From the Shelf
The other day I was reading a short story called "Teresa" by Paulina Flores. It appears in the sparkling collection Humiliation (Catapult, $16.95) and observes a woman as she considers the plight of a girl who appears to be lost at the public library, spurring a memory of when she was a lost child and assumed a false name. Through meticulously teased-out details, the narrator spools out a story of happenstance and deceit with such delicacy that my attention was rapt from beginning to end.
Flores is a compelling writer, transforming every quotidian element into a finely wrought hook. It also dawns on me that this multitude of hooks worked on me thanks to the careful touch of Megan McDowell, who translated the Chilean author's work from the Spanish. And to do so effectively, McDowell had to preserve the author's detail-oriented style.
Sophie Hughes manages a similar task in her translation of Mexican author Fernanda Melchor's elaborately twisted sentences in the riveting Hurricane Season (New Directions, $16.95)--with nary a period to the page. To translate not only the words but also the breathless style is crucial to the magic Melchor works in this gruesome story about a town's murder of a witch, because it enacts that sinister insistence present in all great urban legends.
I also recently enjoyed Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (Scribner, $16), winner of Argentina's Clarín Novela Prize, whose style is perhaps the opposite. In Sarah Moses's translation, the oppressive atmosphere necessary to support a cannibalistic social regime emerges in terse, austere sentences--delivered rapidly and with a level of directness that leaves no room for doubt or second-guessing.
As my appreciation for literature in translation deepens, I've begun to revere a translator's name as much as the author's. Because together they work miracles. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
In this Issue...
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
A Black teen from the city who survived the fire that killed her parents confronts the destructive reality of forest fires in this passionate, galvanizing middle-grade survival adventure.
by Laurent Binet
This spectacular alternative history of the Age of Exploration lays waste to settled notions of historical possibility.
by Natasha Brown
A bold and poignant novel featuring a young British Jamaican woman delivers a devastating indictment of post-colonial British culture in the heart of London.
Review by Subjects:
Ridiculous Book Bans
Mental Floss showcased "11 books that were banned for ridiculous reasons."
Author Amber Medland chose her "top 10 books about long-distance relationships" for the Guardian.
The Chicago Manual of Style's Shop Talk blog examined " 'one of those who': a singular dilemma."
Gastro Obscura featured an "ode to a Denny's Hobbit menu" among other bites in "the long history of fandom food."
At Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, Wales, "you can sleep among the books," Atlas Obscura reported.
Richard Powers: 'Homesick for a Place They Never Knew'
|(photo: Dean D. Dixon)|
Richard Powers's novels include The Echo Maker (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2006) and The Overstory (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019). His work often explores the connections between human lives, the natural world, science and technology. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, among many others, and he has taught at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. Bewilderment (available now from from Norton) is his 13th novel.
Powers wrote a special "Note from the Author" for the advanced reader copies of Bewilderment that explores the meaning of his novel's title and inspiration, reprinted here.
I read the classic "Flowers for Algernon" in sixth grade, when I was eleven years old. Written the year I was born, the story lit up my imagination and settled into that permanent place children reserve for those fables that capture the mystery of life.
In my early sixties, when I came across an account of a remarkable new therapeutic technique called decoded neurofeedback, Daniel Keyes's story returned to me, every bit as vivid as it had been half a century earlier. "Algernon" told of a cognitively challenged man who is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. Decoded neurofeedback raised the prospect of a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence? What might we humans learn to become?
Children possess enormous emotional intelligence, but adult illogic can defeat it. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I kept reading accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. A new word, solastalgia, seemed to take hold overnight. I began to see how we were raising a generation of troubled kids born homesick for a place they never knew. And we adults were relying more and more on a single response for treating the epidemic ravaging our children's mental health: medication.
All children are natural scientists. At the same time, they're also pantheists who know that God is crawling over every inch of the backyard. I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn't stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to "critters," but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans. The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not. Could another kind of emotional therapy have made a difference?
