Back to School Reading List

For Grown-Ups

Although the practice has faded over time, summer reading lists used to be a thing. The public libraries in the Midwestern city where I grew up promoted the idea, with the local Pizza Hut as a sponsor. For every book you read when school was out of session, you earned a sticker and proudly placed it on a “Book It” button. When you filled the button, you cashed it in for a free personal pan pizza. My brother and I had no trouble meeting this goal, and my parents dutifully took us to a rare dinner out to celebrate.

For many of us, summer vacations are now filled with the same things that happen the rest of the year, and spare time isn't really part of the vocabulary. If anything, the outdoor concerts, the baseball games, the camping trips and the bike rides of summer add an extra level of busyness. Perhaps as the kiddos go back to school this month, however, and as the evenings grow a bit more chilly, you'll find yourself wanting to crack a spine.

This curated reading list includes don't-miss fiction and the kinds of nonfiction books that contribute to lifelong learning about some of the most pressing issues in the West. How many can you read before Christmas? (JAG)

Tony’s Daughter

The “Other” Hillerman novelist is two for two as she picks up the mystery

By the time Tony Hillerman died in 2008, he had published 18 mystery novels with characters from the Navajo Nation Police Department at center stage. A seminal figure in New Mexico’s literary canon, his act would be tough to follow. As his daughter Anne, already a published writer herself, embarked on a tour to publicize a photography book highlighting the landscape Dad wrote about, she heard the same thing over and over again: People wanted to know if Tony had left any unpublished manuscripts. They missed the characters of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. They wanted more. After “thousands” of these conversations, she went for it, and by all accounts, she hit the mark.

"It dawned on me that I was feeling the same way. I was really missing those stories and I was missing my dad too, but I thought, Gee, there is nothing much I can do about missing my dad, but maybe I can do something about missing the stories," Hillerman, 65, tells SFR in a recent interview near her Santa Fe home, in between tours for the release of her second crime novel.

SFR: How much do you track what your father wrote and refer back to it?
Anne Hillerman: With Spider Woman's Daughter, I have a lot of references to Dad's books because I knew that people weren't going to give me too long to see if I knew what I was doing or not. And I figure the longtime fans would really kind of appreciate it...So for the first book particularly, I was interested in doing that. With Rock with Wings, not so much. I kind of thought, OK, I kind of had the first book to establish myself and establish my own voice, and now with the second one, I can move free of that. On the other hand, I knew that because of the integrity of this series, it is like I could not move the detectives to Pittsburgh. They had to stay Navajo cops working on the Navajo reservation so that they would still have jurisdiction. And they had to be true to who my dad had set them up to be, so all of that was real important to me.

We meet Bernadette Manuelito in the last few books from Tony, and now she's a big player in your first two. Was it important to you to have a female protagonist in the series?
Oh, yeah, yeah. For one thing, the women have a really strong role in Navajo culture, and even though you don't hear about it much, there are women warriors. There's a whole series of women's names that end in with the suffix 'ba'...and the 'ba' means warrior...Women have a larger role now in law enforcement, much larger than when my dad started the series 30 years ago. And fans have been really receptive to that. I have gotten lots and lots of good comments both from women and from men, from guys who are sort of from my dad's vintage, which makes me feel really happy. These World War II vets say, 'It's about time.'

How do you deal with the question of writing about Native religion?
Things have changed since my dad was writing. And for better or worse, a lot of the traditional practices are fading. And so when I talk to people about it, a lot of times, particularly people who are 40 and younger, they don't know so much about it. They are kind of a fuzzy about it, which in a way is good, because it makes me feel like I'm not going to be giving away any secrets. Because the people I'm talking to don't know any of those secrets. On the other hand, what they're telling me is true for their experience in 2015, and so that makes me feel a little better. I do a lot of research, reading, reading, reading about ethnology...I have all of that as kind of background, but I try to be really careful about it. I don't want people to say say, 'You shouldn't have put it in your book.' And the good thing about writing about the Navajo is that so much has been written about them, and unlike the Pueblo culture, they are pretty open about what they believe.

Has anyone ever questioned you about that and said you shouldn't have put something in?
No. In fact, people have said they were happy to read about it, that it makes people proud. Like in Rock with Wings, where I talk about Bernie doing her hair in the traditional Navajo bun to kind of keep her thoughts from flowing away. People say, 'Yes. That is really true. We do that, and I thought that was smart of her to do that.'

