Back to School Reading List for Grown-Ups

Back to school is a term that's relative this year, we realize. New Mexico's public school students aren't returning to the classroom, but instead are embarking on at least nine weeks of remote learning thanks to public health orders. The pandemic version of homeschooling continues to evolve as teachers and parents figure out what works—and what doesn't.

If your own days in the classroom are far gone, sometimes it helps to have a few reading goals laid out by someone else. So, whether your students are long gone or still crouched around the kitchen table, or you're looking for some distraction and learning, we hope our reading list for grownups provides some ideas—and maybe even sends you down a rabbit hole.

You don't have to read the classics by New Mexico's classic western novelist Max Evans to catch up on his newest short work, but after you read The King of Taos, you might want to hit up The Hi-Lo Country. It's not required that you become a taco expert, but at the end of American Tacos by Jose R Ralat, you could conisder seeking out Taco USA, published two years earlier by Gustavo Arellano. You get the drift.

In a world that seems a little upside down, please sit on your cat's lap and purr while she reads to you aloud.


The Hardest Job in the World
By John Dickerson 
June 2020, Random House

John Dickerson has interviewed chiefs of staff for American presidents going back through the Reagan administration. As the host of Face the Nation and other CBS journalism shows, he's also sat with several of the presidents themselves, as well as their cabinet secretaries and other insiders.

But for this examination of what he deems The Hardest Job in the World, Dickerson goes way further back. Readers might find themselves humming the strains of Hamilton as they brush up on the fine points of how the framers of the Constitution and the early presidents viewed the job's limitations and powers.

Tracing the evolution from then to now is not as dreary a prospect as it might sound, even without musical interludes. Dickerson takes plenty of time to unpack his view of how Donald Trump has taken the office in a zigzag from which it, and the nation, might not straighten—not this election season, and maybe not ever. Yet, there's a more exploratory and philosophical bent about how Trump reflects a long cycle of increasingly vulgar partisanship. He's also a product, Dickerson argues, of the way Americans choose leaders based on their campaign skills rather than their qualifications to govern.

The book serves as a literature review for many others written on (and even by) various presidents and on election and business leadership philosophies. It had us flipping to the bibliography and making notes about what to put on the list next. Rather than a litany of Dickerson's opinion, it's chock-full of the words of others. We dare you to remain uninspired by soundbites from men like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin D Roosevelt. (Though, yes, we need to see the day when women hold the highest office in the land.) We loved seeing a historic photo collection that bypassed the standards and landed on some winners. (See: First Lady Betty Ford in her pajamas as she recovers from cancer and promotes womens' health.)

Social media also makes a robust appearance in Dickerson's analysis, not just in an examination of Russian attempts to influence voters, but in an exploration of the way tools like Twitter and Facebook have made for direct, often impulsive communications. "Those who think the worst of [Trump] have a platform to broadcast their unfettered scorn," he writes, also noting that Trump is not just the victim; he's a "prolific and successful instigator" who has shunned fireside talks for all-hours bursts from his thumbs.

Plus, he writes, "social media thrives on snatching attention, which means that the very medium through which we now debate politics is structured to undermine the debate by making us less attentive."

Dickerson's overall thought: We've got to pay attention. In democracy, it's everyone's job.  (JAG)

By Charles Bowden
May 2020, University of Texas Press

I'm a sucker for those who pay attention to birds.

So, when Chuck Bowden starts off the prologue with pelicans, snow geese and sandhill cranes—then mentions a black hawk, an owl and ravens within the first four sentences of Jericho—I know I'm a goner.

Take me to the desert, tell me the things you've seen and the things you've heard. Tell me the things you've done. Especially if you don't understand yourself, or anyone else, along the way. I'll come along with you.

I am on the river, I must follow this river, I must live the line.
They say the river is great.
They say the river is fierce.
They say the river is dying at our hand.

