NARCISSUS NOBODY By Gina Yates, Three Rooms Press, 262 pages, $16
Hope Townsend is a seeker who stays in one place, a highly empathetic woman who prefers dogs to people. And her bar for people is low. She’s an office manager for a psychic hotline and picks up spare shifts hanging out with the sick and elderly — jobs she gravitated to after high school and is still in as she approaches 40. Her love life is similar. She has a thing for married guys who function like overgrown skater boys. The protagonist of Gina Yates’ first novel doesn’t seem to care about much, although she’s good at pretending she does. And yet, Townsend’s terrible decisions, and her unlikely pragmatism about them, are strangely irresistible. Is she a good person or a terrible person? Is she being swept along on life’s current or stagnating for undetermined reasons? Hope doesn’t really think about such things.
The plot of Narcissus Nobody is somewhat unexpected, ambling from one year to the next, and periodically tying Hope’s romantic and philosophical outlooks to the career arc of a self-help writer she hates. The weakness is Yates’ overemphasis on pop-culture references that are meant to help anchor the story between 1992 and 2010. But the overwhelming number of linguistic, musical, and technological signifiers (some of which are anachronistic) ultimately distract from the story rather than serve it. Overall, however, it’s a strong debut from Yates, an Albuquerque resident and daughter of the late famed author Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road).
NOT A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS: SETTLER COLONIALISM, WHITE SUPREMACY, AND A HISTORY OF ERASURE AND EXCLUSION By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Beacon Press, 392 pages, $27.95
The United States was established on occupied, unceded land and was built largely by enslaved laborers. Its identity as a “nation of immigrants” is false, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her new book. She says the myth was created in 1958, with the publication of A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, and by the 1990s, it had worked its way into school curriculum and was widely accepted as the country’s origin story. But our true past turns immigrants into colonialists the moment they land on our shores, she writes.
In eight dense chapters, Dunbar-Ortiz breaks down how settlers replaced the country’s authentic history of brutality with manufactured heroic identities. First, she bursts a beloved pop culture bubble by pointing out that Alexander Hamilton was a British colonist, not the immigrant success story Broadway would have us believe. Next, she takes on descendants of Appalachian settlers who claim that their unique mountain culture was personally bestowed upon them by Native Americans. Later, she turns her attention to New Mexico. “The Hispano movement for regaining land their ancestors lost to US occupation constitutes a project of settler colonialism and recolonization as that land should be restored to the relevant Pueblos,” she writes.
Readers might find themselves unsettled by Dunbar-Ortiz’s assertions about the character of the United States, and they might argue with some of her assumptions about the psychological motivations of various immigrant groups. But much of what she says has historical merit, and Not a Nation of Immigrants may be paradigm-shifting for readers who have never looked at history through such a lens.
PLASTIC: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY By Allison Cobb, Nightboat Books, 352 pages, $17.95
A new genre of journalistic memoir has emerged in recent years in which writers take a meditative, often poetic stance on a subject and weave personal experience into their research and thoughts on the subject. Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (2020) comes to mind, as does Anne Boyer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Undying (2019). Plastic: An Autobiography is Los Alamos-native Allison Cobb’s similarly structured take on consumer culture, climate change, and nuclear technology, which often leads her to discussions of women’s rights and roles, as well as racism and civil rights. Cobb traveled to various far-flung locales to learn about the effects of plastic waste on oceans, always noting the carbon footprint she leaves in her wake. In language that quietly veers between essay, confession, and experimental poetry, she delves into WWII history, following her grandfather and other soldiers into battle as the United States drops nuclear bombs on Japan. She tracks the pace of invention that led inexorably to those bombs, in the place where she grew up, at the lab that kept her family in financial comfort.
Cobb’s meditative focus is on a piece of a car’s fender, which she calls “The Thing.”
“Curved and black, plastic. Four feet long, a foot at its widest. … It was not the first piece of plastic I had sat staring at. For nearly a year, I’d been picking up all the plastic I found on my daily dog walk. I’d been arranging it into patterns, taking photographs. … I didn’t know exactly why I was doing this. I wanted to understand something.”
SEND A RUNNER: A NAVAJO HONORS THE LONG WALK By Edison Eskeets and Jim Kristofic, University of New Mexico Press, 200 pages, $27.95
Send a Runner is a lyric, non-fiction page-turner about colonialism, power, athleticism, and history, co-written by Edison Eskeets, who is Navajo, and Jim Kristofic, a White man who grew up among the Navajo people. Eskeets was a champion runner in the 1970s, when he was a teenager and young man. At 56, he honored the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk by running from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona to Santa Fe, where the plan was hatched in the 1860s to march the Navajos from their land to the barren Bosque Redondo. Kristofic weaves Eskeets’ 2018 run with the history of colonialism in the Southwest, as well as commentary about the importance of running in Native communities and how runners brought messages between tribes.
In gripping historical sections, the authors tell of battles between the Navajo people and Spanish and Mexican conquerors, other tribes, and eventually the Anglos who tried — and failed — to exterminate them. The authors never shy away from presenting stark truths that many might prefer to forget. It’s not a pretty history, and yet it’s a beautiful book. The balanced but prideful narrative leads up to The Long Walk with just enough tension to make the story riveting, without ever reveling in violence. Sometimes, it’s just about the landscape through which Eskeets runs.
“Edison begins outside Thoreau, New Mexico, population 1,400 people,” they write about the eighth morning of the journey. “The chapter house for Thoreau sits near the base of salmon-red sandstone cliffs that seem illuminated from within against the blue sky.”
WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS By Alex Richards, Bloomsbury YA, 304 pages, $17.99
When her father suddenly dies, 17-year-old Evie Parker’s world is upended. She knows he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman, and she soon discovers several secrets that she decides to keep from her grieving mother, who has taken to drinking a bottle of wine a night. Evie and her best friend, Juana, are growing up in Santa Fe, as did the author, Alex Richards, who puts her intimate knowledge of The City Different and its denizens to use in this thoroughly enjoyable young adult novel. Richards casually mixes Spanish into the dialogue, knows the town’s hotspots and geography well, and has an unforced sense of everyday life in Santa Fe.
Evie is smart and funny, but tends to pick apart her body and compare herself unfavorably to others. She doesn’t like thinking about the future or college. But during this pivotal season, Evie interacts with tourists and artists in a 10-week summer photography workshop that her uncle pays for, where she meets a variety of stand-in moms, as well as an interesting boy her age. When she decides to find out more about her dad’s mistress, she begins to see the people around her as imperfect, struggling, and worthy of her understanding, just as she is of theirs.