Southwest Contemporary’s staff—Roman Aragón, Natalie Hegert, Steve Jansen, and Lauren Tresp—pick their favorite reading materials of 2023.
Call us nerds or dorks—we don’t mind—but the staff here at Southwest Contemporary are just a tad obsessed over media, particularly books and podcasts. What we’re reading and listening to is one of our favorite things to discuss, and that’s why our 2023 reading list is one of our favorite stories to compile.
In case you’re curious about what we loved reading in 2022, check out our reading recommendations from 2022.
And, if you want to label us as nerds, that’s fine, but would you mind adding “well-read” before “nerds,” please? Thank you so much.
Roman Aragón, administrative assistant
by Diana Vreeland, Ecco Press, 2011
This memoir immerses us in the vibrant and flamboyant world of the iconic fashion editor, Diana Vreeland. Guided by Diana, we travel the globe, exploring her life and career in which she dominated the fashion world for five decades. Her eccentric charm and hyperbolic storytelling captivate readers, leaving them on the edge of their seats. Vreeland’s boundless passion and enthusiasm are sure to ignite inspiration, encouraging readers to embrace life on their terms.
by Keith Recker, Schiffer Publishing, 2022
In this dazzling deep dive, author Keith Recker invites us into the world of color. This book casts light on the historical and contemporary uses of color, illuminating its impact. Exploring historic, cultural, and psychological themes, Recker prompts a fresh outlook on our perception of color and its subtle yet powerful influences on our day-to-day lives.
Natalie Hegert, arts editor
by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, 2020
I haven’t finished reading this epic science fiction novel, but that hasn’t stopped me from recommending it to anyone who will listen. Set in the very near future of our current climate crisis, a massive heat dome event kills millions of people and sets in motion a series of events including assassinations by an eco-terrorist group and the collapse of the global economy. At the center of the novel is the Ministry for the Future, an international organization that fights, in a very uphill battle, for the rights of future generations to be recognized. The novel contains eye-opening philosophical, economic, and revolutionary ideas delivered through a multitude of voices. I highly recommend the audio version.
by Paolo Bacigalupi, Vintage, 2016
I learned about The Water Knife from Hikmet Loe, one of our contributors to Southwest Contemporary Vol. 7: Finding Water in the West. This dystopian science fiction novel is set in a future where the Colorado River is utterly depleted, the water crisis has devastated the Southwest, wars have erupted between states, and people will kill over water rights. The privileged few live in self-contained “arcologies” (a nod to Arizona architect Paolo Soleri), while the underclass battle dust storms and deprivation outside, with desperate refugees streaming in from Texas, clashing with down-on-their-luck ‘Zoners. Not only is the premise easy to picture based on current water policies, but it’s a hell of a thrilling story.
by David Graeber and David Wengrow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
In The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow upend many truisms about human history, like the development of agriculture as the source of stratified societies, and reveal new truths, such as the influence of Indigenous American philosophy on European thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment. The book synthesizes new archeological research with overlooked science and thought, and has been widely hailed as a groundbreaking new way of thinking about prehistory and social organization. What I took away from reading the book this year is that forms of domination and control—in states, bureaucracies, leaders, religions—are not inevitable, and non-hierarchical societies based on mutual aid and sustainability are not impossible at scale. Combining this new look at history with the science fiction above has given me a lot to think about concerning our future.
Steve Jansen, news editor
A Year of Louise Erdrich
In January 2023, I read Love Medicine, the debut novel by the Ojibwe (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) writer Louise Erdrich. I loved the 1984 book so much—and learned that it was the first of the eight-book Love Medicine series by Erdrich—that I decided to read one Erdrich novel each month in 2023. After completing the eight, I read the three books in her Justice trilogy (which includes The Round House from 2012) before diving into The Night Watchman (2020). I not only recommend this completionist-like approach to reading but also for anything Louise Erdrich has published—I even bought a few of her novels in real life at her bookstore in Minneapolis this past summer.
by Siddharth Kara, St. Martin’s Press, 2023
An investigative and gut-wrenching account of the human rights and land abuses that result from cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kara, a British Academy global professor and an associate professor of human trafficking and modern slavery at the University of Nottingham, weaves an engaging and distressing account of the mining operations of cobalt—the chemical element found in the Earth’s crust that helps laptops and cell phones stay running on battery power—with a page-turning back-and-forth between long-form reporting and first-person narration.
by Camila Sosa Villada, Other Press, 2022 (English translation)
A recommendation from SWC contributor JD Pluecker, Bad Girls, originally published in 2019 in Spanish by the Argentine author, tells the brutal and beautiful story of Latina trans women and sex workers or, as Villada writes, travestis. Villada’s debut novel follows twenty-one-year-old Camila, a student, travesti, and sex worker who struggles to study, work, and exist in a hostile place for trans people. The novel, which blends real-life tales of the harsh realism of sex work with the fantastical—there’s a 178-year-old matriarch—offers a glimpse into perhaps the under-told world of Latin American gender, sexuality, autonomy, and identity.
Lauren Tresp, publisher + editor
by Richard Powers, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018
The Overstory is a story about trees. It is a novel, ostensibly about the intersecting stories of nine Americans of different backgrounds and experiences, but the main characters and protagonists of the novel are the trees themselves. Powers uses the magnetism and emotional impact of fiction to illustrate how intimately the lives of trees and their ecosystems are intertwined with our cultural perceptions and experiences. Throughout, I learned valuable lessons about trees that are rooted in fact: the devastating impacts of a chestnut blight across the eastern U.S. in the 20th century, that trees and forest systems communicate and interact through underground fungal networks, and that entire ecosystems exist in the canopies of redwood forests.
by Ian Urbina, Los Angeles Times, CBC Podcasts, and The Outlaw Ocean Project, 2022
I devoured this seven-part podcast of investigative journalism by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Urbina about lawlessness on the global high seas. The product of years of expansive reporting around the world, The Outlaw Ocean investigates what happens beyond the reach of national authorities on international waters, including modern slavery, the exploitation rampant in the shipping and fishing industries, violent crime, and environmental abuse and contamination. On the lighter side, Urbina also introduced me to the Principality of Sealand, an unrecognized micronation off the coast of England, and Women on Waves, a Dutch NGO and floating abortion clinic that provides reproductive health care to women living in countries with abortion restrictions.