You are working on number three right now. Do you see yourself writing 18 too?
After Spider Woman's Daughter did so well, I got a contract for three more, so number three is the first, and then I have four and five on that contract. I honestly don't know. Everything has its time. But on the other hand, as I write this book, I am coming up with other stories, other characters that don't really fit in this book, and so by the time I get to number five, I might have a whole repertoire of other places and other ideas and new characters I'd like to write about. We will just see. (JAG)

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Finding Abbey:

The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave

Sean Prentiss

More than 100 people every year traipse into the Alaskan wilderness to visit the school bus where Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame left this earth. They take pictures and post accounts on the Internet, some even carry pieces of the bus home with them.

That's not the kind of tourism that Edward Abbey wanted for his body's final resting place. He made his friends, the people upon whom he based some of the characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang, promise to keep his grave secret.

Abbey wrote many books with a deep New Mexico connection, include the sabotage classic, and the 1968 Desert Solitaire, his love letter to the red rocks of Arches National Park. And Sean Prentiss has read them all, letting Abbey's words about solitude and nature and satisfaction and destruction shape his world view. Prentiss' easy-to-read investigative journey is heavily sprinkled with quotes from Abbey's hand, plus candid interviews with the men who buried him, showing that Ed wasn't a two-dimensional character locked into a role he crafted in his definitive writing as a defender of the wild American West. He littered. He drank. He said nasty things about immigrants and Indians. He really didn't like most people very much.

This book isn't a biography; those have already been written. Finding Abbey is what you do in grief. Celebrate the life you shared. Analyze the faults. Peer into the darkness. Come out on the other side. (JAG)

American Ghost:

A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest

Hannah Nordhaus

La Posada houses one of Santa Fe’s more famous ghost stories: Julia Staab, the wife of early Santa Fe business community cornerstone Abraham Staab, is said to still frequent the family home, now a hotel. Julia’s death, after the loss of a child and a series of reclusive years, has provided ready fodder for rumors. Was she murdered? Was it suicide? Was she insane? Chronically ill? Depressed? Was Abraham a tyrant or a tolerant husband? As Julia’s great-great-granddaughter, Hannah Nordhaus had both unique access into the workings behind the rumor mill and a uniquely personal investment in the truth. Her journey to discover it and to unveil a woman lost to time is recounted in American Ghost.

The book blends an iconic American immigration story with glimpses into the history of Santa Fe, including its Jewish community and the building of icons like the cathedral, and a quest for understanding that sees self-professed ghost skeptic Nordhaus meeting with a string of psychics to, at the very least, introduce a little levity. The narrative draws from several approaches to storytelling and makes a few detours that briefly disorient, but the sum of its disparate parts paints a clear image that even plumbs into why it is we do so love a ghost story.

American Ghost is history without the stereotypical drone of historic writings, enlivened by the occasional inexplicable encounter and rendered poignant by Nordhaus' longing to understand her ancestor, her place among a history of largely vanished women and, by a certain extension, herself. (EM)

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

The brother-and-sister duo who charmed us with their antics while their father fought for justice in a Southern courtroom are back in perhaps the most hyped release of the summer. Revisiting Jem and Scout, even though there’s not a peep from Boo Radley, is worth the risk of picking up a copy. But the risk you take is that you might end up feeling like you understand less after you close the book—like the neat sociological study that sixth grade literature teachers instilled in you as you broke down the inner workings of Maycomb, Alabama, was little more than a false sense of hope in humanity.

The hype of this tome, which is told through the eyes of a 26-year-old Scout, now Jean Louise, is that Harper Lee might not have really wanted this book to see the light of day. Accusations are still flying about whether her caretaker conspired to make money from a draft manuscript that Lee had given up on years ago, likely even a first draft to the story that made her name. It's uncanny that it happened just in time for a riveting national discussion about racism and its gnawing role in our violent tendencies.

At times, this "unfinished" interpretation seems adequate, as Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. The plot is simple. The dialogue plodding here and there. The continuity spotty and unintelligible, especially at the end. But it's hard to not want to hang on to Harper Lee. (JAG)

Deadbeat Dams:

Why We Should Abolish the US Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam

Daniel P Beard

Here’s a concise manual on how and why America should free rivers to resume their natural flood-prone flows and to liberate taxpayer money from an inept system. The book picks up on some of the emotional fervor stirred by documentary film DamNation, which recorded the plight of rivers and fisheries in the face of dams on nearly every waterway in the country. It also consciously picks up the torch for Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s righteous fury on water consumption in the West.