Throughout his career, Bowden never wrote with subtlety. Not about the border, nor about crime during the early part of his career as a reporter in southern Arizona. Not about lust and longing. And certainly not about landscapes and the ways in which we exploit them, even when we say we're "conserving" them.

When Bowden died in 2014, I knew I'd miss his voice. Fortunately for his readers, he still had a few books forthcoming.

Like America's Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden and Bowden's Dakotah: The Return of the FutureJericho is published posthumously by the University of Texas Press, the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust and the Lannan Foundation, which together created the Charles Bowden Publishing Project.

These books don't ease the blow of his death. I want to read him eviscerating the Trump administration and its cronies—one of Bowden's early books, written with Michael Binstein, was Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions. Anyone still fantasizing that the late-Sen. John McCain was a maverick, should turn those pages to recall the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and '90s and the history of the Keating Five.

And one more voice condemning the crimes committed by the United States government against men, women and children along the border would certainly be welcome.

But I'll settle for a book like Jericho, in which Bowden appears to know his time is coming—and he strings together stories about life and death and revisits the stories he's told over the years, including of a sicario, a man who killed for the cartels.

I take no chances.
I am the quiet man who watches birds. Or I am the man who claims to watch birds.
Things get in the way at times but there are some constants.
I am a coward.
I am tired of the killing.
I am pointless.
I look but do not act.
I listen and write things down and my words change nothing.

All honest writers know their words change nothing. Each eager reader knows that words change everything.

Jericho is part of Bowden's series "Unnatural History of America," and there's one more book in the series coming in November: Sonata, with a forward by journalist Alfredo Corchada. By page 3, the first with Bowden's words on them, I'd already caught my breath.

I'll be honest, though, I can't bear to read the electronic version of Sonata any further. I can't tell you what happens after page 3 because I need to hold that book in my hands and turn the pages instead of scrolling. That's the proper way to read any of Bowden's books, especially his last. (Laura Paskus)

American Tacos: A History and Guide
By José R. Ralat

April 2020, University of Texas Press

"Those of us who live in the borderlands are just lucky enough to live in a part of the world that was once Mexico," Dallas food writer José R. Ralat told the Los Angeles Times in April. For Ralat, a big part of that cultural inheritance means eating tacos, which he has done professionally for more than a decade with his Taco Trail blog.

On the strength of his tireless online taco chronicling, Texas Monthly appointed Ralat its first-ever taco editor last fall. That dream job entails traveling 24 weeks a year in search of exemplary regional tortilla-wrapped protein missiles, and American Tacos, Ralat's exhaustive food travelogue, is the summation of his scholarship on the subject.

Ralat is equal parts researcher, ethnographer and food authority, and accordingly, American Tacos gets into a lot more than tacos. In attempting to pin down the origins of Texan breakfast tacos, a relatively recent phenomenon in the taco landscape, he notes how attempted whitewashing after Texas separated from Mexico "all but wiped clean the collective memory of tortillas and Mexican food in Texas and the American Southwest" for more than half a century. Flour tortillas didn't reappear commercially until the mid-20th century, which eventually led to the rise of the breakfast taco in Texas. The morning staple varies regionally: The migas taco rules Austin, while the Rio Grande Valley and Corpus Christi use thicker, larger tortillas that encompass half a menu's worth of breakfast items—or the more minimalist weenie-and-egg tacos, popularized by low-income Mexican Americans in the early 1900s.

The book focuses on taco evolution as powered by multicultural influences: Italian immigrants living in close proximity to Mexicans in Kansas City, for example, led to a local specialty of fried tacos dusted with Parmesan cheese. Entire chapters are devoted to the Korean BBQ tacos born in LA and popularized by Roy Choi, Jewish and kosher tacos (former Eloisa chef-owner John Rivera Sedlar's pastrami tacos get a shout-out), and the rise of what Ralat calls "Sur-Mex." The latter cuisine features tacos with a Southern flair (catfish, smoked pork, fried chicken) that mirror the changing demographics and tastes of cities like Atlanta and towns along the Gulf Coast.

