At the end of this summer’s hit opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the performers break the fourth wall during his funeral. They gaze out into the audience and admonish listeners to look up from their cell phones, to soak in the stars, to be in the moment. This is what the late technopreneur would want, the song says; now that he’s version 2.0, escaping his capitalist scheming.
The world premiere of the work at the Santa Fe Opera was another example of why it's so weird and wonderful to be here—now.
We're surrounded by so much talent and creativity, yet we don't always take time to enjoy the slow pleasures of detaching from the digital tether. While burying your nose in a book is not exactly tuning in to the present, it's a way of connecting with life that's deeper than the scrolling screen. Some human being, somewhere, wrote down these words, crafted and curated them with a message in mind.
We advocate mixing fiction and nonfiction into one's literature diet, and this year's collection reminds us that even when stories are "made up," it's the elements of truth that make them worth reading. Diving into our annual fall book list can also take you back to school. As the kids don their khakis, adults can try on new things of their own with a well-researched narrative, or get to know a public figure in a new way. We chose the following books because of their strong Santa Fe connections, or because we thought they were too interesting or timely to pass by. Press the home button. Or the off button.
We Were Witches
Author: Ariel Gore
We Were Witches
is true. Every last word of it. This does, of course, take into account the difference between “truth” and “fact,” what it means to quote someone from memory 23 years after they said something, or the way in which a reader can get sucked so far into a book’s world that when the character named Ariel Gore in a book by Ariel Gore follows a deer into the woods and it leads her down a staircase inside a tree into a golden throne room and the deer begins speaking English, the reader thinks: “Yeah, totally.”
The book follows Ariel (for our purposes, the character will be called by her first name, the author by her last), a young, unwed, poor, queer mother who, while navigating ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, alternately oppressive and supportive family, and a system that just doesn't value women (for lack of a better term: The Man), resolves to become a writer. She enrolls in college and begins reading. Buckle in.
We Were Witches can be found in the fiction section, but I suspect this is mostly because the Library of Congress doesn't have a classification for cross-genre literature. Gore—who lives in Santa Fe but is nationally renowned for her writing, teaching, and as one of the original voices of "alternative parenting"—also points out that to write about events more than two decades later and use quotation marks while doing so is a slippery slope. "Things aren't exact. It's like if you had lived your life and then you painted a series of paintings, rather than took photographs," Gore tells SFR. "But I also wanted to play with this idea that if you don't like the story that you've been handed, the story that you've been told about yourself, that you can reinvent it."
So Ariel's story is interwoven with fairy tale and history, from Rapunzel facilitating her own rape to the thousands of women in 16th-century Europe who were tortured and burned for witchcraft. There are lists, book analyses, dives into etymology and Wiccan spells. And Gore's re-telling of her own story is peppered with help that she didn't necessarily receive.
"Sometimes [writing] means going in and reinventing the past—and I don't mean making the bad things not happen," Gore says, "but giving your character a witness or a helper that would have really helped them kind of make sense of it at the time, or process it. What would the story look like if you'd had all these kind of magical and human helpers along the way?"
As Ariel moves around California, into the jaws of the suburbs, into a closet (no, really) in San Francisco, then to on-campus housing at Mills College, all with her daughter Maia in tow, she meets many figures that guide her. Indeed, the page that I dog-eared as where Ariel truly discovers that women have power (not that she yet knows that she has power) is where she meets an elderly poet named Mary TallMountain. Mary was an actual person—the only magical helper Googleable and verifiable as real. Mary watches Maia as Ariel works a journalism internship, teaches Ariel a Thanksgiving dinner on a budget, and informs Ariel that she is a writer simply because she writes. If you go home and write a poem, you are a poet. This life is enough.
The book could be classified as "intermediate feminism;" if you don't already believe that female-identifying people have an inherent reason to be angry, We Were Witches might be too much at first. A healthy view of the feminism that has come before, too, is important.
"When people talk about feminism, that whole era—the '90s and coming into the '90s … it's still kind of mocked. And I've gone along with it, too—I mean, I think there are aspects of it that are really funny," Gore says. (When Ariel learns the word "womyn," for example, or when her heavily pregnant neighbor Lola, shaved head and all, requests cunnilingus within moments of meeting Ariel, the reader smiles, and is perhaps nostalgic, but is not shocked.) Gore continues: "But while I was writing this book, I discovered that I took and take that era of my education really seriously, and it was super influential on my life."
