There's no denying it now, fall is upon us: College students have amassed piles of costly textbooks, high schoolers are preparing to endure the classics, and the young ones are sitting cross-legged on the floor in the school library.
Sure, it's still going to get close to 90 degrees in the hottest part of the day, and we're weeks away from the aspen making a golden heart on the mountain, but the heyday of summer has most assuredly passed. We believe it's the perfect time to work down a list of new books.
The writers for this year's Back to Reading School List for Grown-ups were split about evenly down the middle in terms of who prefers the stiff pages of a physical copy and who would rather read on a screen—yet we're still making the case that a book is a book is a book. And we think those with regional connections are worth consideration. Most, but not all, of these fit that bill. Among the list is a short story by Northern New Mexican Rebecca Roanhorse; a memoir by Erica Elliot, a doctor who worked on the Navajo Nation; an investigation into conspiracy theories by a Santa Fe native and more.
We chose these because we enjoyed reading them. It's an eclectic mix, not unlike the mixtape from that one summer trip to the beach for which we are still pining.
So, sit down with the cat, say goodbye to summer and get to reading!
Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Power to Rise By Anna Merlan
In 2015, Santa Fe born and raised, Los Angeles- based journalist Anna Merlan spent a week on a conspiracy-themed cruise full of people she generally dismissed as nutty based on the unlikely theories they held—about everything from alien abductions to the theory that Donald Trump would inevitably win the election because unlike most politicians, he was a "truth-teller."
But in the wake of Trump's victory, as the rest of us tried to process our shell-shocked confusion while asking ourselves, "How could this happen?" Merlan, at least, had an inkling of where to look for answers.
We never thought we'd say that a book exploring the belief systems of Holocaust deniers and those peddling wack cancer cures should be required reading. Yet, through the lens of these theories emerges a clearer understanding of how we got to where we are—one that seems urgent and necessary as we move toward a second round of the Trump election cycle drama.
Republic of Lies takes us on a fascinating, mind-bending trip through some of the darkest and most far-fetched corners of America's conspiracy culture that gave us goosebumps and left us nervous for days.
Trump rode into office on a wave of white supremacist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and fake news. It was a wave that brought the alt-right nationalist agenda closer to the mainstream than it's been in decades, and also gave once fringe conspiracy peddlers a legitimate stage in the national dialogue. People like Alex Jones, for instance, whose far-right media site InfoWars has published content claiming that rape is impossible, that climate change doesn't exist, and that the families of mass-shooting victims are actors faking tragedy.
What feels particularly ironic, though, especially in a place like Santa Fe, is that one of Jones's most profitable schemes is an online alternative medicine store selling everything from common-place natural supplements to seriously sketchy remedies for life-threatening diseases.
How is it possible that alt-right extremism and new-age alternative medicine could so seamlessly overlap? With these kinds of questions, Merlan challenges our willingness to suspend disbelief when it suits us.
Because the thing is, all of us are susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. As Merlan so deftly highlights, conspiracy theories are woven into the fabric of American culture, and plague all areas of American life on both sides of the political spectrum, across all religious, socio-economic, and racial boundaries. This is partly because Americans have been subjected to true—and harrowing—conspiracies, such as the forced sterilization of African Americans and Native Americans, radiation testing on unwitting residents at mental healthcare facilities, and CIA interventions in foreign coups.
The problem is that when the very mechanisms society depends on to establish truth—science, journalism, even democracy—are undermined, when we no longer know what or who to believe, we are all the more likely turn to suspicion and self-righteousness, and sometimes, even, to extremism. Republic of Lies is a call to hold ourselves accountable for the half-truths we perpetuate and our own cozy eco-chambers. (Leah Cantor)
Mr. Know-it-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
By John Waters
Filmmaker John Waters may just be America's most precious natural resource, and he must be protected at all costs. This goes double for when he's doling out pearls of literary wisdom gleaned over a lifetime as moviemaking's most venerable filth auteur and bad taste guru, lessons from which he's happy to share in his latest book.
Waters takes great strides to look back over his storied career in lurid detail, giving up the inside info on triumphs, failures, financing and marketing bon mots as only he can—glibly and oozing with charming attitude and a near-eidetic level of recall for every last piece of work he's made.