Bewilderment was, in part, my way of remembering those two, along with so many other troubled children whom I loved without being able to reassure. The reward of writing this story lay in the daily chance to recover my own childhood joy in the endless replenishment of the living world. The word bewilder means to perplex or confuse. But in its origin, it also means to head back into wildness. A childlike love for our wild, entangled home is the only thing large enough to cure what is wrong with us. As Thoreau puts it, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Bewilderment to be published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. September 21, 2021.
by Laurent Binet , trans. by Sam Taylor
In Civilizations, the third novel from French novelist Laurent Binet (HHhH; The Seventh Function of Language), the author's delightful iconoclasm and trademark textual mischief make for a rollicking alternative history of the Age of Exploration.
The novel unfolds as a series of mock-historical documents, each building on the last to produce an uncannily inverted image of the early modern world. In the first, a band of Viking explorers travel from Greenland to Panama, seeding native cultures with their religion and technologies. The second, in the form of Christopher Columbus's personal diaries, sees the doomed explorer arriving in America to find its inhabitants armed with iron weapons and immune to European diseases. Binet clearly relishes the chance to inhabit the voice of a monumental text, be it the terse grandeur of the Norse sagas or the mounting desperation of Columbus as his grim destiny draws nearer. But these sections merely lay the groundwork for Binet's main event, a spectacular counterfactual epic in which the Incan leader Atahualpa sails to the New World--that is, Europe--and, exploiting that continent's political and religious volatility, handily conquers it.
As in his previous novels, Binet is fascinated with the ways by which written accounts influence our knowledge of the past. Compared to the staid certainty of history, "the truth of the present moment, albeit hotter, louder and--in all honesty--more alive, often comes to us in a more confused form than that of the past"; Civilizations, then, is a glorious attempt to breathe some of that hot, loud life back into settled notions of historical possibility. --Theo Henderson, bookseller at Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle, Wash.
Discover: This spectacular alternative history of the Age of Exploration lays waste to settled notions of historical possibility.
by Natasha Brown
The enigmatic, unnamed narrator in Natasha Brown's poignant debut, Assembly, set in the heart of London's financial district, is a wistful Britisher of Jamaican heritage confronting a fork in the road of her outwardly prosperous life.
Recently promoted at her company, where she stands out both for her gender and ancestry, the young woman can choose to continue her exhausting, lonely ascent up the ladder of corporate achievement, alongside misogynistic coworkers who dismiss her success as a nod to the veneer of diversity she confers upon her employer. Or she can embrace the escape valve that is her cancer diagnosis and transcend this life. Untreated, the cancer is terminal, and therein lies the seductive release of walking away from it all, from the "breezy brutality" of daily racism. Having a white boyfriend gives her credibility as "the right sort of diversity," but it's not enough to prevent airline personnel from moving her to the economy check-in line despite her business class ticket.
This slender, captivating novel's essential drama lies in Brown's evocative snapshots, scenes from a life of striving, achievement and assimilation that are not enough to bestow acceptance by the majority--a level of recognition the disillusioned young woman can't help but covet. "Born here, parents born here, always lived here--still, never from here," she laments as she ponders the elusiveness of true citizenship.
Assembly will sweep up readers with the sheer power of Brown's devastatingly eloquent prose, culminating in a gorgeous countryside setting where the narrator, attending a lavish party at her boyfriend's family estate, finally confronts her destiny. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer
Discover: A bold and poignant novel featuring a young British Jamaican woman delivers a devastating indictment of post-colonial British culture in the heart of London.
by Louise Nealon
Louise Nealon's Snowflake is a novel that keeps readers guessing, a madcap family drama and coming-of-age saga for Debbie, who has grown up on a dairy farm outside Dublin in an eccentric household. "My uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of my house," it begins. Billy is a bit of a drunk with an unusual interest in constellations and Greek mythology; he keeps the farm running and is devoted to his niece. His sister, Maeve, Debbie's mother, is less stable. She considers herself a writer and a prophet, fanatically recording and interpreting her dreams.