So, Ariel's path is not intimidating, as it might be if we were presented with a female character who really had her shit together and wanted to wake us up. Ariel doesn't know what she's doing. She calculates and acts impulsively and makes strange and strong choices. And we are right there with her. (Charlotte Jusinski)
We Were Witches Book Release: Ariel Gore in conversation with Miriam Sagan
6 pm Saturday, Sept. 9. Free.
Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse,
202 Galisteo St.,
Village: A Novel
Author: Stanley Crawford
Though it’s one of just two novels on our list this year,
could be about people and places you know in the real world. Like all good forms of story, Stanley Crawford’s truth in the telling stands on its own. His straightforward, lyric color and comic twists had us devouring this multi-layered tale about a fictional village in Northern New Mexico with residents whose homes, marriages and economic doldrums are open for inspection and introspection.
The story's inhabitants include the couple who run the corner store, a drifting hippie and his drifting wife, and a corrupt postmaster. Its plot curves along the edges of the two-lane blacktop that slices the town, the story wending its way through a junkyard, into the school gym and along the acequia.
Without the reader realizing it, Crawford cuts to the essence of what makes each character step from the page. Giggles come easily, right along with sadness. There are lonely people in this tale. Crazy people. Hopeless people. And moments of sidesplitting laughter and soft sighs. The sights and sounds and smells of the setting bring to life walks along gurgling rivers, casserole deliveries, sick calls and trips for car parts under the cover of darkness.
This success must get wind from Crawford's life as a task in fact-finding for this creative work. With seven novels and two memoirs under his belt, he's also a living, breathing honest-to-goodness farmer in Dixon. And when he's not writing or farming, lately he's been litigating as a key player in a yearslong battle with a Chinese garlic megacorporation over import tariffs that create false price expectation for domestic producers. (Julie Ann Grimm)
Creators: Stephanie Alia, Adam Frank and Bram Meehan
Most nights, when Madelyn falls asleep, she is transported to the world of dreams. Here, she serves as a protector of sorts to the sleeping realm, though she often forgets by morning. The project of local writer Stephanie Alia, Washington-based illustrator Adam Frank and local letterer Bram Meehan,
delves deep into the Aboriginal concept of dreamtime, blurring the lines between dreams and reality. It draws from fantasy epics, sci-fi weirdness and good old-fashioned monster lore for an intriguing new comic title.
Alia's vision is of one who grew up with '80s movies, but also of originality. There's a rooted appreciation for the power of dreams on display. Are they merely our minds' way of working out conflict, or do they serve a deeper purpose?
Frank's illustrations capture the unfamiliarity of the dreamlike from a bizarre market scene to the detailed character design, and involvement from Meehan, a local comics legend, is the icing on the cake. You'll be immersed in the setup and ache for the follow-up, but one thing's for sure—this is just the beginning, and the beginning is good. (Alex De Vore)
My Favorite Thing is Monsters
Author: Emil Ferris
Chicago, 1968: A young queer girl named Karen navigates the tensions of racial and sexual politics alongside the murder of her upstairs neighbor, a Holocaust survivor, possibly by Karen’s own brother.
Artist/writer Emil Ferris deftly interweaves her own fiction style with intricate and finely detailed ballpoint pen illustrations and a deep respect for hard-boiled detective genre as well as horror comics and film. Karen, a girl-turned-werewolf-turned-detective, hides from her own heart-wrenching reality by investigating the mysterious death while grappling with a dying mother and the trials of Catholic school.
Presented as Karen's sketchbook, Monsters, Ferris' first stab at graphic novels, represents her return to artistic form after contracting West Nile Virus and becoming paralyzed. She still walks with a cane, but by taping a quill to her good hand, she created her own form of physical therapy. She has crafted a fine story, longform graphic novel or not. Densely layered and patient in its pacing, Karen's tale recalls all at once the complexities of mythology and the turbulence of 1960s America. (ADV)
How America Got its Guns: A History of the Gun Violence Crisis
Author: William Briggs
The statistic is ubiquitous: more than 30,000 US deaths each year. So is the cause: guns.