From the days of Divine eating dog shit in 1970's Multiple Maniacs to the unexpected smashing success of 1988's Hairspray and its many offshoot iterations, Waters leaves no question unanswered, be it Johnny Depp's impact on their respective careers with 1990's Cry-Baby, who at New Line Cinema championed the beast and worst of his work, or what he thinks about Warhol, Studio 54, Patricia Hearst, Divine's death and on and on and on right up to the contemplation of his own death—after the chapter about dropping acid with Mink Stole at his Massachusetts vacation home, of course.
Presented as a guide (of sorts) to your own personal, cultural and filmmaking success, Waters' takes are raucously funny and endlessly inspiring, even in moments that feel more like filler than sincere advice. But then, he can do whatever he wants and we'll still line up to find out what it might be. Bet it'll be gross. (Alex De Vore)
The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia By Marin Sardy
The sketches Marin Sardy references in the title of her memoir inform the author's structural choices in composing the narrative of her family's history with schizophrenia. Though chaptered and composed against a chronological spine, the narrative fragments, associates and weaves together images, ideas and research into a textured and nuanced tapestry that is both deeply personal as well as universally moving.
Sardy grew up in Alaska with a mother whose slide into schizophrenia when the author was 10 created chaos throughout her childhood—a sense of pervasive unsteadiness Sardy conveys through footnotes in a chapter in which she relays and examines a childhood memory of the family balancing eggs on the equinox (a phenomena she's unable to replicate in adulthood). In another chapter, "Conversations with Family," Sardy captures her relatives' responses to questions she posed about her mother's illness, omitting the questions to allow their quotes to create the substratum of narrative.
Her brother Tom began to show signs of schizophrenia in his 20s. Sardy travels with him to Costa Rica, she writes, "so I can watch him closely and see what is happening—if it is happening." Eventually, it becomes clear that it is, indeed, happening, and continues to happen in stages over the next decade. By 2009, Tom is homeless on the streets of Anchorage, while Sardy lives in a variety of places, pursuing her work as a writer (including Santa Fe, where Sardy was an art critic for SFR).
Although her brother's suicide toward the end of the book does not come as a surprise—Sardy lays the groundwork for his death—the sense of inevitability is no less gutting. Throughout his illness, Sardy's work deepened into ongoing study and writing about mental illness (many previous essays appear in some form in this book). Though its terrain is myriad, The Edge of Every Day returns repeatedly to Sardy's quest to understand, to employ, as she writes, the theory of mind, i.e. "the capacity to imagine oneself into the mind of another" regardless of neurology. The book, as a result, is narratively compelling and exquisitely written but, perhaps more importantly, infused with love and empathy. (Julia Goldberg)
Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from his Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and A Few Respectable Souls By Silvana Paternostro
"That's why One Hundred Years of Solitude sells so much and is read so much," Cartagenan academic Margarita de la Vega says of the groundbreaking work by author Gabriel García Márquez, "… because you can be a Colombian janitor … and understand it on a level different from the level of the scholar who looks up all the references and all that nonsense." The deep Colombianness of the book is paramount, she says, and its accessibility is key to its success.
Accessibility is also key in Solitude & Company, a new book from Colombian journalist Silvana Paternostro. Pulling away from the sticky convention of scholarly study and academic rigor (though there's plenty of that in here as well), Solitude & Company is comprised entirely of interviews with those closest to the famed author as they tell the story of his writerly life. To understand the legendary figure as those interviewed do, however, we zoom even further out to explore the sociopolitical situation in Colombia throughout García Márquez' life, as well as zoom in to his family history to better understand the world from which he came.
"He was defensively simple," says Emmanuel Carballo, Mexican academic and friend of García Márquez. "He seemed like anything but a writer. … He didn't speak a language filled with literary figures and exquisite words, he spoke the way everybody else does. In fact, he played at being so simple that he disarmed the pedants."
These are the kinds of voices we consistently hear in the book: Those who drank with Gabo, who laughed with him, who sat with him while his wife racked up deep debt at the grocer as he took 18 months off work to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. ("Now all we need is for that novel to be a piece of shit," grumbled Mercedes, aka Ms. Gabo, according to close friend of the author Guillermo Angulo.)
It's a unique glimpse into the life of a man who has become as much a myth as the magical stories he penned, as only someone like Paternostro could have crafted over decades of dedication.