Ralat's discussion of the fry bread taco embodies his conscientious approach, as well as the idea that we are the kind of tacos we eat. He traces the Indian Country standard to the 14th-century use of comales at Hohokam sites in Arizona for blue-corn piki bread, then speculates on the idea that fry bread may have been created on the Long Walk relocation of thousands of Navajos from Arizona to the Bosque Redondo. Its pedigree is a uniquely American hybrid, combining Mexican tortilla preparation, European white flour and Indigenous food into a pan-tribal staple that fosters community and cultural identity.

But as Ralat writes, "a history of the fry bread taco must acknowledge that the specter of oppression continues to hover over this seemingly innocuous food and its toppings," with the average piece of fry bread containing around 700 calories. Its innate unhealthiness is a symbol of the high rate of Type 2 diabetes among Native populations, as well as a reminder of Native nations' food deserts and lack of food sovereignty.

"When you eat an Indian taco," Ralat cautions us, "you're consuming a symbol of persecution and perseverance. But you're also breaking bread with human ingenuity and cultural sustenance." His exploration of this tangled legacy underlines the importance of food studies—even of the humble, ever variable taco—to greater cultural understanding and empathy. (Molly Boyle)

The Undocumented Americans
By Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
March 2020, Random House

Journalists and politicians consistently talk about Latinx people—but it's usually solely referencing their usefulness in society, whether it's working in essential jobs or overachieving as recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, concludes Karla Cornejo Villavicencio in The Undocmented Americans. 

But Villavicencio takes the conversation and the way stories are told about undocumented immigrants and weaves her own life story into the lives of her interviewees. (She graduated from Harvard as a DACA recipient.)

In The Undocumented Americans, she travels to multiple states over several years, starting out in Staten Island, New York, right after the election of Trump, to portray the way she sees undocumented immigrants as one herself. Villavicencio details the ways society and industry treat immigrants in an unfiltered way that could make many uncomfortable. She profiles dozens of immigrants in their work as day laborers, coveted and yet abused by their employers, as well as the undocumented Americans that acted as first responders on 9/11.

"Because the antithesis of an American is an immigrant and because we could not be victims in the public eye, we became suspects. And so September 11 changed the immigration landscape forever," she writes.

Villavicencio, using vivid descriptions and multiple interviews, looks at aspects of each person, revealing the human behind an individual most people would write off as "immigrant."

She stops in Florida, Michigan and Connecticut as well, combining interviews with stories of her personal life to compose a look at the painful discrimination and oppression of a group of people the US desperately needs but doesn't want to see as completely human, let alone American.

Villavicencio describes her own instances of facing discrimination. One in particular stuck out to me: Home from Harvard, where she eventually won a writing award (in English), an older woman spit at her while she walked along silently, "I wish these people would just learn English."

Her retort?

"I think every immigrant in this country knows that you can eat English and digest it so well that you shit it out, and to some people you will still not speak English." (Katherine Lewin)


The King of Taos
By Max Evans 
June 2020, University of New Mexico Press

Don't start a review of Max Evans' most recently published effort with a pithy pair of sentences about how it's good, but it isn't Hi-Lo Country or The Rounders. We repeated that mantra for an hour or so between closing The King of Taos for the last time and sitting down to reflect on the short new novel from the New Mexico common man's bard. And so, we'll let the mantra win out.

Evans has, of course, long possessed the gift for dialogue. That goes for the interior versions, as well as the banter between the characters he raises from the best dirt in New Mexico. The gift abides in The King of Taos, as Evans pushes the often-drunken chatter among his handful of protagonists—"the Mexican whore, the blanket Indian, and the gringo artist," in the author's telling—to the front of this book's narrative.

