Cover Stories

Back to School Reading List for Grown-ups

For those ready to turn the page

To our minds, the black-eyed Susans dotting the highways signal New Mexico is on the cusp of fall. If the promise of impending crispness gives you a hearty appetite to sink your teeth into the tower of books that’s accumulated on your bedside table (or kitchen table, or armchair, or the edge of your bathtub) well, we feel the same.

It’s been a banner year for the readers and writers in town with the first-ever Santa Fe Literary Festival, rumblings of a new library branch and the debut of SFR’s literature column, “The Bookshelf.” But if there’s one thing we know about bibliophiles, it’s that they’re always ready to turn the next page. And the next.

So, we present a buffet of literary morsels for your reading pleasure (no sneeze guard necessary).

Among them, an Indigenous-led collection of essays, poetry and more exploring lessons from the year 2020; a forthcoming work by former US Sen. Jeff Bingaman; an encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico that will make a trusty companion for autumnal day trips and rambles through landscapes you might think are familiar, but there’s always more to learn. And—save room for dessert—a proud showing of Gothic horror with a New Mexican (and Mexican) twist.

Cozy up with your tea and toasted, buttered currant buns, plus cat (if applicable), and enjoy our recommendations. (Annabella Farmer)


The Cherry Robbers

By Sarai Walker

May 2022, Harper Books

As you delve into the first chapter of The Cherry Robbers, you may begin to experience a curious sense of déjà vu. The narrator, who calls herself Sylvia Wren, is a famously reclusive artist—a painter, in fact, and one who loves to paint flowers (or are they vulvas?) A painter who lives in Abiquiú, New Mexico. A painter whose home overlooks “the Cerro Pedernal in the distance.”

Just when you start getting comfy in this parallel universe with a Sylvia Wren-shaped hole into which the reality of Georgia O’Keeffe has mysteriously vanished, you learn that O’Keeffe isn’t the only mysterious vanisher in the novel. You’re swept into Wren’s secret, early life in 1950s Connecticut, the second-youngest of six sisters who are heiresses to a firearms fortune.

Her name, in those days, is Iris Chapel. She and her sisters live with their father—Henry Chapel, of Chapel Firearms—and their mother, Belinda, who lives a haunted life, grappling with the legacy of violence and conquest that goes with gun manufacturing in America. She’s haunted by the spirits of those killed by Chapel weapons. This haunting intertwines with her loathing for her husband, whom she considers personally responsible for their deaths—he’s at “a slight remove from every pull of a Chapel trigger.”

It’s a theme that hints at, but never really confronts the violence of the American narrative. Walker alludes to the genocide of Indigenous peoples, but the thread seems unfinished in comparison to what feels like the central premise of the book: Being in a cishet relationship will kill you, physically and/or spiritually.

Iris and her sisters are bound by a fairytale curse:

“The Chapel sisters:

first they get married

then they get buried.”

It’s a reflection of female sexuality in a patriarchal society, and it conjures a claustrophobic feeling of inevitable self-loss, whether literal or metaphorical. Tension builds on the question: Will any of the sisters escape? (Hint: be here, be queer, you might avoid a fate most drear).

As for the authentic New Mexico-ness of it all—don’t hate it for the flaws. Have fun picking apart the details of local life that ring false: For instance, when Wren—or Chapel—orders two green chile cheeseburgers from Lotaburger. Good. But, she describes them as “cheeseburgers with extra green chiles.” And, strike us dead if the words “the rains have been terrible today” have ever passed the lips of a Santa Fean. C’mon, Walker.

The Cherry Robbers still drips with atmosphere, intrigue and fun for fans of Gothic horror. (Annabella Farmer)

Gay Giant

By Gabriel Ebensperger

June 2022, Street Noise

By the time you reach the bazillionth ‘90s pop culture reference in artist/writer Gabriel Ebensperger’s stirring new autobiographical graphic novel, Gay Giant, you’ll likely need to be a certain age to fully relate. If you are of that certain age and ilk (millennial, really), you’ll certainly feel charmed by Ebensperger’s recollections of MTV, radio, toys, cartoons (Jem!), family, jobs, albums (Cher! Alanis!), romance apps—life, generally—as a means of conveying how he came to be OK with himself.

This is no exhaustive (read, exhausting) Ready Player One-style list of checked boxes, however. Instead, Ebensperger recounts how his love of song, Barbies and lady entertainers led him to some of the more profound epiphanies of his life; there is also perhaps no better way to connect with millennials than slyly nodding to Totoro maybe-sorta-but-totally being queer. Oh, and the illustrations are adorable.

