Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 4, 2021

Many, many new books that we've read and loved this week. Let's begin:

Daniel Goldin on Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, by Pete Davis: "Davis’s work seems to be descended from a number of philosophical thinkers, from Robert Putnam, Jedediah Purdy, Ralph Nader, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Davis’s case, which he’s been making since his law school graduation speech (viewed over 30 million times), advocates towards commitment and away from a culture of infinite browsing. His feeling is that the education system has moved away from attachment to advancement, fraying the bonds of society and has led to things like shareholder value above all else. The idea of early adulthood experimentation and leaving one’s options open has become a life case, abandoning traditions and everyday heroes for fandom. I started this book wondering when Davis would reference Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. The answer, for those who are wondering, is page 30. The internet has been a laboratory to make this thesis more relevant than ever. Davis argues for a return to commitment, distinguishing between realizing you are wrong about something and continually second guessing yourself. Davis also does a good job showing this is not just a problem of the wealthy and privileged, and taking some of this direction could lead to a happier and more meaningful life and society. There are certainly arguments that counterpoint Davis’s thesis, but I like that Dedicated argues from a perspective of decency and civic engagement."

Kay Wosewick for Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard: "Two recent best sellers relied heavily on research pioneered by Suzanne Simard: Richard Power’s Overstory and Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees. Simard’s research proved that clear-cut logging old forests causes virtually irreversible damage to the land. But far more importantly, her research discovered why: the trees live as a community, acting for the good of the forest as a whole. This is accomplished via vast underground networks of roots and mycorrhiza that direct nutrients from healthy to needy trees, send warning signals of coming infestations and disease so trees can prepare defenses, and so much more. Clear-cut the trees, the network dies, and replacement trees won’t grow. Simard pursued her research despite belittlement, false criticism, and even sabotage of her research by a powerful clique of men with vested interests in maintaining existing logging practices in British Columbia. But her research proved popular among fellow academics and students, and eventually became mainstream. Growing up in a multi-generation logging family in British Columbia, Suzanne’s insatiable curiosity started her down this forest road when she was just six years old. I spent several enchanted evenings with Suzanne in beautiful British Columbia as she described her pioneering journey. Thank you for your tenacity Suzanne."

Jason Kennedy on Sorrowland, a new novel by Rivers Solomon: "Wow - this book sneaks up on you. I thought it was one thing, then the story turns and barges off in another thrilling direction. Vern has fled from Cainland, a commune led by her cultish husband, Reverend Sherman. She is pregnant as she flees into the woods, and she will stay there for the next four years. As long and as far as Vern gets from Cainland, its tentacles have latched onto her and won’t let go. She begins to transform because of her life lived there. She is hunted because of what she might become and fears for her children. It’s enough to get her moving back into civilization to rejoin the world. It’s not easy, as the hunt is quick to pick up again as soon as she leaves her forest home. Rivers Solomon has written a magical novel that is steeped in so much hard history to acknowledge: from American government sanctioning cruel experiments on black citizens to general hatred of the unknown or different. This is a book of transformation and redemption."

Jenny Chou for The Ones We’re Meant to Find, by Joan He: "On an island, somewhere out in the vast ocean, Cee has only one goal: find her sister Kasey. In Joan He’s enthralling, futuristic page-turner, the relationship between two sisters holds the destiny of earth in the balance. As climate change finally ravages our land and oceans, a chosen few take refuge in a levitating city built in the sky. The rest of humanity flounders on the surface, victims of extreme weather and a polluted atmosphere. Kasey may be a teenager, but her intellect leads her to a plan that will allow earth to recover and humans to thrive once again. But first she must solve the mystery of her missing sister, whose love of the ocean and swimming might have cost her life. Kasey’s search leads her to a mysterious boy named Actinium, who is either trying his best to help her or might be her biggest enemy. In a twisty, unpredictable way that’s reminiscent of We Were Liars, nothing is as it seems in this unforgettable book."

And then back to Jason for Firebreak, by Nicole Kornher-Stace: "This book takes the pulse of our world, with corporations trying to eat each other up to make new mega corporations, and then pushes the envelope even further in that direction. Mal is such a person, who looks at the world of Goliath-shaped entities and throws the stone in hopes of making a better world. Not a perfect world, as climate change has warped Mal’s world, but at least it’s a world where friendships matter. Where the small things in life make a difference. Such a fun read!"