Debbie is now off to Trinity College as a commuter student to study English, but she is deeply self-conscious and without city skills; she spends "half the day scoping out toilets to squat in and take a break" and cry. Her first friend on campus is Xanthe, a young woman of greater experience and privilege but, to Debbie's surprise, with problems of her own as well. The idea that everyone is suffering something, even unseen, is not a new one, but it is refreshingly presented by this cast of wonky, wonderful, traumatized characters in a chaotic, beautiful, flawed world.
Debbie's first-person narrative is self-deprecating and endearingly messy. Her life is constantly off-kilter, one wrench thrown after another, and this quality could be too much, but Nealon's earnestly wacky protagonist pulls it off. Snowflake shows an expert eye for detail and pitch, and an appreciation for the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous--especially when they converge. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: Coming of age from an oddball Irish country family in the chaos and snobbery of Dublin's Trinity College has never been so sweet, funny, moody and real.
Mystery & Thriller
The House of Ashes
by Stuart Neville
Stuart Neville's chilling The House of Ashes mixes a gripping mystery with a soupçon of the supernatural. The 120-year-old house outside Belfast is called The Ashes ostensibly because the remote farm is behind a cluster of ash trees. But the name's darker meaning emerges as the house's history of violent occurrences unfolds, involving two women whose lives, separated by more than 60 years, were ruled by men and who were thrust into circumstances over which they had little control.
Former social worker Sara Keane's angry, domineering husband, Damien, decided they would move into the house, bought by her unyielding father-in-law, Francie, after situations "went bad" in England. The house's creepy basement, its isolation and Damien's emotional abuse intensify Sara's depression, as do the kitchen floor's persistent red stains, which reappear despite vigorous scrubbing. Sara's bewildered when elderly Mary Jackson shows up, yelling about missing children, a fire and insisting that she owns the house. As a child, Mary was locked in that basement for years with two women called "the Mummies," infrequently allowed out by the three brutal men who lived upstairs called "the Daddies." Only Mary survived a mass murder at the house.
Neville's eighth thriller delves deeply into the psyches of these two powerless women, alternating between Mary's past and Sara's present. Neville subtly weaves in Irish politics as The Troubles loom over Mary's time, while also affecting Sara's contemporary story. Damien never says Northern Ireland: "As if to speak its name would shame him."
Discover: In this gripping thriller that melds domestic abuse and Irish politics, a house with a history of violent occurrences looms over two women whose lives are separated by 60 years.
by Denise Mina
Denise Mina's historical thriller Rizzio gives action-packed pacing to the gasp-inducing, true-story murder of the personal secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots.
In 16th-century Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots, appoints David Rizzio as her personal secretary. Rizzio's appointment isn't arbitrary--he is a learned man who can translate to and from four languages, intelligently advise on drafting legislations and proclamations, as well as communicate with courts of Europe. Although Rizzio prefers men, the appointment causes rumors of an affair, soon bolstered by Mary's pregnancy. Rich and powerful usurpers to the Scottish throne seize upon the unfounded gossip as fodder to force the rightful Queen of Scotland into transferring all power to Lord Darnley, her husband. As king, Darnley promises to favor the more affluent members of the kingdom. The plot is to kill Rizzio and cause enough distress to Mary politically and emotionally that she will miscarry and be too weak to oppose the transfer of power. On the night of March 9, 1566, 80 men burst into the queen's dining room at Holyrood Palace to beat and stab David Rizzio to death. The facts of Rizzio's murder are well documented, but Mina (Conviction; The Long Drop) expertly adds substantial character development and a heart-kicking pace to transform this centuries-old tale of murder into a visceral and compelling read. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer
Discover: The centuries-old murder of a close confidant to Mary, Queen of Scots is retold with thriller-level pacing and a gasp-inducing insight.
Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes
by Alexa Martin
Strong female friendships are one of the highlights of Alexa Martin's The Playbook (Intercepted; Blitzed; Snapped) series of romances, and she continues her gift for writing messy, believable friendships in her women's fiction debut, Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes. This novel tells the story of Lauren, a single Black mother, and her best friend Jude, an Instagram fitness influencer, who decide to try to be sister-wives of a sort, and buy a house together.
Lauren is worried about losing custody of her precious daughter, Adelaide, to her conniving ex-fiancé, who is a white doctor. Scared that she won't come across as professionally as he does, Lauren turns to Jude for help. Jude, meanwhile, is dealing with her narcissistic mother and the loss of some sponsors. Teaming up with Lauren can only help her image. So Jude and Lauren start a podcast together, Mom Jeans and Martinis, and are shocked at the response they get.
Witty and real, Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes showcases the hard things that Lauren and Jude have to deal with: the loss of a parent, custody battles, alcoholism, racism and the mean moms at playgroups. But it also highlights the bond that persists between the two women in spite of everything that's thrown at them. With candor, Alexa Martin reveals the strength and heart and hard work that lie behind women's long-term friendships. Fans of Catherine Ryan Hyde or Kristin Hannah are sure to love Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Discover: This witty novel explores the enduring friendship between two women: a single mother and an Instagram fitness influencer.
The Love Hypothesis
by Ali Hazelwood
Ali Hazelwood's first romance novel, The Love Hypothesis, is a delightful romp through the corridors of scientific academia. She ably captures the world of panicky students, demanding professors and the amusing neuroses of a lovable Ph.D. student who's gotten herself in a pickle again.
As a third-year doctoral student, Olive Smith should be smarter than this, but in a desperate attempt to convince her best friend Anh that she's happily dating someone, Olive randomly kisses the nearest man in the hallway. Unfortunately, that happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, the hotshot curmudgeon of the biology department. Anh is cautiously optimistic that Olive won't be so lonely anymore, and backs off pressuring her to date, which means that Olive has to keep the ruse going. To her astonishment, Dr. Carlsen agrees to her scheme, and Olive finds herself fake-dating the hottest, grumpiest man at Stanford. This has unexpected ramifications for both Adam and Olive, as they're forced to face preconceptions they had about each other and navigate the social world of Stanford as a couple.
Hilarious and heartwarming, The Love Hypothesis is romantic comedy at its best. Tackling serious issues--such as the lack of women in scientific academic settings, as well as trauma that both Olive and Adam faced in the past--with a deft hand, Ali Hazelwood has created a superbly funny romance with depth. This debut novel is a perfect amalgamation of sex and science, sure to appeal to readers of Christina Lauren or Abby Jimenez. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Discover: In this delightful romantic comedy, a nervous Ph.D. student convinces a professor to fake-date her for hilariously convoluted reasons.
The Charm Offensive
by Alison Cochrun
Alison Cochrun's debut novel, The Charm Offensive, is the kind of sweepingly romantic book that will make even the most seasoned romance reader melt. Charlie is trying to prove to the world that he's employable after being ousted from the tech company he cofounded because of his severe anxiety and OCD. He agrees to appear on The Bachelor-like TV show Ever After, where Dev is a producer.
As far as princes go, Charlie is a disaster. Upon meeting the first of the potential princesses, he stress-vomits all over Dev, his newly assigned "handler." Even more inconvenient is the way the two men fall for each other as Dev helps Charlie through production, attempting to mitigate the damage to the show--and to Charlie. Dev could have simply been the fairytale-obsessed sunshine to Charlie's anxious gray sky, but Cochrun gives him an emotional character arc, allowing readers a chance to see both men sort through their respective identities.
The diverse cast of The Charm Offensive features characters who provide not only comic relief, but support and thoughtful commentary on the ways society views mental illness, queerness and the idea of a Happily Ever After. Friends teach Charlie about their own experiences on the asexual spectrum and help Dev come to terms with his occasional bouts of depression, all without heavy-handed prose from the author.