Perhaps it was always going to take a math professor to fuse the politics, history, jurisprudence and humanity of a bedrock American obsession for readers of any level of sophistication to walk away smarter on the thorny issue of guns in this country.
UC Denver's William Briggs does just that as he pushes blood into the debate with How America Got its Guns, elucidating the Second Amendment and its myriad legal progeny through interviews with a surprising cast of gun owners and advocates; some want more guns, others, more restrictions.
From an academic, Briggs' book could easily have come out like a big, unreadable pile of facts. It doesn't. Instead, there's a series of easy-to-read narrative threads sewn among the history and political rhetoric that, in a way, make this gnarly issue more approachable. The book provides a number of thought-provoking surprises. In a chapter on the humans who birthed some of the world's most widely used guns, Briggs opens with a quote from Mikhail Kalashnikov, who designed the AK-47. "I'm proud of my invention, but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists. … I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work—for example a lawnmower."
In the main, Briggs never takes a side. He does, however, drop the gun argument into some of the broader contexts in which it belongs—inequality, liberty, the meaning of citizenship—as he gently offers some suggestions in the book's later sections for an American future with less violence. (Jeff Proctor)
Inside Story: Everyone’s guide to reporting and writing creative nonfiction
Author: Julia Goldberg
Let’s face it: It has not been a great year for journalists. Having the president of your country declare that members of your profession are the “enemy of the American people” has a sort of lasting effect. When you look behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Media, however, you’ll see a bunch of people who are heavily invested in telling stories. They’re trying to carry the truth and meaning in our civilization. [Commences to toot own horn.]
If you're an aspiring writer—or even an experienced one who, like most, needs inspiration and instruction, you'll find it in Inside Story. If you want to know more about the guts of modern journalism—about writing something that someone somewhere will actually read and reflect upon—it's here too.
SFR will forever lay claim to Julia Goldberg as "our own," but in reality, it's been six years since she left the position of editor here after holding it for more than a decade. She went on to become a full-time faculty member at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and is this very semester teaching some of the final courses at the school set to close next summer. Her book will no doubt land in lots more classrooms. It isn't just her own brand of wisdom and humor (though there's a ton of that); it's nuggets from journalists across the nation. Before you get all down on the inverted pyramid, Goldberg is way into what they used to call "the new journalism," the kind where reporting and the craft of writing produce nonfiction that reads like a novel. If you wanna do that, each of the 10 chapters give prompts for writing exercises you can try, plus page upon page of other recommended reading. Know your enemy. It might even be you. (JAG)
The Lost City of the Monkey God
Author: Douglas Preston
Douglas Preston is somewhat of a literary hero. It’s not because his books have reached such a status that he’s the next Hemingway or JK Rowling or GRR Whatshisname (though we kind of hope so). Preston, a Santa Fean, is on our hero list because in 2014, he launched Authors United to lead a charge against Amazon’s book-dealing skulduggery.
It depends on whom you ask, but most agree the group of nearly 1,000 scribes lost that battle in the publishing war. That's beside the point. Sometimes, as he expertly reminds us in Lost City of the Monkey God, it's the losing and the trying that are among the most interesting parts of living. The New York Times says he "proved quite a thorn in Amazon's side." Huzzah!
Preston's setup is enviable. He's a writer who's no stranger to travel and intrigue, with assignments for publications like National Geographic and the Smithsonian. He already carries a long list of books with his byline, including as co-author of series about an FBI agent. But this book is nonfiction—and, even better, it's intensely personal for the author.
After setting a lure with a source that he couldn't reel in for years, Preston finally gets his hook into a rare expedition into the jungle of Honduras.
Part memoir of creeping, biting, sweating, itching, excruciating excitement, the book is also a great history primer on what is known, and more on what is unknown, about the Indigenous cultures of Central America that weren't the well-known Mayans or Aztecs. For the deep think, it explores the very notion of exploration and who defines what's lost and found.
Plus, it's got a super-geeky science angle that involves an exposition on the first commercial application of LIDAR surveying to locate numerous uncharted ruins hidden by dense layers of vegetation. Hike through this at Preston's brisk pace, and enjoy the tangled vines of plot twists that you just couldn't make up. (JAG)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
When the people of the Osage Nation were shuffled off to a corner of Oklahoma to call their own, tribal members working on the papers that declared that rocky corner of the country theirs made sure to also secure rights to the minerals, coal, oil and gas beneath it. It was a deal that would bring them millions—and that would cost the tribe everything.