Author Daniel P Beard begins with condemning policymakers he met with two decades ago during his tenure as commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, criticizing their view of water management as a largely political one, rather than one that looks to the health of ecosystems and rivers, much less the bottom line. He describes proposed dams with $425 million price tags as doing little to ensure water for the constituents who'd pay to have them built, and he discusses the system of "water nobility," the individuals and organizations that have inherited the rights to a certain amount of water and get it at prices that demand taxpayer subsidies.

We're no strangers to the idea that water is a precious resource and pay accordingly per gallon, so Deadbeat Dams is in some way better suited for readers with overwatered lawns in California and Arizona. Where Beard's clear arguments win, though, is in making the case that we built the West's water infrastructure during some of the rainiest years in half a millennium. There's no reason to expect water levels to rise and Lake Powell's bathtub rings to be submerged. The slot canyons and sandstone amphitheaters of Glen Canyon slowly re-emerging as the water level sinks can, however, be saved. Drain the reservoir, and take dynamite to the dam. (EM)

What’s Happening to Hotshots?

Chronicling the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, getting to know the men we lost and foretelling more to come

There’s no spoiling the ending of On the Burning Edge. We know, from the cover, what it’s about and where the stories of the people whose lives unfold in its pages will end. On June 30, 2013, 19 wildland firefighters died when the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona overtook them while they headed from where they’d spent the day, clearing fuel from the eastern border of the fire, toward homes that were in danger of burning. But that doesn’t make the revelations coming forward through the book any less gripping.

On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It digs in long before a lightning strike sets a ridgeline on fire near Prescott, Ariz., and 20 hotshots are told they'll have work the next day. Through stories of who these men were, what drove them to become firefighters and the faith and family ties that bonded them as friends in the field, they're given a rare memorial. We watch, for example, rookie hotshot Grant McKee, struggling to fit in and leaning on his "battle buddy," Renan Packer, until a medical emergency suddenly removes Packer from the crew, leaving McKee to find his own way, which he does, in a fire that shows him the results their work provides for people in the towns near the fires they fight.

The book's author, Kyle Dickman, a Santa Fean and former Outside editor who spent five years working as a firefighter, published a story in his magazine about re-embedding in the California-based hotshot crew he'd first worked on in college, just weeks before the Yarnell Hill Fire. A week after the fire, he was in Prescott, talking with the one survivor, Brendan "Donut" McDonough, who had been sent to a neighboring ridge to serve as a lookout and so missed being overtaken by the flames alongside the rest of his crew.

The Outside article he wrote earned him both a place as a finalist for a National Magazine Award and interest from book publishers. He spoke with the firefighters' families, friends and girlfriends; read text messages and viewed photos and videos sent right up to the hours before the Granite Mountain Hotshots radios fell silent; interviewed incident commanders and other key crewmembers on the Yarnell Hill Fire that day; and read thousands of pages of documentation from the investigation that followed.

The reality that he hopes readers will take away, though, is one that needs to sink in far from the Western hillsides where these fires are fought, and in the boardrooms and at the bureau desks where firefighting policy is crafted and decisions made that spend an estimated $2 billion each year fighting wildfires.

"We don't have a successful fire policy, we don't have a fire policy that's working and if we continue to follow this fire policy, we have to continue to expect to see more young men dying," Dickman tells SFR. "Unless we change policies, unless homeowners start to get proactive in preparing their homes for wildfires…we have to accept that more houses are going to burn, more firefighters are going to die, more forests are going to go up in flames."

If homeowners create a defensible space around their homes and forests are thinned, particularly of the ladder fuels that connect fires on the ground to the canopy, where they can be blown out of control, fewer firefighters will face the need to try to save homes that may or may not be able to be saved. This year's fire season has been quiet in the Southwest, but the overall trend is for an increasing frequency of high-intensity fires, and Dickman says thinning forests and preparing homes will be key to keeping firefighters alive.

Wildfires, when they can be allowed to burn, naturally reset and thin forests, and that means the next round of fires will be less intense. Denser forests—and Dickman points to one in New Mexico that in the last century has grown from 150 to 1,300 trees per acre—mean more intense fires.

Particularly with climate change coming, and bringing with it ever hotter and drier weather, we should expect to see forests adapt to a new fire regime and firefighters develop a new approach, one that perhaps aims not so much at putting out a fire but at herding it.

"It's going to take engagement from every level of government," Dickman says. "We have to see homeowners creating defensible space, have to see fuels crews, have to see counties doing more, state governments, we have to see the feds leading this change because the Forest Service alone spends $2 billion a year on this fire program, and I think we have to look to them to lead on this issue…We don't need more hotshot crews, we don't need to see more air tankers, what we need to see is more proactive management by cities creating fuels crews, like Granite Mountain once was, to prepare for fires."

