Books for adult reading – Santa Fe Reporter reviews


First published 10 August 2021, Santa Fe Reporter, New Mexico, USA

[ Editor’s note: After these months of focus on waxing and waning pandemic articles, I was grateful for a moment to read the SFR’s review of books, and particularly intrigued by the Ben Rhodes book, After the Fall, Being American in the World We’ve Made. Then, I searched for a bio of Rhodes and this story came up on Wikipedia.

“Personal attack: In 2017, it was alleged that Israeli private intelligence agency Black Cube attempted to manufacture incriminating or embarrassing information about Rhodes and his wife, as well as about fellow former National Security Council staffer Colin Kahl, in an apparent effort to undermine supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. Rhodes said of the incident, ‘This just eviscerates any norm of how governments should operate or treat their predecessors and their families. It crosses a dangerous line.’ The effort continued well after the Obama administration ended. [Shear, Michael D.; Bergman, Ronen (May 7, 2018). ‘Opponents of Iran Deal Hired Investigators to Dig Up Dirt on Obama Aide’]”

I find that giving advice is beyond my ability, indeed almost beyond anyone’s ability these days. America’s classic “umbrella society” is enduring its very own trail of tears with the impending loss of our treasured specialness or collective complacency as we face another period of bio-social uncertainty and brace ourselves against, well, you name it.

Hiking north of Santa Fe in the 1990s

In the fictional series, The Crown, the Princess Anne character confronts her fictional mother, the Queen with a pressing question, “Is that it… Do nothing? Is that the advice? Stick it out. Persevere?”

The Queen character advises, “These things usually pass if you have the patience to wait.”

I love her character’s strength and forebearance as expressed, but I don’t think Americans have the luxury of doing nothing. We must pose the urgent question, have we given our kids and grandkids the tools needed for emotional survival in the Virtual Age?

How can we convey optimism?

There is no retreat to the last century. And there is no honorable surrender to the robot adversary, as not everything is a “helper robot,” notwithstanding that AI refrigerator who reminds you when you’ve left the Stilton cheese in the far corner of the bottom shelf just one year too long.

Hiking north of Santa Fe

What special part of humanity can effectively survive in a world of Zoom meetings? Kristin Radtke’s Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness provides a touchstone for our times. It’s the remembrance and feeling of community that helps us plan and forge an uncharted social path, this is where we find ourselves right now, tacking in uncharted waters. How do we find truth, while on a path. Sometimes that proverbial trail marker just has to resonate in your gut… Erica P. Wissinger ]


By Alex De Vore; Julia Goldberg; Julie Ann Grimmand; Riley Gardner; David Campbell Lozuaway-McComsey; Bella Davis; William Melhado; and Molly Boyle

We will admit it. No one at SFR is ready for summer to be over. Not at all…

The Back to School Reading List for Grownups is a regular annual feature intended … to signal that reading to learn things and escape shouldn’t be relegated to sunshine and lounge chairs. But, if you’ve read this far, we’re pretty sure you already know that. Even if you’re not a 10-books-in-one-season kind of reader, there’s something here for you, too.

Choose a few titles from this compilation of new and new-ish books… Some… take on topics that are deeply concerning for the nation and the world (think opioid epidemic, climate change, immigration.)

Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan

By Gregg Turner

August 2021, Rare Bird Lit

For those rare few Santa Feans who don’t know bonafide punk rock royalty resides in Santa Fe, let it be known that Angry Samoans co-founder Gregg Turner has called our hamlet home since 1993—but before that, he was a driving force in the very California band that waxed poetic about Hitler’s cock (among various other eyebrow-raising lyrical feats). These days, Turner’s more of a retired math professor following a tenured stint at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, but just as he had a way with words in the 1980s, so, too, does Turner now in his debut book, Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan.

Fair warning: It’s gonna get weird…  (Alex De Vore)

After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made

By Ben Rhodes

June 2021, Random House

Six years of global chaos has left Americans asking what the hell is going on everywhere. After The Fall offers an explanation for the common person who might have a vague understanding of things outside our borders, but wants to dig a little deeper. In short, why does it feel like the world is falling apart?