Perfect for fans of Casey McQuiston and Cat Sebastian, The Charm Offensive is replete with passages worthy of rereading and a romance that's validating, filled with banter and achingly beautiful. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels
Discover: The Charm Offensive is a funny, diverse, subversive romance that brings an unexpected happily ever after to a reality dating show.
Biography & Memoir
by Hayley Mills
There are countless coming-of-age memoirs out there, but how many unfold at the House of Mouse? The English actress Hayley Mills's fulsome Forever Young is certainly weighted toward the six films that she made for Disney, but it's also a disarmingly forthright look at a jobbing actor's life.
Acting was a logical career path for Mills: her father, John, was a celebrated thespian; her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, a playwright and novelist whose stories occasionally made it to the screen. In 1959, young Mills starred in the British crime drama Tiger Bay, which was seen by Bill Anderson, a senior producer for Walt Disney, who was having trouble casting the lead in his movie Pollyanna. "At the age of twelve my life was tipped on its head and I was plunged, literally, into Wonderland," writes Mills.
This should not be mistaken for a grievance. While it wasn't easy for Mills to go through the typical adolescent trials in the public eye, Forever Young--which wraps up in the early 1970s, when she's a new mother leaving a bad marriage--is refreshingly light on rancor. Mills is especially winning on the subject of her post-Disney triumphs and missteps in film and theater in and around Swinging London. Forever Young swirls with stories about the procession of famous people that Mills has worked with, including, of course, Uncle Walt, whom she adored but whose company's squeaky-clean image cost her a plum role in a non-Disney film: "Lolita was politely turned down," reports Mills. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: This memoir by the English actress who rose to fame as a child star for Disney is rather like a Disney movie: enchanting, entertaining and only fleetingly dark.
Nature & Environment
Ice Rivers: A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness, and Humanity
by Jemma Wadham
"One thing I've learnt is that as human beings, we are inseparable from our glaciers. Every individual will be affected by glacier shrinkage or loss in coming years... what we are witnessing now is unprecedented in Earth's history, not just human history, and it has largely happened during the last century. Whatever your view of the role of fossil fuels in maintaining economic prosperity, the greatest loser in this game will be humankind." Jemma Wadham, professor of glaciology at the University of Bristol, U.K., offers a stunning glimpse into a life studying glaciers all around the world.
Ice Rivers provides a striking close-up of the glacial landscapes of Greenland, Peru, Patagonia, India, Antarctica and more, showing readers not only what glaciers look and feel like up close, and their vulnerability, but also how they work, what lies beneath them, and how they have affected--and continue to impact--the planet. Wadham puts glacial melt into both geological and contemporary contexts, relating their decline today to past growth and contraction, and detailing their impact on the communities local to them, which now are at risk from water shortages, toxicity and changed climate. Wadham skillfully explains concepts that are almost too big and vast to understand, like the ice sheets themselves, while being brutally honest about impending risks without losing hope. Wadham writes with optimism that humanity might be motivated to take action--not just for the preservation of the glaciers, but for ourselves. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer
Discover: Glaciologist Jemma Wadham takes a striking but hopeful look at fragile glacial ecosystems and how dependent on them all human life is.
Children's & Young Adult
Paradise on Fire
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
In this gripping, moving and life-affirming middle-grade adventure, survival requires not only smarts but also compassion for others, the planet and oneself.
Jewell Parker Rhodes, award-winning author of Ghost Boys, introduces Addy, a Nigerian American teen girl participating in a summer program for Black city kids to develop wilderness skills. "Escape. Survive."--that's Addy's mantra. Her parents died in a fire when she was four, but she lived. Now, on her flight to Paradise Ranch in California, she maps the exits, preparing for an emergency. At the ranch, she avoids the fireplace, trying not to summon unwanted flashbacks. She misses the Bronx and Grandma Bibi, who left Nigeria to raise Addy and who encouraged this trip: "To know yourself, you need to journey, Adaugo." As events lead to a climactic forest fire, Addy endeavors to follow Bibi's words.
