Back to School Reading List for Grownups

Forget the chaos of summer with quiet time and words that matter

The phrase "weird times" already appears in this edition of SFR at least twice. It's not such a bad place from which to jump into our annual reading list. We're living in weird times in a whole bunch of ways. Even if you suspend what feels like tumultuous social, political and environmental climates vying for our attention and action, the season itself is weird.

It's that place in time where the end of summer does feel like it's coming. Of course, public school students go back to class this week. There are sweaters for cooler mornings and paper bags full of sweating green chiles. It's still hot and sunny by mid-morning, and adventure awaits. Chaos is coming with this weekend's Indian Market and tourists galore in the city. Zozobra and Santa Fe Fiesta come close on their heels.

Yet for now, perhaps a reader can find a moment of surcease. Heavy on the nonfiction titles, this year's list includes some ways to step back. The latest from Craig Childs wanders with early humans into Paleolithic America, while former SFR staff writer Clay Bonnyman Evans goes back (but not that far back) into his grandfather's World War II experience; and Santa Fean Caroline Fraser's Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the life of early century middle-American author Laura Ingalls Wilder explores the blurry lines of truth and storytelling. Plus, more on nature, the outdoors and the tricks of society. But we don't leave you there. Catch two fiction recommendations at the end.

In the end, it's all weird.

1) Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley

Author: Corey Pein

Metropolitan Books

Author Toni Morrison once famously advised that if a book you wanted to read hadn't been written yet, you should write it yourself. Better advice in this case: Wait for journalist Corey Pein to tackle the tech industry from the inside out, shedding a blinding, unforgiving light on the impact it's had on nearly every aspect of contemporary life, from housing to journalism to democracy to the nature of work itself.

And where better to get up close and personal with 21st-century billionaire disrupters than Silicon Valley? "That warm, inviting cradle of cutthroat entrepreneurship," Pein writes, where "… any indigent fool could transform himself or herself into the contemporary manifestation of a feudal lord."

Pein figured he could head to Silicon Valley, pitch start-up ideas, become a billionaire himself, and write a book about it. The billionaire part didn't happen—perhaps, Pein opines, because trying to mix a business venture with a journalistic mission was an inherently conflicted position, particularly for a reporter like Pein who was inherently hostile toward the tech industry, having experienced its disregard for the newspaper industry it "disrupted."

Pein combines the best of gonzo journalism—engrossing narrative, colorful characterization, irony for days—with deeply reported and firsthand knowledge of the industry itself. The book jacket doesn't lie; Pein does scathing and sarcasm like nobody else, so if you enjoy that (as I do), you're in for some great reading. Consider the passage in which Pein ponders what pointless social media company he could create by tweaking Twitter or Facebook: "Tweakr? Twitter for meth enthusiasts? No … too many liabilities." And then, "What about Facebook for people without friends? I could call it … Strangebook." And on he riffs, taking the reader down a rabbit hole where there are startup companies to name your company, to even come up with an idea for your company (—check it out! It suggested I start a company that is "Basically Pandora for Semi-Active Volcanoes").

Pein captures the terrifying absurdity of it all; this reported work makes Dave Eggers' The Circle read like a children's book. But Live Work Work Work Die is more than a smackdown of technocapitalism—it's a fundamentally humanist examination of the damage done in the name of disruption when it happens in the hands of the wealthy elite, fueled by greed and self-absorption. In other words, probably a book everyone should read and consider, given the very weird times in which we are living. (Julia Goldberg)

(Disclosure: Pein was a staff writer during this writer's tenure as editor of SFR. His work also has appeared in SFR's sister paper, Willamette Week, The Baffler, Slate and numerous other publications.)

2) End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood

Author: Jan Redford


Any woman who has had a man offer to “take” her climbing, show her how best to ski the steep stuff or even presume she can’t possibly ride that downhill line knows that women haven’t yet attained equal respect in the outdoors, even if it’s no longer considered outrageous for a woman to participate at all.