Author Ben Rhodes (who worked in the National Security Administration under Obama) takes us down a handful of distinct regions in the world where democracy is backsliding into authoritarianism, blind nationalism and violent dictatorships with a dash of coup attempts to spice things up…

Rhodes is openly critical of himself, his former boss and the decisions made by both political parties. This isn’t a feel-good #resistance read, but a clear cut explanation of why the world seems to be splitting apart at the seams and how we Americans set fire to a dried forest. (Riley Gardner)

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

By Patrick Radden Keefe

April 2021, Doubleday

The opioid crisis has left no community unscathed. New Mexico’s health department in 2019 found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed reported they knew someone who was or has been addicted to opioids, such as oxycodone, codeine, morphine, heroin and fentanyl…

And last month, 15 states…struck an agreement with Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, for a settlement of at least $4.5 billion and resolution of thousands of opioid cases (from 1999–2019, nearly 500,000 people died from an overdose involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Empire of Pain delves into the history of the family behind Purdue Pharma: the Sacklers, a dynastic three-generation clan known for their wealth—Forbes listed them at $10.8 billion in worth last year—and philanthropy, particularly in the arts.

Keefe set out, he writes, not to detail the opioid crisis, but to tell the saga of a family and “the ways in which it changed the world, a story about ambition, philanthropy, crime and impunity, the corruption of institutions, power, and greed.” In this, he succeeds, in a compelling if occasionally exhaustive narrative detail. But if one reads hoping for any sense of personal culpability among these people, one will be disappointed. (Julia Goldberg)

Under a White Sky

By Elizabeth Kolbert

February 2021, Crown

It’s a close tie between the electrified river and aerosolized-diamond atmosphere for the winner of the most bizarre solution to an environmental crisis.

As the natural world faces an onslaught of climate-related disasters, brought on by human activities, concerned scientists around the world are working doubletime to avoid environmental collapse. The stories of these wizards take center stage in Under the White Sky, another compelling climate-inspired book from The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert does a wonderful job of making her readers even more anxious about the climate crisis—if that was possible. She also excels at placing the crisis in context of global leaders’ insufficient efforts to address climate change.

The task gets support from genetic engineers, microbiologists, atmospheric entrepreneurs and others who understand that reducing emissions will not be enough to mitigate climate change and stop Louisiana from dissolving. Instead, these scientists have taken a DIY approach to engineering a future that looks different from the present, while trying to preserve some things that society holds dear: endangered pupfish, the Great Barrier Reef and New Orleans.

Kolbert’s elegant, human reporting keeps readers hooked while she lays out some pretty sophisticated science… (William Melhado)

Send a Runner: A Navajo Honors the Long Walk

By Edison Eskeets and Jim Kristofic

April 2021, University of New Mexico Press

…Kristofic’s books about Rez life come from the perspective of an Anglo kid who grew up there (Navajos Wear Nikes) and Ekseets—well, he is there, born of the four directions that frame the sense of place for his Diné kin. The authors pass the baton back and forth, their relay race in book form…

The book’s subtitle might suggest a retracing of the terrible steps upon which the US government sent the Navajo people—from the land officials said would be theirs forever to a barren tract… in what is now the southeastern reach of the state of New Mexico. Thousands of people died on the way there, after they arrived and on the treacherous return home in the late 1890s.

Eskeets, however, sets about to honor the lives of his forebears with what he called a “ceremonial run” from Canyon de Chelly in the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation to Santa Fe, staying far from Kit Carson’s Fort Sumner and ending with soft words at the Plaza…

And yet, the book is about running too—not just the history of how running contributed to communication between tribal groups, but in a sprint right to the present… He prays. He breathes. He listens. He shakes a rattle. He dances. He’s alive and, despite efforts to extinguish them, so are his people. (Julie Ann Grimm)

Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth

By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford

June 2021, Penguin/Random House

…In Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, three sons of Texas confront the creation myth of the “shrine of Texas liberty.” For nearly two centuries, amateur historians, pop culture and Texans hell-bent on celebrating whiteness have helped propagate a heroic American tale: Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Barrett Travis and their Anglo-American homies died after 13 days fighting the Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio.

They croaked so Sam Houston could defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto six weeks later, securing Texan independence with the rallying cry of “Remember the Alamo!”

The true story is, of course, much more complex…

Among the facts scrubbed from the historical record? The “criminally overlooked” Tejanos of San Antonio and South Texas not only fought alongside the Anglo rebels, but were some of the first to spark the Texas Revolt.