Hot tip: Don't miss the glossary of speakers in the back. You will lose track of who's who, but page 330 has your back. (Charlotte Jusinski)
Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People By Erica M Elliott, MD
When I first read Dr. Erica Elliott's memoir in April of this year, I wrote for SFR: "By page six of Medicine and Miracles, I had already emailed [the author] to request an interview. By the 10th page, I was in tears. Four hours later, I'd finished Elliott's memoir of her time as a white woman teaching, herding sheep and practicing medicine on the Navajo Reservation in the 1970s and '80s." My love affair with the book and my fondness for the speaker presented therein has not diminished since this initial rush of excitement.
I was ready for the story to be as problematic as one would expect a white woman's memoir of her time in Navajo country to be, but there was not a single whiff of benevolent missionary or white savior in its 181 pages. From tales of incredible healing ceremonies to her adventures in Canyon de Chelly with her students' families, Elliott vibrantly describes her experiences thanks in large part to detailed journals she kept at the time (this book covers 1971 to 1976, with a sort of epilogue touching upon 1976 to 1988). One of the reasons Elliott says she chose to tell the stories now, 40 years later, is because "I can't go around my whole life holding in this story; it's too important." What held her back for so long was a fear that no one would believe her—but perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures.
Elliott takes an unflinching look at her own shortcomings when it came to her adjustment to Navajo lifestyle and desert life, and paints a complex picture of the people who welcomed her onto their land.
While she was deeply connected with the folks she spent time with in Chinle, the story takes occasional dark turns as well, as she and a friend are assaulted while out on the town and neighbors gathered outside her bathroom window to watch her showering silhouette move across the panes. She is not purely ignorant or perfect, and the people she meets are not purely wise or troublesome; everyone in this book is a prismatic, complicated human being, and Elliott does them all justice—including herself. (CJ)
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color Edited by Nisi Shawl
People of color have been largely absent from mainstream fiction, both as main characters and authors. Editor Nisi Shawl aims to remedy that, bringing together 17 unique stories written by authors of color in New Suns, an anthology of works that fall under the speculative fiction genre.
Even if you've never heard the phrase "speculative fiction," you're familiar with the genre; it's an umbrella category encompassing any work of fiction that contains elements that do not exist within the real world. Think fantasy, horror, supernatural, superhero, fairytales or science fiction.
Filled with fascinating stories of new worlds, the offerings in the collection are as diverse as its writers. Notably, New Suns features a story by award-winning Northern New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse, who has made a name for herself in the speculative fiction genre with her Sixth World book series (start with Trail of Lightning if you want to give that series a try).
For her part, Roanhorse, whose heritage is Ohkay Owingeh and African American, gives a modern-day imagining of the legendary "deer woman" of Native American mythology in the story "Harvest." Roanhorse's version finds a young Native American woman, Tansi, seduced by the siren-like deer woman and persuaded into a macabre revenge plot on her behalf. Though one of the shorter offerings in the book, "Harvest" is a definite page-turner.
Furthering the local connection, New Mexico serves as home for Tansi, a culinary student living in New York.
Other stories in the book include Tobias S Buckell's "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex," which imagines a future Manhattan as a top tourist destination for extraterrestrial visitors. "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath," by Darice Little Badger (Lipan Apache) is another story that borrows from the writer's Indigenous supernatural lore, where the main character rounds up lost souls of the dead with her ghost dog.
Every story in the book might not speak to you—and that's ok—but you're sure to find something that captures your attention. (Nicole Madrid)
Penny Nichols By MK Reed, Greg Means and Matt Wiegle
When an aimless temp with serious sibling issues and a seemingly hollow existence meets a cadre of indie horror movie buffs by happenstance, she's thrust into their shoestring world of amateur filmmaking, a world in which she finally belongs.
MK Reed's graphic novel Penny Nichols is all at once charming, hysterical, true to life and moving as a portrait of modern, shiftless, late-stage millennial madness unfolds: a place where those of a certain age might peer in and see themselves, and a place where anyone else will be glad just to tag along.
Reed's sharp, incisive dialogue melds brilliantly with Means and Wiegle's punk-rock shtick and memorable design. Each character feels all too real, like someone we know, from the overly-passionate but under-prepared director to the sleep-deprived FX wiz kid who's shipping off to college as soon as the film wraps.