When Jan Redford started rock climbing in the 1980s, though, she navigated a different landscape. She trained for a NOLS course as one of few women in that program and became a climbing instructor for the Banff Cadet Camp when Canada was just looking at certifying its first female mountain guides. In her memoir, End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood, she describes chewing tobacco, chugging beer and burping in front of men who might otherwise mistake her for ladylike, and dropping f-bombs as often as grammatically allowable to assert herself as the only woman on ski patrol at the resort where she worked. She also climbs hard on rock, ice and snow, and discovers herself at her best in all-female teams, where no man can offer to take the lead.

Climbing faces off with the competing interest of her love life—climber girlfriends were tough to come by, she writes wryly, as an excuse for her few days as a single 20-something. After a boyfriend dies while ascending a peak in Alaska, Redford finds herself grieving in the arms of his friend, then accidentally pregnant and hastily married when the course she'd hoped her life would take was back to school and work as a teacher. The ambitions of becoming a mountain climber that once saw her making repeat laps to Yosemite's granite walls are shelved in the interest of testing life as a logger's wife.

As the subtitle implies, the book is one-third about mountains and two-thirds about a difficult marriage and the challenges of balancing motherhood with the desire to build a career or even take time away from her kids to climb. What she comes away with, in the end, is a truth the peaks level at anyone who braves them, no matter their gender: Sometimes you cannot be saved; you can only save yourself. (Elizabeth Miller)

3) Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Author: Caroline Fraser

Metropolitan Books

While children over the world had already been reading her books for generations before, Laura Ingalls Wilder truly became a household name in the United States in the 1980s when viewers tuned in to the popular television series named after her early book, Little House on the Prairie. But the real-life woman wasn't always—or maybe wasn't ever—the bright-eyed, braid-wearing girl smiling from the TV set.

Santa Fe author Caroline Fraser told SFR she was stunned this spring when news broke that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for her biography of Wilder. Author of eight children's books published between 1932 and 1943 that were loosely based on her family's experiences before the turn of the century, Wilder settled down for the final chapters of her own life in southwestern Missouri. And the fact that Fraser wrote about her from Santa Fe is another rut in the long connection between that state and New Mexico. While none of the pioneers in Wilder's family traveled the Santa Fe Trail that networked the two states, they made their way out West before the turn of the century in the same fashion.

Fraser's book is a biography of Wilder, yes—but is also a multifaceted approach, focusing more on the blurry lines between truth and story and firmly putting to rest notions raised by others that Wilder's daughter Rose Wilder Lane might have penned the celebrated books. Fraser struck out, she says, to compare the myth with reality in Wilder's books. What's more, the real story of the family as Fraser tells it is the true tale of so many families who went westward-ho—a life of uncertain poverty, of risks that didn't pay off, a hardscrabble existence of people who struck out to forge the frontier and, in many ways, failed at their ambition. They're also the same families who are now grappling with their roles in the shameful history of squeezing Native people to beyond the margins in an era when few questioned Manifest Destiny and the idea of racial equality was not yet a faint glimmer.

Told with the help of letters and pencil-marked early drafts of the books, Prairie Fires is the story of one of middle America's most unlikely famous authors—and much more. (Julie Ann Grimm)

4) A Song for the River

Author: Philip Connors

Cinco Puntos Press

Rivers and landscapes run an exchange, one shaping the other as weak points are found and impermeable layers circumvented. So, too, can rivers and landscapes reshape the human lives that grow up around them, sometimes illuminating injuries and other times buttressing places about to collapse. In A Song for the River, Philip Connors braids lives and deaths over the top of southwestern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, a landscape he knows with an intimacy few individuals are lucky enough to attain, having stared at it and hiked through it for months each summer as a fire lookout. These people and this place have inspired and remade him, he writes, even as the place itself has been beset by wildfire.

