Monday, April 4, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of April 5, 2022

This is an absolutely jam-packed book release week, and we've got the staff recs to guide you through it.

Alphabetically by bookseller's first name, we begin with Caroline, who recommends The Unwritten Book: An Investigation by Samantha Hunt. Caroline says: "Hunt's earlier work (The Seas, The Dark Dark, Mr. Splitfoot) has already proven her to be a master of the ghost story. The Unwritten Book is no different. But then, it's also entirely different. Technically nonfiction, this reads like a collection of essays orbiting around chunks of a novel - her late father's, which she unearthed after he died. His words become a means for Hunt to reflect on his life, on their relationship, alcohol ('spirits' themselves), clues, and memory, but also so much more than what any of those words contain. Hunt is interested in vastness and possibility, in the undefinable, in patterns and coincidence, in connection, 'madness,' and motherhood. At its core, this is a story about all the things that haunt us: books, objects, houses, place, violence, and of course, the dead. A word of advice: this is a book that asks you to surrender to it completely, to read it as it asks to be read. Hunt won't lead you astray. Or then again, maybe she will."

Next we have Chris for a new work of nonfiction by French investigative journalist Valentin Gendrot,  translated by Frank Wynne. The book is Cop: A Journalist Infiltrates the Police, and Chris says: "It is an ugly, cold comfort to say, “at least they have the same problems in France,” but here we are. Gendrot’s pulled off two major feats with this book. The first, of course, is spending two years undercover as a journalist in the Parisian police force without getting himself killed. The second is capturing on the page the crushing frustration of the central Catch-22 of changing policing: To fix the problem, you have to admit there’s a problem, but if you admit there’s a problem, now you’re the problem. In clean, clear-eyed reportage, Gendrot is unflinching but evenhanded about what he documents – the daily, casual acts of racism, violence, and misogyny of some fellow officers, the code of silence adopted by the rest, the lack of resources, support, and training for the front-line, and the disconnect between politicians and the brass from what’s happening in the streets. It’s farcically optimistic to think this book is going to be the catalyst for serious police reform. In fact, it begs the pessimistic question: are these problems actually problems or part of the design of how we police in the Western hemisphere? Still, Gendrot’s book is important, a necessary document of and confrontation with the current reality and its toll on those doing the policing and those being policed."

Next up we have Daniel, who has three recommendations to share. First it's In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch, the Director of Chicago's Seminary Coop Bookstores. Daniel says: "Jeff Deutsch meditates on what makes a bookstore special, using as a model the legendary Seminary Co-op on the campus of the University of Chicago. Deutsch uses voices from literary history to make a point that the experience of book browsing and discovery is important well beyond its mercantile nature. And he draws on his Jewish background to show how a culture can celebrate learning for learning’s sake. With economic pressures compounded by the rise of Amazon, stores like Seminary are searching for a new model, with the idea that taking out the profit incentive will allow bookstores to focus more on what they should sell and less on what they have to sell. In Praise of Good Bookstores is not just a work to inspire, but also functions as a catalog for recommended reading."

We'll host Jeff Deutsch for an In-Store event on Monday, April 25, 6:30 pm. Click here for more information and to register.

Daniel's next recommendation is for Let's Not Do That Again, a new novel by Grant Ginder. Daniel says: "Nancy Harrison is running for Senator, with her television star opponent neck and neck. So it’s not a good look when her daughter Greta is captured breaking the window of an elegant restaurant during a French protest. Nancy’s son Nick, late of politics and now teaching writing while working on his Joan Didion musical, is dispatched to bring Greta home, but it turns out the situation is even more complicated than could be imagined. I’d like to call it a rollercoaster of a novel, one moment cutting satire, the next a poignant family story, but perhaps a carousel is the more appropriate carnival allusion, with everyone chasing after some sort of brass ring - power, love, revenge, and for at least one player, a contract with Fox News."

Finally Daniel, along with Tim and Jenny, recommend Sea of Tranquility, the latest novel from Emily St John Mandel. Daniel says: "After reading Sea of Tranquility, a novel that veers from a hundred years in the past to almost 300 in the future, I wondered if a new reader to Emily St John Mandel would love it as much as I did. I decided they would, with a caveat that they might have to stop everything and read the author’s previous novels. But for folks who’ve read Station Eleven and The Great Hotel, with both references that tie the story together and laugh-out-loud meta-commentary (you’ll know it when you get to it), the rewards are mind-blowing."