Tribal members had already traced oil seeping into streams on the reservation, and soon wildcatters were gathering to bid on the chance to lease rights to drill and striking wells that sometimes plumed a hundred feet into the air.
The royalty checks that rolled in made the Osage the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The embarrassment of riches bred rumors like that they'd buy a new car when a tire on the previous went flat. By the early 1920s, they were sharing their territory with oilmen whose names would go on to read across the biggest oil tankers and gas stations around the country: Frank Phillips and Harry Sinclair. Then, someone started killing off the Osage.
David Grann recounts the story in his gripping book, a true-crime account that reads like a murder mystery, centered around one family as its members are lost. The book weaves meticulous and colorfully detailed stories of one Osage tribal member after another found shot, bombed or poisoned, and the inherent flaws their murders revealed in the law enforcement system of the time. In an era in which lawmen were still taming the Wild West and lingering anti-federalism resisted a nationwide police force, local sheriffs were at a loss to solve the murders and track down the killers. Then, J Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation's agents stepped in, setting the roots of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
With oil and gas development an ongoing issue of contention for tribes from Chaco Canyon to Standing Rock, Killers of the Flower Moon makes for a thrilling, prescient tour of a history we seem to be looping through, if in less salacious, "reign of terror" headline-earning ways. (Elizabeth Miller)
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Author: Kory Stamper
Definitely not just a textbook for word nerds or copy editors (ahem), lexicographer Kory Stamper’s new work about the writing of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary appeals to a surprisingly wide audience. For
Word by Word
to be interesting, the reader must be at least a little interested in the history of the English language—but that’s about the only requirement.
Stamper starts with her own story and how she got to be an editor at M-W, and then branches out into subjects like parts of speech, Chancery Standard English and slang—and then eventually falls down the rabbit hole all the way to contemporary political disputes in which the dictionary was called for comment; specifically, whether or not M-W had redefined "marriage" in 2009, as a conservative news site angrily claimed it had done. (It hadn't.)
Stamper is still getting her sea legs in the first chapter, finally free from the tissue paper pages of the dictionary and able to be flowery. As a result, the reader is either treated to or assaulted by vocabulary acrobatics. But this habit fades, and it's not long before this reader in particular was actually laughing out loud at descriptions of the slightly spooky-sounding M-W offices and ways in which you can figure out parts of speech. (A tidbit: "I'ma ____ ya ass." If a word fits there, it's transitive.)
The book quickly becomes an enjoyable read, stuffed with anecdotes from Stamper's own life and historical references. Each chapter is predicated on the topic of one word (headers like "Irregardless: On Wrong Words" and "Bitch: On Bad Words"), and such a broad brush gives Stamper's playful and easygoing voice ample rein to have fun. And isn't fun what we all want when we read the dictionary? (CJ)
Just Fly the Plane, Stupid!
Author: Stevan Pearce
Politicians these days don’t feel like they necessarily need to talk to the media, and by extension, their constituents and/or the people who they want to be their constituents.
That means we all learn less about who they are as people, what they really believe in, how their life experiences will or won't serve them as they serve us. Enter: the memoir.
Steve Pearce is the only Republican so far to publicly say he'll run for governor of New Mexico in the 2018 election. As a sitting congressman for southern New Mexico, there's a long voting history to indicate his political leanings. In 2014, Roll Call reported he was the 50th most wealthy representative in the 435-member House.
But the year before that report, Pearce was issuing his own report on wealth in the form of his memoir. He doesn't mention that his net is worth upward of $7 million in the 479-page book. Nor does he spend more than six pages in total talking about actual governance during his time in the state House or in the nation's capital. But readers get lots of his view on his own hardscrabble childhood in the dust bowl of sharecropping and the grubby sweat of oil camps, the mantra of "hard work pays off" leading its rhetorical outline. There's also lots of attention paid what Pearce describes as his shy nature and reluctance to take risks. This, however, he says he emerged from thanks to a religious life that helped him "let out the lion."
Both Pearce's congressional staff spokesperson and the separate spokesperson for his campaign said he was unavailable to answer questions about the book. And you might have a few of your own if you make it to the end. (JAG)