In fact, it's tough to imagine how this tale would remain upright without the running conversations—for those of us who live in New Mexico, anyway. This time around, for us, Evans' landscapes are somewhat tired and worn; only some characters evolve, and it's a bit stilted when they do; and speaking of those characters, there's a valid argument to be made that they rely on our worst as a species, easy racial and ethnic stereotypes, to hook the reader. (And while this is not offered to excuse, for example, the heavy "drunk Indian" trope that runs throughout, these interwoven stories are set in 1950s Taos. So Evans no doubt presses a pulse, accurately, of time and place here. And lest anyone decide to come for Ol' Max, this novel, for our money, is decidedly not racist.)

Shortcomings in the writing aside, this crew can flat-out talk, and nearly every word is believable. Even the dialects ping the tuning fork on-key.

And Evans can draw a six-hour scene every bit as gripping as writers with bigger names. There's plenty of barroom scumbaggery, booze-soaked bad decisions and even well rendered redemption to bridge us from one Northern New Mexico snapshot to the next as Evans' rogue cast plumbs the depths, escapes the grave, disdains the tourista Texans (bravo!) and offers one another whatever mercy each of them can spare.

The dust jacket compares this work to Hemingway's Moveable Feast and DH Lawrence's "social realist stories." Let's leave the hyperbole in the dust bin and instead place this piece alongside something Evans may never have expected: The Rum Diary, Hunter S Thompson's ode-to-spirits and depravity that, like The King of Taos, was mostly written many years before we ever saw it. His denizens of Taos would give The Good Doctor and his comrades all they could handle in a no-holds-barred drinking and shit-talking contest—and Evans' economy of language, particularly between the quotation marks, would fare just fine in that fight, too.

For the tl;dr aficionados among you: Evans diehards will love this novel for all the reasons they've stuck around these many years. And our guess is, like the best of his Taos-human sketches in these pages, the old desert barnacle wouldn't care all that much what anyone else has to say. (Jeff Proctor)

The Vanishing Half
By Britt Bennett
June 2020, Penguin Random House

Mallard, Louisiana, is a strange place—a town founded by the son of a slave and a plantation owner who had too much African blood in his veins to ever be considered white, but who with fair complexion and dirty-blond locks was too white to ever consider himself Black. It's a town full of pale-skinned colored folks who keep to themselves until the day the Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, witness a group of racists ride in and lynch their father. Shaped by the trauma of this event, the twins run away to reinvent themselves in distant cities.

Stella realizes that she can easily pass as white and decides to disappear, leaving behind her family forever to live as a white woman in a world that can never know who she really is. Desiree, rebelling against Mallard's rejection of blackness, marries the darkest man she can find.

The Vanishing Half weaves between the lives of these women and their daughters, mapping the consequences of their choices across the span of 50 years in the middle of the 20th century. In the space between their stories, author Brit Bennett highlights the absurdity and crippling legacy of the American social constructs of "race" and "color."

Bennet's structure of six parts each feel like distinct novelas within the broader arch of a family history. Time skips back and forth between sections that often end in cliffhangers, each one picking up the thread of the story from the perspective of a different character. This can feel frustrating to the reader eagerly waiting to find out what happens next to a character you've spent several chapters getting to know, only to realize you'll have to wade through someone else's life to find out.

Still, it's a strategy that effectively explores racism and identity within the personal dynamics of a single family.

The Vanishing Half is Brit Bennet's second novel. She is a National Book Foundation "5 under 35" honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review and Jezebel. (Leah Cantor)

Hurricane Season
By Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
March 2020, New Directions

Every once in a great while, a novel comes along that seems to level the rest of literature with a blend of stylistic audacity, narrative verve and a keen sense of the cultural moment. Fernanda Melchor's Hurricane Season, which was published in the author's native Mexico in 2016 but only translated this year, is such a book.

It's a horror folk tale of a sort, a murder mystery of another, and also a breathless examination of misogyny, femicide, homophobia and systemic violence in small-town Mexico. In the village of La Matosa, a woman known only as the Witch is dead. We're pretty sure we know who killed her, but the question is why.