Just why were the white Texans—whose illegal immigration to Texas was a problem that Mexicans, in a 21st-century irony, were trying to limit—so hell-bent on fighting Santa Anna’s troops? Slavery, of course. The booming cotton industry down south represented a primo economic opportunity for the new residents, who needed slaves to work the land, and the Mexican government was anti-slavery.

[The Alamo]: “Its legends comprise the beating heart of Texas exceptionalism, the idea, deeply held among generations of Texans, that the state is special, somehow a cut above the Delawares and Rhode Islands of the world,” the authors write. That kind of pride is all well and good (and insidious and dangerous, too)… As Isaac Asimov said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” (Molly Boyle)


Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness

By Kristin Radtke

July 2021, Penguin/Random House

Have you ever hired a professional cuddler for a snuggle? Have you dedicated a song on the radio to someone far away? Are your posts on social media a true representation of who you are? All of us experience alone time, but what makes us lonely? …

“Loneliness will be classified as an epidemic by 2030.”

…After more than a year of COVID-19, people are finally truly considering the trauma of social isolation and the detrimental effects of loneliness on our health with grave seriousness. How can we recover from this trauma and find our way back to each other? Radtke goes on to reveal how the myth of American individualism and the prevalence of lonely cowboy characters in popular film and television properties warp our sense of reality; the epidemic of loneliness also fuels aggression, terror and mass shootings.

Radtke even digs into the horrific social deprivation and attachment experiments conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow on young monkeys to illustrate the desperate need animals have to be touched and loved… (ADV)


Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer

By Jamie Figueroa

March 2021, Catapult

In Santa Fe’s fictional twin, Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, Rufina and Rafa are haunted by the ghosts of their recently-deceased mother Rosalinda and the trauma of their childhoods. Rufina, trying to save her brother, conceives a bet: If they can make enough money to buy plane tickets by performing for tourists in the Plaza in a single weekend, Rafa has to go on living.

Jamie Figuero’s haunting debut novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer grapples with identity, grief and personal and cultural trauma, weaving in elements of folklore and magical realism. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, it flows back and forth in time and memory…

Particularly powerful is Figuero’s exploration of race and the dynamics between white people who view the inhabitants of the distant places they vacation in as “exotic” and people, like Rufina and Rafa, who are forced by economic circumstances to cater to these tourists…

Figuero writes: “They are necessary guests, and yet, see how easy it is to resent them, to see all tourists as one tourist? Just as easy as it is for the tourist to see a price tag dangling from every visible thing, including from the wrist of every indiscernible brown arm.”

(Bella Davis)

The Removed

By Brandon Hobson

February 2021, Ecco

An Oklahoman Cherokee family shatters after losing their teen son Ray-Ray to a cop’s bullet. No plot spoilers here: the preface of Brandon Hobson’s fourth book, The Removed, reveals it all. In the aftermath, the Echotas struggle individually to heal from their family tragedy.

…Each racially charged incident stings more for how casual it is, how normalized. Hobson shows words, too, harm—racism need not be a bullet to a teen’s chest. This well rendered perspective of mistreated people highlights what it means to be privileged; some can choose to consider the unfairness thrust upon their neighbor, others have no choice but to suffer the painful reality.

Throughout Hobson’s opus, mythology, symbolism and healing centered around nature and love lead the family members to peace. Each character finds solace outdoors, be it by walking naked through the rain or watching the wind through the trees. One can tell Hobson surely turned his own eyes to these things as well, and passages about nature are among the most beautiful in The Removed… (Campbell Lozuaway-McComsey)

Infinite Country

By Patricia Engel

March 2021, Avid Reader Press

“We’re all migrants here on Earth,” a father tells his daughter as he saturates her memories with Colombian fables of jaguars, snakes and condors. The legends that permeate Infinite Country, Patricia Engel’s most recent novel, reflect the tension of one family straddling North and South America.

The crimes perpetrated against, and by, the relatives reveal how much more closely violence lives to this marginalized population—a common thread reflected in the book’s references to family separations and mass shootings.

There’s no dispute of Engel’s storytelling talents as she shifts between perspectives of family members, reminding the reader that the grass could always be greener, though her infectious optimism shines through the heartbreaking beauty of one family’s resilience. (WM)

Read more

And now for some good vibrations from 1973. Mangione, Land of Make Believe. [ Erica P ]




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