Ebensperger grew up gay in Chile, no easy feat in the 1990s, or even now, and to make matters worse in his eyes, he grew up huge—a giant, almost. Despite the homophobic leanings of his immediate and extended families and a broader world still coming to terms with queer folks’ place in humanity, Ebensperger managed to reach his sexual awakening, and he brings us along for the ride with good cheer, good humor and obvious heart.

In the book’s subtler moments, we observe a kind of heartbreak compounded by self-loathing, but in its more hopeful and/or meaningful beats, find instead a journey to self-respect. At its core, Gay Giant weaves inspiration into seemingly commonplace moments such as quitting one’s job, kissing a boy for the first time, even learning to masturbate. In these pockets of storytelling, Ebensperger could be speaking for any of us who traveled a more scenic route in discovering our sexuality. Think of Gay Giant like a damning yet roundabout way of challenging heterosexuality as a default setting. Frankly? It’s just plain not, and the queers have always led that important charge.

And so you fall in love with the idea of a man while recounting your own media-propelled tales. If only millennials had access to such an important queer tale when we were coming up, we could have avoided all that socially constructed gender and sexuality bullshit. Ebensperger might just be a hero. (Alex De Vore)

Woman of Light

By Kali Fajardo-Anstine

June 2022, One World/ Penguin Random House

As Luz gazes into the bottom of a tea cup, the leaves inspire her gift of sight about the person who has just consumed the tea. Yet, she can’t seem to settle enough on either her visions of the past or her premonitions about the future to put her own mind at ease. It’s 1933 and she’s the fourth of five generations that comprise the spine of Woman of Light, set in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

It’s the second book for Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose collection of stories Sabrina & Corina was a 2019 finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of an American Book Award. She’s the endowed chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University and, according to the book’s acknowledgements, spent time in New Mexico as a teenager and counts former state historian Estevan Rael-Galvez as a “long lost cousin.”

Taking on that many generations and hundreds of miles might make for a laborious narrative in other hands, but Fajardo-Anstine sketches her characters in a way that lets readers trace them effortlessly through time and space, holding constantly to the arc of Luz. Now, she is a small girl wearing moccasins; now, she’s a young woman riding a bus to the Anglo side of town to look for work; always, she’s the granddaughter of a sharpshooting circus performer.

Her aunt, Marie Josie, mothers Luz and her brother, Diego, in her sister’s absence, wears men’s suits on dress-up occasions and works in a mirror factory. Her cousin, Lizette, is a laundress and dressmaker with a dream wedding on her mind. Fajardo-Anstine unfolds the details of their lives and their conversations as intricately as hidden clasps and double seams, hitting hard on themes of an emerging corner of feminism and rendering women’s stories in their complexity.

The reading might be effortless, but it’s also painful: 1930s Denver is wrought with racial, gender and economic divides that leave Luz and her family struggling for survival. Underlying this plot that stretches back to 1868 is another family, Greeks whose patriarch runs a corner store and whose up-and-comer is a lawyer with a penchant to fight for the underdog. While the men in the story aren’t all villains, their bruises are apparent. We wanted to savor the story, but we kept ravenously reading, the familiar places and suspenseful emotion compelling us to turn the pages of what’s undoubtedly a part of the new Western canon. (Julie Ann Grimm)

The Hacienda

By Isabel Cañas

May 2022, Berkley

We’re guessing that if you’ve got an interest in New Mexico history, you’ve got a connected interest to the larger history of Mexico. Even if you’re not blown away by the new work from Isabel Cañas, it’s hard not to be charmed by its unique setting.

In the early 1820s, Mexico’s short-lived emperor Iturbide was overthrown. Fleeing the chaos overtaking Mexico City, young Beatriz marries Rodolfo and flees to his hacienda, San Isidro. Let’s just say it’s a fixer-upper. Yet her determination to transform the bleak land into a personal paradise is stopped in its tracks as angry spirits begin to whisper in her dreams and visit upon Beatriz various psychological torments. With little sympathy and even fewer options, Beatriz turns to a young (hot) priest named Andrés to help cast the demons from her home forever. And oh yeah, you can bet hot priest has some secrets, too.

From the get-go, The Hacienda is clearly aimed at more casual readers. It’s not exactly built for the folks who are in between annual Victor Hugo readings, yet it offers a great opportunity for younger literary-aspirants to take that leap from young adult lit into the gothic sphere, or into the delights offered by magical realism. Want a classic haunted house tale, mixed with a Gaslight-like influence? You’re right at home here.

One can wager most Americans aren’t entirely knowledgeable about the 19th century Mexican caste system, and how the hacienda system propped up illegitimate governments and military dictatorships in the name of profit. Even less known are the poor folks who did (or were coerced into) the labor. The Hacienda doesn’t skimp on these points, much to its credit. Cañas crafts a story that can only work in this time and place: A time when revolutionary ideas are lapping up on Mexico’s shores, but superstition still holds sway over the country’s agrarian interior.