The novel's exploration of her death begins with the perspective of the Witch, who leads a reclusive existence in a boarded-up house filled with trash and decay. Her only visitors are a pack of drugged-out young men and the women who consult her for love spells and abortion tonics. From there, the narrative hopscotches through the town, inhabiting the thoughts of Yesenia, a young village girl who saw her ne'er-do-well cousin Luismi carrying the Witch's dead body; Norma, Luismi's 13-year-old girlfriend who is bleeding to death from an abortion, and a few others. All of these points of view are twisted—in both troubled and tangled senses—and the writing is unflinchingly violent and glitteringly beautiful.

Melchor unfurls the narrative like a torrent of sideways blood rain, writing in long, Faulkner-esque gulps of often page-long sentences and no paragraphs whatsoever, so that each of the novel's eight chapters feels like a breathless fever dream. The author's mouth is foul, and the violent, hopeless humans who populate the town are often revolting (particularly sexually), but a chiaroscuro beauty pervades the prose. The novel stares into an abyss of humanity and dares to derive something wildly creative—and blackly poignant—from it.

Here's Melchor embedding an odd fairy tale into the narrative, as Norma recalls finding a torn paperback book on the street: "opening it at random the first thing she saw was a black-and-white illustration of a little hunchback crying terrified while a coven of witches with bat wings stabbed the hunch on his back, and the illustration was so strange that, ignoring the time and the imminent rain, ignoring the dishes waiting to be washed and her siblings who needed feeding before their mother got home from the factory, Norma sat down at the bus stop to read the whole story."

Hurricane Season has exactly the same sort of arresting brutality—tucked away in its long blocks of text are dark, sinister pockets of wisdom and dazzling acts of sorcery. It's Melchor's second novel, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, and hopefully the beginning of a long career of haunting, terribly gorgeous fiction. (MB)

Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars
By Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
2018, Image Comics

Bestselling graphic novelist Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth) joins forces with Eisner Award-winning artist Dustin Nguyen (Detective Comics) for Descender, a dark and compelling sci-fi western set across the deepest reaches of space following an incomprehensible attack on mankind by the mysterious Harvesters—planet-sized robots hellbent on annihilation.

Ten years later on the mining colony Dirishu-6, a scrappy young companion-bot named Tim (one of a series of lifelike robots created for kids and marketed as no-fuss friends) awakens to find the inhabitants—including his own family—dead. Meanwhile, across the galaxy, Dr. Jin Quon, the father of robotics and the possible cause of the Harvester attacks, is pulled into reluctant duty by the United Galactic Council (UGC) on a mission to retrieve Tim. Turns out, his robotic DNA might be a precursor to the Harvesters, and could hold the key to unlocking their existence, purpose and—hopefully—a weakness.

With bloodthirsty scrappers in tow, a universe still reeling from the Harvester attack and a darker set of players lurking on the fringes, Tim and Quon must work with a pair of UGC soldiers to return to populated space and save what few souls remain.

Lemire's slow burn style and sharp dialogue leave a satisfying breadcrumb trail of clues that become seemingly more complex by the moment. What's at stake for the UGC's hard-nosed Captain Telsa and why does Dr. Quon seem so chickenshit? Has Tim evolved past mere robot companion to something more, and will the ever-present threat of another Harvester attack come to pass?

Accented brilliantly by Nguyen's hand-painted worlds and character design, Descender strikes an intriguing balance of character study, disparate timeline storytelling and political drama. Tim is particularly interesting to follow as even the reader will forget he's something more than human. Tenuous truces with bloodthirsty galactic warlords rub up against beautifully realized tech and universe design; a more complicated art style lurks beneath sweeping but vague panoramas and strong character arcs. Descender ought to wow sci-fi fans of any ilk, and perhaps even win over a few folks who've always thought it's too nerdy. Like all good sci-fi, the characters drive the bus, the backdrops becoming secondary to that which is universal amongst all living beings: We're capable of the best and worst things. With its first chapters collected together for the first time, this is sci-fi for everyone. Get it from Big Adventure Comics (418c Montezuma Ave., 992-8783). (Alex De Vore)