches Rafa as he plays a guitar with no strings, and the husband awkwardly dances with Rufina before accidentally breaking her microphone stand. It’s clear that Rufina and Rafa aren’t really people to this couple, just outlets for their pent-up desires.
Figuero writes: “They are necessary guests, and yet, see how easy it is to resent them, to see all tourists as one tourist? Just as easy as it is for the tourist to see a price tag dangling from every visible thing, including from the wrist of every indiscernible brown arm.”
This story is heavy, something you’ll likely want to take your time with.
A longtime resident of Northern New Mexico, Figuero said during a Literary Hub interview with author Jane Ciabattari that Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is, in a way, “a love letter of sorts, an act of appreciation for this place that took me in and gave me all that I longed for: a community to belong to, a deep connection and resonance with the land, and the reality of being a working writer.” Her writing has appeared in Epoch, McSweeney’s, and American Short Fiction. (Bella Davis)
By Brandon Hobson
February 2021, Ecco
An Oklahoman Cherokee family shatters after losing their teen son Ray-Ray to a cop’s bullet. No plot spoilers here: the preface of Brandon Hobson’s fourth book, The Removed, reveals it all. In the aftermath, the Echotas struggle individually to heal from their family tragedy.
Hobson, assistant professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University, a teacher at the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and a member of the Cherokee Nation himself, weaves a sad, dreamlike story told by four voices of the Echota family: mother Maria, her eldest child Sonja, her baby Edgar and, in flashbacks, their ancestor, Tsala. Hobson writes each voice as distinctively as the troubles with which its speaker struggles. Maria, wanting justice for her son’s killer, instead finds purpose as a caretaker. Sonja seeks love in stalking and seducing a violent younger man. Edgar escapes the family by hiding in Albuquerque, active in his drug addiction. Tsala rallies against the Trail of Tears. Everyone hurts, but their external solutions don’t heal their internal wounds.
Each character also navigates unfair treatment from white men. Each racially charged incident stings more for how casual it is, how normalized. Hobson shows words, too, harm—racism need not be a bullet to a teen’s chest. This well rendered perspective of mistreated people highlights what it means to be privileged; some can choose to consider the unfairness thrust upon their neighbor, others have no choice but to suffer the painful reality.
Throughout Hobson’s opus, mythology, symbolism and healing centered around nature and love lead the family members to peace. Each character finds solace outdoors, be it by walking naked through the rain or watching the wind through the trees. One can tell Hobson surely turned his own eyes to these things as well, and passages about nature are among the most beautiful in The Removed.
But nature only leads, it does not solve. Hobson offers a true solution: when going through hell, keep going. The Echotas, despite their pains and fears, do just that. Yes, they fill the loss with various temporary solutions, but they keep moving along the path laid before them. As they carry on over rough terrain, they learn not to distance themselves from their problems, but to come together to heal from what broke them in the first place. (Campbell Lozuaway-McComsey)
By Patricia Engel
March 2021, Avid Reader Press
“We’re all migrants here on Earth,” a father tells his daughter as he saturates her memories with Colombian fables of jaguars, snakes and condors. The legends that permeate Infinite Country, Patricia Engel’s most recent novel, reflect the tension of one family straddling North and South America.
But the pains one family endures to hold their fragile existence reveal that not all of Earth’s migrants suffer the same experiences—a theme of the story that resonates with history and current events.
The novel opens on 15-year-old Talia, planning her escape from a correctional school in the mountains of Colombia—where she finds herself after committing a morally dubious crime. The story keeps a quick pace as Talia races across the country, back to Bogotá, to meet her exiled father who holds her plane ticket to the United States. In this trip Talia hopes to reunite with her siblings and mother, who have lived in the US since her parents made the decision to pursue perceived better opportunities in the northern country.
Though Talia’s journey lasts only days, the rest of her family’s odyssey spans decades, beginning with her parents’ courting at a fruit stand and extending to the circumstances that lead to the splintering of mother and child, husband and wife.
Given the density of Engel’s subject matter and clocking in at less than 200 pages, Infinite Country is the perfect choice for readers who want to indulge in a family saga like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but simply don’t have the time.
The density of Engel’s writing, weaving in mythical tales of Colombia’s history, at times distracts from the more engaging narrative of each family member.
The crimes perpetrated against, and by, the relatives reveal how much more closely violence lives to this marginalized population—a common thread reflected in the book’s references to family separations and mass shootings.
The allusions to current events read as somewhat pandering, but these mentions also come from a place close to home for Engel. As a Colombian-American, and creative writing professor at the University of Miami, Engel sometimes uses a voice that reads less like a novel and more like a memoir.
There’s no dispute of Engel’s storytelling talents as she shifts between perspectives of family members, reminding the reader that the grass could always be greener, though her infectious optimism shines through the heartbreaking beauty of one family’s resilience. (WM)