Then it's Daniel again for Secrets of Happiness, by Joan Silber: "What I love about Joan Silber’s books is how her novel-stories rocket me through space and time without any fear of crashing. In my opinion, the connecting thread of Secrets of Happiness is Gil, a contractor in the garment business whose work takes him to wherever the costs are cheapest – Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, and most notably Thailand, where he brings back more than just the beautiful scarves he buys as souvenirs for his wife. From there, the story spins out to two of his sons (who don’t know each other), and from there to a documentary filmmaker, a librarian turned cancer patient, a labor organizer in Asia, and more than one soul who are not quite sure what they are doing. They are all searching for the happiness of the title – is it money, vocation, love, spirit, or something else? And how do moral transgressions figure into this equation, large and small, some punished, others excused or even rewarded? Coincidences abound, but it is best to think of them more like connections, vital to both fiction and life. Comparisons to the greats like Alice Munro and Grace Paley abound, and I’d like to add Ann Patchett (also a fan) to the mix. Beautiful!"

Finally, in the brand new, just released section of reviewing, it's Kay, Jenny, and Jason all together to talk up the latest from The Martian author Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary. From Kay: "Andy Weir hits his third consecutive homerun, this time out of the ballpark! Hail Mary brilliantly explores two themes: ‘save planet Earth’ and ‘first alien contact.’ Relationship building and joint creative problem solving among alien and human are portrayed with great humor and tenderness, and there’s still plenty of ‘sci’ for even the geekiest reader. Project Hail Mary is a radiant gem."

From Jason: "The writing is funny and pitch perfect, the science is wildly creative and carefully explained. This is the book I was not expecting to be blown away, by and I loved every second of it."

And from Jenny: " I knew after reading an advance copy of Project Hail Mary on January 10th that I’d found one of my Top 5 Books of 2021. Turn off your phone because you don’t want to talk to anyone until you reach the last page in this thrill ride of a novel. I loved Ryland’s creativity, and he’s a problem-solving genius, but the connections he makes in space give this outstanding novel its delightful punch of emotional depth."

AND NOW! The latest in paperback books, as recommended by the Boswellians, out this week:

The Color of Air
, by Gail Tsukiyama. Jane Glaser says, "Bestselling author Gail Tsukiyama gifts readers with a beautifully rendered story set against the backdrop of 1935 Hawaii as the tremors of the Mauna Loa volcano threaten the community of Hilo whose livelihood depends on fishing and the sugar cane plantations. Tsukiyama creates a remarkably soulful portrait of richly drawn characters who, in the face of uncertain times, shows the strength, wisdom, forgiveness, and enduring love that will embrace the heart of every reader. Destined to be one of my favorite books of 2020!"

A Deadly Education
, by Naomi Novik. Jenny says, "If you like your magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark and scary (and who doesn’t?), then I have a book for you. The gasp-out-loud last sentence left me desperate for the sequel. A Deadly Education might sound like fun for really brave kids, but trust me, this magical treat is for grown-ups."

The Paris Hours, by Alex George. Daniel says, "The Paris Hours is told in short chapters ending on cliffhanger notes, filled with flashbacks that bring the characters to life, and peppered with historical figures from Josephine Baker to Sylvia Beach. It all comes together in a big finish. Magnifique!"

Pizza Girl, by Jean Kyoung Frazier. Chris Lee says, "Delivers a piping hot and fresh update on the classic slacker novel. Frazier’s penned a sardonic self-help antidote that’s not about fixing-healing-cleansing-improving but about coming to terms with the person you are and figuring out how to live with it." 

And Jen Steele adds, "An emotional, somber look into the life of Pizza Girl. Eighteen years old and pregnant, living with her mom and boyfriend in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Pizza Girl quietly grieves the loss of her father. A provocative novel worthy of your attention."

Providence, by Max Barry. Rachel Copeland says, "Having been a Max Barry fan for a while now, I have to say - I love this book even more than I hoped I would. It's way more science fiction than his previous novels, in a way that reminded me of The Martian, Ender's Game, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You won't be able to put this book down!"

And Jason Kennedy adds, "Max Barry's take on a first encounter with aliens is quite brutal but fantastic. This book is a perfect mix of Aliens meets Enders' Game, with a bit of 2001 thrown in for good measure. This is one of the most interesting, philosophical science fiction romps that I've read in a long time!"

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