A series of deaths rattled Connors and the community of which he is at times a reluctant member. A fellow fire lookout dies riding his horse through a recent burn scar, and a plane crash following an aerial tour of that same burned area kills the pilot and three high schoolers on board, including a 14-year-old advocate for saving the Gila River from a death of its own: a dam.

The book follows Connors' acclaimed Fire Season, and even while detailing crippling health concerns, a divorce and burgeoning romance, he still manages to take up that routine post, binoculars ready to track lightning strikes over ponderosa pine- and Douglas fir-covered mountain ridgelines and spot the first plumes of smoke.

In some ways, it's an unlikely alloy of subjects and acquaintances and it's not clear they ever knew one another personally, but all come within Connors' orbit as he struggles to reconcile the weight of loss and how it redirects the flow of his own life.

"This, then, is the story I owed the river and the dead," he writes.

In the accumulating grief, he curls around the notion that a wildfire is not the end, but a way of resetting a landscape, and that the forest responds not with bleak desertion but with bountiful abundance of verdant aspen saplings and booming fish populations. We hope with him that what dies in fire plants the seeds of what will follow. (EM)

5) Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America

Author: Craig Childs


Nothing puts a small, modern human quite in her place like considering hundreds of thousands of years of history. Even before I turned the last page of Atlas of a Lost World, I found myself hunched over a chunk of gray rock, scanning for creatures whose images are entombed on its pocked surface and contemplating how the scene around me was different when the first humans scampered this way. They did walk this way. Right here.

As we've come to expect from Craig Childs, he strikes a good balance between narrative adventure writing and the science of discovery, this time as he visits some of the places that hid contemporary clues about our ancient ancestors. The way he describes the natural world—the sky, the land, the plants and animals that inhabit it now and that once made their footprints and homes in it—is based in precise and practiced observation along with a healthy dose of scholarship and informed imagination.

His inclusion of personal experiences are engaging because Childs, a Southwest son with roots in New Mexico, has done things worth writing about. He canoes through the Florida swamp, skis on a mountain poking through a glacier, kayaks with his family in the arctic, brings his mother to a fishing village near the Bering land bridge, then takes no one at all for sub-sub-zero camping along a lake in Wisconsin.

With the help of explanations from a legion of experts including archaeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists and other -ists you've never heard of, his thought-provoking thesis about the way mankind spread out over the globe during the Ice Age—with adversaries in the form of giant predators and extreme weather, rather than credit card debt and political upheaval—is the kind of perspective check many of us crave. What kind of energy can we waste today emphasizing our differences, when it's possible to trace how early tool technology spread up and down what we call the Americas 25,000 years ago with surprising shared characteristics? We all arrived somehow. (JAG)

6) Bones of My Grandfather: Reclaiming a Lost Hero of World War II

Author: Clay Bonnyman Evans

Skyhorse Publishing

Bones of My Grandfather will appeal to many types of readers: World War II history buffs, for sure, but also fans of mysteries, adventure stories and personal memoir, as the book has a bit of all of these. The mystery surrounds the true fate of Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr., a Marine 1st Lieutenant who died on the island of Betio during the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific during the war. A miner living in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, Bonnyman enlisted in the Marines (he had previously served in the Army) following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He received the Medal of Honor after helping to secure the island and dying in the 1943 battle, but his body—like the bodies of hundreds of Marines from the battle—was never recovered.

Journalist Clay Bonnyman Evans grew up interested in World War II, though "strangely incurious about my grandfather, the real-life hero in my bloodline." Evans became curious, and then obsessed, when he grew up and learned that his grandfather's bones, as well as the bones of other soldiers, might have been abandoned on the island, with the US government doing little to recover them and bring peace to their families. Enter History Flight, an organization devoted to recovering American soldiers and repatriating them to the US.