The Hacienda, as a debut, isn’t perfect, but perhaps it’ll strike a chord with its casual target demographic. But it’s a wonderful starting place for people who want to step into Latin American lit but not be so dedicated to works like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of Spirits. As suckers for anything in 19th century Mexico—and even worse for classic tales of spooky ghosts who float around and cause mischief—we were sold. Also, you can support POC female authors to help you feel a little better inside and to help smash that white-dominated publishing industry. At least a little bit. (Riley Gardner)


New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis

Edited by Alastair Lee Bitsóí and Brooke Larsen

November 2021, Torrey House Press

The year 2020 will go down in infamy as one that brought a worldwide pandemic, a rapidly intensifying climate crisis and nationwide reckonings with racial injustice. It’s one that many of us would prefer to forget. But New World Coming—edited by Alastair Lee Bitsóí and Brooke Larsen—is our call to remember that time, what led us there and where we hope we’re going next.

Weaving together essays, poetry, storytelling and interviews, New World Coming presents a multi-perspectival glimpse into communities’ grief over pandemic and climate losses. All contributors are from, live in, or have ancestral connections to the Southwest.

The collection is structured to reflect the phases of the moon—the first section, New Moon, focuses on themes of history, blood memory, ancestry and roots. What brought us here, and what do we carry with us? What is painful, hopeful, and what needs to be remembered?

The second—Quarter Moon—zeroes in on the year 2020.

“The pandemic has been a magnifying glass showing all of the cracks, all of the inequities that have been here not only in Indian Country but across the US,” writes Ahjani Yepa, Utah Diné Bikeyah Pueblo community outreach coordinator.

Unfortunately, much of this awakening now feels like a dim memory, as does the hope engendered by facing these issues during the early stages of the pandemic.

The introspection and recognition of the problems facing targeted communities and our planet felt like a turning point, but now, even as the the Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health emergency, many have succumbed to the siren song of “normalcy.”

Phoenix-based activist Irene Franco Rubio writes that “Activism became trendy in 2020, but to truly dismantle systems of oppression and build a more just and caring future, everyone must continue to remain involved, vigilant, aware and socially conscious,” and the late cripplepunk activist Psarah Johnson adds an admonishment to not “fuel your economy by throwing the disabled, chronically ill and elderly under the bus.”

The third section, Full Moon, looks to the future and “illuminates what new stories, systems, and ways of being we are birthing,” write Bitsóí and Larsen, urging us to create nourishing stories that will carry us into a new paradigm.

“To address the climate crisis,” Nicole Horseherder, executive director of environmental group Tó Nizhóní Ání, writes, “the greatest thing that needs to change is our mindset. We are good at lying to ourselves. We have to change our priorities and what we value.” (AF)\

Inheritance, An Autobiography of Whiteness

By Baynard Woods

June 2022, Legacy Lit

Years before I cracked the pages of Inheritance, An Autobiography of Whiteness, I met its author as he played the charming host to a gathering of journalists with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Later, I published his work in SFR, and tore through a book he co-authored about police corruption, I’ve Got a Monster. But when I started reading Baynard Woods’ memoir, I wasn’t sure I liked the guy that much after all.

It’s a courageous move for an author to lead readers along a path to self discovery when what he has discovered is the way in which he has benefited from white privilege and been a party to the systems of oppression that put people of color at a distinct disadvantage in American society.

Yet, the more I read, the more I came to respect his holding of the mirror, and I concluded my gut reaction to turn away was a dive from the same reflection he offers, that “whiteness is an institutionalized skulduggery performed by actors largely unaware of our roles. We don’t even know we are wearing masks, but we are…still responsible for the crimes committed beneath their cover.” My cringey initial dislike was probably the precise reaction he sought in the writing. Rather than leave the work of labeling to the aggrieved, he takes a “slow journey toward understanding how my whiteness worked,” from juvenile delinquency to social and moral infractions and economic advantages.

Woods’ memoir is about half coming-of-age and half having arrived at an age where introspection seems timely. New Mexico readers may be especially interested in his years here for grad school at the University of New Mexico, but the book is much more centered in the South, where he grew up, and in Baltimore, where he labored as a journalist at the Baltimore City Paper, and in Washington DC, where he was a teacher.