A change in policy could also spare taxpayers the burden of fighting these fires, which can cost $10 million for a single aerial drop of flame retardant, not to mention the lives of wildland firefighters, several of whom die every year.

Part of the tragedy of Yarnell, Dickman says, is that the associated costs have scared cities off the idea of creating their own fuels crews, which is what the Granite Mountain Hotshots began as—a team tasked with thinning forests and brush around the city of Prescott to prevent the town from burning in a wildfire. After shouldering the millions of dollars tied to picking up the pieces after the hotshot crew's death, Prescott disbanded its fire department's wildland unit. No more hotshots, and no more fuels crew.

"So you're seeing a city that lost all these men, and then not only that but they lost this great gift they had given the city, which was to prepare them for wildfires," Dickman says. "Over the coming decades, you're going to see a lot of the forests they had thinned regrow and the risk of the city burning increase." (EM)

Plunder of the Ancients:

A True Story of Betrayal, Redemption and an Undercover Quest to Recover Sacred Native American Artifacts

Lucinda Delaney Schroeder

Santa Fe’s streets lined with vendors and shops hawking Native-inspired wares fueled the desire to make it through Plunder of the Ancients, written by a former special agent with US Fish and Wildlife. Lucinda Delaney Schroeder, formerly a wildlife crimes investigator chasing down poached animals and illegally purchased wildlife, launches an investigation to infiltrate the market for illegally sold Native American artifacts and eagle feathers, after working on a case to recover a set of masks purchased from a Navajo woman shortly after her husband, a Navajo healer, has died. Schroeder sets up a false auction house and begins buying and selling Native American artifacts, attempting to attract the big-name clients she aims to arrest.

Tony Hillerman is invoked in name by the author, but the story lacks the pulse of a mystery novel. It reads as it is: a memoir of one person's experiences and accomplishments viewed through her own eyes. (EM)

New Mexico 2050

Edited by Fred Harris

Feeling a little out of it when you try to understand the political issues of the day and how they relate to real life? You’re not alone. Maybe this book of essays about what the state could look like in 2050 will help you catch up. Former US Sen. Fred Harris has written several mystery novels in his long career as an author, which also includes 19 books about politics and public policy. This volume, which spans a variety of subjects from education to the economy, the environment to health care, has a textbook feel and might lead to a great reading group discussion. Or at least make your dinner conversation more well-sourced.

These essays aren't shooting it up the middle, though. Harris is a Democrat from Oklahoma who has since relocated to New Mexico. He has chosen authors who advocate for principles he believes in, including spending money to make money by increasing the living wage. His cohorts don't pull punches. Take SFR contributor and independent journalist Laura Paskus, who teams up with attorney Adrian Oglesby to opine on the environment and calls out the false dichotomy of environment versus the economy, noting that it's "alienated neighbors and citizens from one another" and pointing to an even more burdened future if we stay the course. Or turn to Veronica E Tiller, who writes about the state's Native communities with authority. Harris says in the epilogue that he doesn't expect to move mountains, but rather keep us talking. No harm in that. (JAG)

The Haunting of the Mexican Border:

A Woman’s Journey

Kathryn Ferguson

For a time, Kathryn Ferguson writes, she flew back and forth across the Mexican border like a bird. In a memoir threaded with metaphor and rich with detail, she recounts the early searching years, when the dancer and would-be documentary filmmaker, still seeking stories to tell, stumbles her way into the Sierra Madres and the Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. There, she meets the Rarámuri tribes, sandal-wearing distance runners made famous in, among other things, the book Born to Run, which spawned the barefoot running movement.

From a position deeply embedded in these communities, Ferguson first describes their culture, the ceremonies and traditions she's able to capture on film. Then, she's drawn, as many of them are, ever further north, and the story becomes one of the ongoing battle with the US Border Patrol and the dehumanizing qualities of America's immigration policy.

There's a texture to what she finds over 15 years, beginning in the 1980s, when she traveled to Mexico, where she made The Unholy Tarahumara, a film about the loss of traditions, and Rita of the Sky, a documentary about a woman committed to a Kansas mental hospital because no one recognized the language she spoke. Hers is a Mexico far from the tourist-strewn beaches and the bars playing "La Cucaracha" on repeat to spring breakers.

Ferguson's prose is transcendent, effortless, lifting off the page with the eye of a smart filmmaker who finds just enough detail to tell the imagination where to go but leaves off before layering on so much as to drown out that self-steered vision. (EM)

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