But as our heroine navigates the flakes and freaks, creatives and naysayers in her path, she slowly rediscovers some part of herself long thought lost, where someplace between the exploding heads, the gallons of blood and the wheelchair theft, she finds a home.
Penny Nichols thus becomes a masterful new-school testament to creative drive and ambition—or the completely valid lack thereof—and a reminder that just because we haven't yet found our thing, that doesn't mean it isn't out there. Just think of how good it'll feel once it arrives. (ADV)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous By Ocean Vuong
This first novel book by award-winning Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong had us weeping and lusting in public and praying in private to the mystery and magic of being alive.
Presented as a letter written by a Vietnamese son to his mother who cannot read, the narrative begins as an emotional excavation of the tangled personal and political histories that led to the family's immigration to the US and protagonist Little Dog's experience growing up in a gritty East Coast city with an illiterate mother, absent father, and schizophrenic grandmother.
As the story unfolds, it simultaneously reveals itself as a love letter to a boy who will never get the chance to read it— in a breathtaking and erotic account of first love through queer eyes.
And ultimately, because the letter will never reach its intended recipients, the narrative discovers itself as a love letter that Little Dog is writing to himself in a powerful testament to the art of writing as an act of healing and becoming.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous renders the political deeply personal through a narrative that ultimately speaks to truths experienced by a generation of young Americans who struggle to define themselves against oppressive gender norms, institutionalized racism, socioeconomic inequality, violence and addiction. Propelled by both heartache and hope, it is a rare accomplishment that breathes with the living pulse of the here and now. (LC)
The River By Peter Heller
Western writers in modern times are still hanging on to the tropes that other Westerners seem to cling to. We just can't seem to get enough of rafting and climbing and wild animals and wildfires. So Peter Heller's fourth novel with an adventurous twist fits right in.
Much like in The Painter, Heller writes ample flyfishing and riffling rapids into this one, but also a heavy dose of fear and danger from at least two unpredictable adversaries—the fire and the other men on the river. The story joins two friends on a chilly and isolated canoe trip that quickly heats up. Heller's nature-heavy hand keeps the reader with them in the woods, under the colors of the sky and the above the dipping paddles.
The window into survival and backcountry first-aid is riveting, as is the undercurrent that brings college pals Jack and Wynn to this point. It's the kind of book you can sail through in a weekend. While Heller did lead his last effort, Celine, with a female character, he's clearly more adept at looking through the eyes of men. The pair has planned an epic trip and is well-prepared, though some of what prepared Jack and shaped his worldview is downright devastating. The story undeniably echoes Deliverance, sans dueling banjos and plus a mysterious woman. For Heller's men, he writes, "maybe there was a heavy place like a stone inside each of them," and it's that tension, and their estimation of each other, that makes them feel real and won't let us look away. (Julie Ann Grimm)
The Past is Never By Tiffany Quay Tyson
It's still mindblowing that private DNA databases can help people find long-lost relatives and trace their ancestry by hundreds of years or a single generation. But a mere quarter-century ago, grainy photographs and family folklore were some of the only ways to get information about those who came before you. How much do those bloodlines and geographies define us? How much more do our ideas of ourselves and our families form our identities?
Denverite Tiffany Quay Tyson's The Past is Never doesn't tiptoe across these topics, she runs straight through them with mud-caked boots from the swamps of the Everglades.
It's easy to let her vision of the sweltering South into the edges of imagination in this novel that harkens to Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner (the title, in fact, is a partial quote from the latter) with a few hints of poverty a la Jeannette Walls. Not too syrupy, but more substantial in its imagery than just the sweet tea its characters prefer to drink, Quay Tyson's prose is easy to read even if some of the plot twists are painful.
The tale centers around two sibling pairs—both brother and sister—in two different times, but the very same rural Mississippi Delta town and its menacing quarry, nearly a character itself. Part detective drama, part ghost story, it's a fast read that we still want to linger over. And with today's awful American social regression toward bigotry and racism, the explorations of whiteness and blackness and the always in-between are on point.
Quay Tyson's grasp of the territory where she grew up is so firm that the book earned the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction this year. Grab it. (JAG)