Not only does Woods recount his up-close coverage after Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray and ignited an uprising, and of right-wing extremism in Charlottesville, Virginia, he also takes readers to the inner oval at a NASCAR race; inside a plantation house that’s still in his family; and through his recollections of painful and befuddling conversations with his father. From the Civil War and South Carolina resistance to Reconstruction through Obama, then Trump’s presidential elections to COVID-19, the book’s contemporary setting sits on necessary historical roots, he writes, “in an effort to make myself really think about what this horrible past means to me, what it means to us, collectively, and especially to all the people who are not white and are harmed by our unexamined whiteness.” (JAG)

Breakdown: Lessons for a Congress in Crisis

By Jeff Bingaman

October 2022, High Road Books/ University of New Mexico Press

Once upon a time, members of Congress understood they needed to negotiate and compromise for the government to function. No, this is not a fairytale, but the launch-point for a new book by former US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat elected to represent New Mexico in 1983, regarding his 30 years in that chamber. Bingaman left office in 2013 and notes, in his introduction, the dysfunction he traces to 1995 has only increased in the years since he left. Granted, the last two years have included notable accomplishments by Congress (the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, for instance). Still, no one would argue that Congress (or any branch of the federal government, for that matter) has overcome its predilection toward dysfunction.

Bingaman, as anyone who has ever encountered him would attest, is hardly an alarmist prone to hyperbole. And his book lays out the trajectory of increasing dysfunction with measured prose, details and no shortage of charts. Bingaman identifies early in the book Congress’ top duties: raising revenue; appropriating money; permitting the Treasury secretary to borrow as needed to meet government obligations; and, in the Senate, presidential nominations. He then walks the reader through specific examples of how members of Congress (mostly but not strictly Republicans) have thwarted those obligations by shutting down the government; threatening to default on the national debt; and, in the Senate, abusing the filibuster and refusing to consider the president’s nominees to the US Supreme Court.

This dysfunction, Bingaman persuasively and exhaustively argues, prevents Congress from meeting the challenges across a variety of sectors from the economy to the climate to health care to international relations.

He also puts forth itemized suggestions for how Congress can overcome the tactics that have led to its dysfunction. Those include eliminating the filibuster in the US Senate; adopting a rule that requires the Judiciary Committee and the Senate to consider a president’s judicial nominations, among various ideas for avoiding government shutdowns and threats to default on the debt ceiling.

While Bingaman directs his suggestions for improvement directly to Congress, his book overall would make useful reading for anyone interested in truly understanding how government works. And why it matters.

“As I look back over the last 30 years, many of the arguments that have consumed our time here in the Senate…have divided between those who saw government as the problem and those who believed that it could and should be a constructive force for helping the American people deal with problems,” Bingaman said in his farewell speech to the Senate (reprinted in the book). He goes on to say he considers himself “firmly in the second camp.” Breakdown demonstrates that commitment. (Julia Goldberg)

Encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico

By Mark H Cross

August 2022, Caminito Publishing

New arrivals, long-time locals with frequent visitors and admirers of the region’s history and nuance are just part of the intended audience for the Encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico; the book would also make for great pre-vacation reading and help even an old pro on a few local points. The 2012 version of the encyclopedia has been a go-to resource on many a journalist’s desk and teacher’s bookshelf for good reason, and the new 10th anniversary edition publishing this month doesn’t disappoint.

Author Mark H Cross hits on all the high points, starting with one of the nation’s longest-running lawsuits (the Aamodt litigation) and concluding with the most populous of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos (you guessed it, Zuni). Cross moved to Santa Fe in 1996 and spent more than a decade working on the first edition.

Those picking it up for a second time will find plenty of updated entries. For example, Bonanza Creek Ranch, where “the operation received sad national publicity in 2021 when a supposedly unloaded prop revolver fired by actor Alec Baldwin killed one person and injured another.” And, former Gov. Susana Martinez, whose two terms running from 2011 till 2019 included an infamous pizza party at the Eldorado Hotel in 2015, where, Cross writes, “Martinez was argumentative with hotel staff and the police dispatcher when police responded to a noise complaint. Responding officers described the governor as ‘inebriated.’”

Cross includes lots of unsurprising important dates, but he’s also added a timeline under the heading “protest” that explains “recent years have seen a wave of protests by a disparate group of young people objecting to New Mexico’s traditional historical narrative.” We’ll say! It begins with the 2015 silent protest during the Entrada and ends with the 2020 toppling of the Plaza obelisk.

We’re also big fans of the pronunciation guides, not just po-bray-SEE-toe, but also HINE-rick and MAD-rid. And don’t forget a host of maps and charts that range from average monthly rainfall to metropolitan statistical area population figures, plus biographical sketches of politicians, writers, artists and other figures; phrases that have become part of the lexicon, such as former Gov. Bruce King’s “box of Pandoras” gaffe and former Mayor Debbie Jaramillo’s “just off the bus”; and even other books such as Pen LaFarge’s Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and the undeniably critical Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, published by the Sierra Club.

Whether you read it cover to cover or use it as a reference guide, this one is a keeper. (JAG)

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