Evans teamed up with History Flight, making several expeditions himself to Betio as a volunteer and chronicler of the organization's work. In May 2015, Evans was part of the archaeological team that recovered the bones of his grandfather—and 40 other soldiers' remains as well. From there, his grandfather was returned to the US for burial with full military honors. Evans' quest to not just find his grandfather's bones, but also learn the true story of his life and bring some reconciliation to his own family's unanswered questions and grief, make for a gripping read. His journalist's eye for detail, tenacity and obsessiveness propel this truly fascinating story. (JG)

Disclosure: Evans was a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter during this writer's tenure as an intern some 20-odd years ago. His work has also appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post and many other publications.

7) Godshaper

Author: Simon Spurrier

Illustrator: Jonas Goonface

BOOM! Studios

Six Gun Gorilla scribe Simon Spurrier joins forces with illustrator Jonas Goonface for Godshaper, one of the most lovingly crafted, devilishly fun and deviously clever comics series in recent memory. For reasons unknown, the laws of physics ceased to apply to the world in 1958. Now, some years down the road, the faithful citizens of planet Earth eke out simple existences with shape and power-shifting gods always at their sides. Enter Ennay, a queer traveling minstrel type and worthless no-gody (meaning, he doesn't have a god) who roams the land taking whatever jobs he can find, alongside a faithless ghost-like god named Bud who should have phased from existence from lack of worship who even knows how long ago. When Ennay and Bud get stuck with another young no-gody and unwittingly find themselves wrapped up in far-reaching mystery, life as they know it might never be the same.

Spurrier's razor-sharp writing rounds out creative characters with hip world-appropriate slang and authentic dialogue that makes them feel like real people. Godshaper's narrative transforms from slow burn into furious page-turner replete with distinct voice and ultra-fun peril at the blink of an eye. Illustrator Goonface, meanwhile, imagines a captivating world of dizzying strangeness that still feels tethered to a tenuous reality; a terrifying haunted land of oppression where queer cuties fill up juke joints and sing their hearts out and those on the fringes might be hated by society, but manage to care for one another—the occasional double-cross notwithstanding.

As Bud and Ennay come closer to unraveling the truth behind everything, we hold our breath alongside them, hating their oppressors and cheering for their allies, relating to their pitfalls and wondering how many damn hats Bud's going to collect. (Alex De Vore)

8) There There

Author: Tommy Orange

Alfred A Knopf

The debut novel from author Tommy Orange is making all the smash-hit review rounds: the New York Times, The Guardian, NPR and The Paris Review. All to be expected from a well-written and engaging first book. What's special about Orange for Santa Fe, though, is that we can kind of claim him: He recently graduated the writing MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and now teaches for the program as well.

While it's clear that Orange's roots run deep in Oakland, California, and the city is more of a character than a setting in his book, we'll still puff out our chests a bit and call him a hometown success.

The conceit of There There is not new or unique: Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character (14 in all) whose stories seem disparate until their fates intersect on a singular day. It's been done before.

What makes the book worth reading, though, is the voice: It's not only Native, but distinctly Urban Indian, unpacking the notion of Indianness in Oakland, which emerges as an unofficial rez. The author is the 15th character, appearing in sections of personal essay about Indigenous identity and American history. Moments of masterful magical realism pop up unexpectedly and with great success, never cumbersome as most attempts at the genre are.

It's a book you can fly through in a matter of days (the story is just that good), but that will stay with you long after. Not only complex and nuanced in its discussion of Indianness, it's grounded firmly in 2018 and feels relatable and relevant; Facebook, a drone and a 3-D printer are critical plot elements. Addiction, violence and tragedy are cut with chilling yet uplifting stories of perseverance, sacrifice and downright enchantment.

Every story therein remains pointedly unresolved—Orange ties no bows at the end of this one. We're left with a deep wish to know how the folks we fell in love with ended up, though Orange's competent character-building told us everything we really need to know—even if we don't want to admit it.
(Charlotte Jusinski)

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