Required reading: 5 books for a modern summer reading list

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Summer reading lists aren’t just for students — at least they shouldn’t be. 

Perhaps you remember reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or George Orwell’s Animal Farm on a hot summer day between school years, and maybe those stories have stuck with you long after for the things they taught you about the world. The books we were assigned in school weren’t always fun reads. They comprised dystopian societies, wars, and hard lessons about justice. But they were necessary. 

In a summer where climate change threatens another bad wildfire season in the West, the country readies for a decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade’s protection of abortion rights and accelerating inflation forces families to pinch pennies, a modern summer reading list wouldn’t be complete without these five new-ish titles from authors who help us understand a complex and, sometimes, tough world.

The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara

Climate, technology, immigration and family drama all merge in Fort Collins-based author Vauhini Vara’s novel The Immortal King Rao, a genre-bending debut that confronts the ethics of our globalized economy. The novel tracks the rise and fall of its eponymous hero, King Rao, who rises from humble beginnings in a family of Dalit coconut farmers in India to becoming a technology CEO, the first leader of a global corporate government known as the Shareholders and ultimately a reclusive exile. The book is narrated at some point in the near future by his daughter, Athena, who has become the keeper of her father’s memories — and is in prison accused of his murder. A former technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Vara brings her own experience of the ins and outs of global capitalism (and her roots as the daughter of Indian immigrants) to bear on this novel, which offers no easy answers about how our world ought to be structured but raises plenty of questions. Skipping around in time between 1950s India, tech-boom Seattle and beyond, The Immortal King Rao is both a dystopian mystery and a complex psychological portrait of a man who became a self-made legend. 

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott

Released last year, Invisible Child earned New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott her second Pulitzer Prize this May. Begun as a series of articles for the Times, the book follows the life of Dasani Coates, a homeless African-American girl living in New York City, and her seven siblings and parents as they navigate the shelter system, criminal justice system and Child Protection Services over the course of eight years. Invisible Child is an incredible work of narrative nonfiction in the vein of The Warmth of Other Suns and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and puts a human face to the heavy toll that urban poverty places on children. Along with following Dasani from elementary through high school, Elliott also goes backward in time to detail the lives of her relatives, showing how the brutal legacies of slavery, redlining, the crack epidemic and other systems of poverty and racial discrimination entwined to lead the family to where they were. What’s most shocking about this book is how clearly it illustrates the ways in which being poor is considered a crime in this country — and how far out of reach the American dream is for some of its most disadvantaged citizens. From the description it doesn’t sound like an easy book to read, but Elliott’s writing style makes it almost impossible to put down once it’s been picked up. As Aurora continues to have its own contentious discussions about how to combat homelessness, it’s well worth the time.

Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement by Jennifer L. Holland

In 1967, Colorado became the first state in the nation to expand access to abortion through a wide bipartisan vote in the state legislature. Today, the Colorado GOP’s leading senate candidate is someone who sponsored a bill to abolish abortion in the state with no exceptions for rape or life-threatening medical complications and both gubernatorial candidates are campaigning on repealing the 2022 law codifying a right to abortion. Published in 2020 by the University of California Press, Tiny You is a deeply researched history of pro-life activism in the Four Corners states that details the grassroots movement that caused that shift. The book explains why opposition to abortion has remained such a fundamental component of conservative politics while other causes, such as opposition to gay marriage, faded into the background. As the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling appears poised to be overturned, Holland’s book provides important local context for what led us to this moment.

Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation by Erika Krouse

“I became a private investigator because of my face,” Erika Krouse tells us. Krouse is the kind of person that people want to talk to, to tell their secrets to. Because of this unintended skill, she gets hired by a local attorney to work as a private investigator. In the early 2000s the attorney launches a major Title IX lawsuit against the University of Colorado Boulder, alleging that a series of assaults perpetrated by CU football players and recruits created a hostile climate on campus for female victims. Krouse ends up in the thick of the case, cajoling victims, witnesses and suspects into telling her their sides of the story and hunting for the evidence that will prove their case. Initially, Krouse isn’t sure she should be involved in at all — unbeknownst to her boss or most of the people who know her, she is a survivor of child sexual abuse. As the case winds its way through the legal system, which takes years and many setbacks, Krouse reckons with the ways that not being believed about her own assaults shaped her. The university in question is never named, but CU is instantly recognizable on the pages for anyone who has spent time in Boulder, and her descriptions of the city are endearing in the midst of the institutional malfeasance she details. Tell Me Everything is a fascinating inside look at a scandal that was once national news, as well as a fearless memoir of one woman’s fight for justice and healing. 

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Leigh Newman

If Colorado isn’t rugged enough for you, spend some time in the wilds of Alaska with author Leigh Newman’s collection of short stories. Like the title suggests, Newman pulls absolutely no punches in this stellar debut. Oft given short shrift by those of us who reside in the lower 48, these stories bring daily life in Alaska into stark clarity, which read like a love letter to the harsh beauty of Newman’s home state. Though there are several male narrators the stories focus on women and girls, who struggle to survive not just the Alaskan wilderness but also the confines of a male-dominated society. They jump around in time, with the earliest set in a railroad camp in 1915 and the latest taking place amidst the contemporary backdrop of climate change and sprawling development. Some of the most arresting take place in between in the 1970s and 80s, particularly “Alcan: An Oral History,” which uses a first-person format to detail the shocking events that take place when two sets of travelers interact along the 1,300 mile Alaskan Highway. Just like the wilderness, Newman posits that people are a source of both joy and danger.

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