Paradise on Fire is a brilliant melding of captivating storytelling and crucial teaching moments; Rhodes also exemplifies how friends can bring out one's latent strengths. Through the kids' candid dialogue and Addy's expressive narration, Rhodes weaves in issues of race and class. Aware of the opportunities they've lacked as Black city kids, Kelvin jokingly calls s'mores "white people's food" and notes the weirdness of sleeping outside. DeShon, cognizant of how "white people's charity" funded the trip, feels like someone's "summer project." Immersive prose adds urgency to Rhodes's message that 97% of wildfires are caused by humans, a topic cited in the afterword as the book's inspiration, along with the 2018 Camp Fire. Inspiring both action and hope, Paradise on Fire heralds the importance of believing in one's own power to make a difference. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: A Black teen from the city who survived the fire that killed her parents confronts the destructive reality of forest fires in this passionate, galvanizing middle-grade survival adventure.
We Are Not Broken
by George M. Johnson
Black, nonbinary author and New York City activist George M. Johnson's absorbing second memoir, We Are Not Broken, touchingly tells of growing up with a brother and two cousins, and honors the memory of the grandmother who raised them.
Johnson (All Boys Aren't Blue) shares complex, emotional family stories of childhood as a Black boy in Plainfield, N.J. Nanny, the family matriarch, is described as a caring, no-nonsense, hustling, five-time cancer survivor who did whatever she could to provide for the four children in her care: George, Garrett, Rasul and Lil' Rall. Johnson begins each chapter with a Nannyism--"the little quips of wisdom that my family has lived on for generations." Every story from Johnson's childhood is represented by a Nannyism, e.g., "It ain't harmony if all ya'll singing the same note. The harmony is in the difference." Johnson then uses that wisdom to weave stories about childhood experiences like spankings, barbershop haircuts, racism, disagreements and camaraderie. These tales connect Black children to each other and highlight how such incidents are a part of the beauty that is Black adulthood. "Many Black men were once Black boys, and this is our story of survival in a world that has rarely seen our beauty."
Johnson's tales, accompanied by letters and speeches from each of Nanny's grandkids, prove her existence touched them all in very special ways and that, through them, her legacy lives on. Johnson's perception of their childhood is profound and resonates long after the book has ended. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
Discover: A heartwarming, reflective memoir that details George M. Johnson's childhood and the joys of growing up Black.
Cat & Dog: A Tale of Opposites
by Tullio Corda
A cat and dog illustrate the concept of opposites--and friendship--in this charming picture book by Italian author/illustrator Tullio Corda, who lives in France, his first title to be published in English.
"Brave/ Afraid," "Slow/ Fast," "Nimble/ Heavy": a pair of furry friends go through their day on opposite sides of the personality and behavior spectrum. A blue, sausage-shaped dog seems continually baffled by the sly orange cat that zips around, lunging for birds and falling out of trees. But do opposites make enemies? Decidedly not! Readers see, in a waggishly tense finale, that some friends balance each other perfectly.
Each spread depicts the cat and dog representing opposing experiences. After the cat knocks a potted plant off the shelf and onto the dog's head, the dog is "Upset" while the paw-licking cat is "Unconcerned." As soon as the stalking cat gets "Near" the bird, the dog bumbles onto the scene, causing the bird to fly "Far" away. Briefly, the friends are in the same state, "Down Low," while the bird is "Up High" in a tree. Uncluttered, light-colored backgrounds allow kitty and pooch to remain front and center, while the most basic of text--mostly two-word pairings translated from the original French by Taylor Barrett Gaines--conveys a surprisingly rich and humorous story. Corda is masterful in showing emotion in the faces of the animals, even with the simplest features. A thoroughly fun, laugh-aloud picture book. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This entertaining tale shows that books about opposites do not have to be without plot: an entire, comical story is told through few words and deft artwork.