Jenny chimes in: "As humans, what do we really want in life? You can probably think of lots of things, but I’m going to guess that connections with others are definitely in the top three. Besides her brilliantly crafted sentences, the sometimes significant, sometimes small ways her characters and her books connect to each other make Emily St. John Mandel’s books unforgettable and so compelling. The Sea of Tranquility is her best yet for tying together some loose ends that I didn’t even realize were loose. I loved revisiting characters from previous books in timelines that sometimes cross one another but often run in parallel universes. It’s not a spoiler for either book to say that Mandel’s novel Station Eleven appears in Sea of Tranquility as a novel written by one of the characters. The most significant connection of this fictional author’s life is made on a book tour to promote it. And if you are like me, the beauty of the ending will make you cry. All that said, these connections are bits of joy implanted in the book. You don’t need to have read previous titles. Sea of Tranquility will keep you up reading late into night, and you’ll carry the story in your thoughts as you go about your day, constantly checking the time, waiting for the minute you can return to Emily St. John Mandel’s exquisitely built world."

And Tim brings us home: "I'm trying to understand why Mandel's writing casts a spell on me. I don’t have a complete answer, but I’ve decided on this: her style is steady and beautiful, she’s smart without sounding pretentious, and her characters feel true. There's a flesh and blood intimacy about them that makes me feel safe in their world, even as we’re brought to the edge of catastrophe. When tragedy comes, I want to face it with these fictional people. This novel builds on The Glass Hotel (which I loved!) and Station Eleven (which I now must read!). It brings the past and future together as if connections across time are waiting to be discovered. It throws our reality into doubt by questioning how we came to be, and it shows us that technology will never hide our humanity. I’ll forgo the summary and just say that Mandel has created a dazzling story with humble simplicity, then tied it tight with a perfect ending."

Jen joins the fray with a middle grade book recommendation - Catch that Dog! by Will Taylor. Jen says: "Catch that Dog! is a wholehearted delight of a novel. Based on a true story, Masterpiece (the world's most valuable dog) is missing! To this day it is still an unsolved mystery, but author Will Taylor has imagined what might have been. Walking to her parents’ shop after school, 10-year-old Joanie Dayton finds a cat stuck under some crates in alley. Rescuing the poor animal, Joanie takes it home, cleans it up, and discovers she’s rescued a tiny dog! After some careful negotiation with her parents, Joanie is allowed to keep it and names him Lucky. Joanie shares all her hopes and dreams with Lucky. It’s Joanie who feels she’s the lucky, one until one day, when she sees an article in the paper - there’s a picture of a dog named Masterpiece who’s been dognapped. Masterpiece looks an awful lot like Lucky, and and Joanie has a big decision to make. Catch that Dog! Is full of warmth and humor, and the bond between Lucky & Joanie will melt your heart."

Kathy is next, and she recommends another middle grade title: When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle. Kathy says: "Set in a British town during WWII, this emotionally gripping work of historical fiction tells the story of 12-year-old Joseph, who’s sent to live with a stranger, Mrs. F, when his father goes off to war. Joseph, angry and unhappy, immediately clashes with Mrs. F, not particularly fond of children and struggling with her own secrets and scars, who loves only the run-down zoo she oversees and its silverback gorilla, Adonis. The intersection of these three lives forms the heart of a compassionate story of war, loss, and finding redemption in unlikely places."

Kay suggest The Dolphin House by Audrey Schulman. Kay says: "The inspiration for Schulman's novel is a brief but groundbreaking study conducted on dolphins in the summer of 1965. A young woman is hired to feed four 'research' dolphins who live in a lagoon on St. Thomas. Having grown up around pigs and horses (intelligent animals), Cora is naturally curious. Unlike the scientists, she gets in the water, and is immediately struck by a fascinating variety of sounds. The dolphins flee to the farthest corner, so Cora pretends to be busy and ignores them. Perfect! The dolphins soon come to check her out, and so begins their friendship. In a very short time, Cora devises ways to communicate with the dolphins - a gigantic step in animal research at the time. Scientists and journalist from around the world come to St. Thomas, and soon the world knows that dolphins are highly intelligent creatures. Schulman's story is breathtaking, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, and a must-read for animal lovers."

And then we have Margaret with a recommendation for Portrait of a Thief by Grace D Li. Margaret says: "Compelling and personal, Grace D Li’s Portrait of a Thief tells the tale of five Chinese American college students as they confront the meaning of identity and attempt to pull off a heist that will shake the world. Will Chen, an art history major at Harvard, and four of his friends are offered a dangerous opportunity from a wealthy Chinese businesswoman - steal back art that was stolen from China, which western museums refuse to return. Li keeps the action rolling as the heist is pulled off and yet is able to explore each of the five friends’ motivations for agreeing to this lucrative deal. The characters are motivated by their place in the Chinese American diaspora, yet each has their own complicated relationship with their heritage. As the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, they grapple between what is expected of them and what they want as the try to do the impossible and shape history in the process.

And Tim brings us home with a write up for Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist by Frans de Waal. Tim says: "It's a pleasure (and a relief!) to find a non-fiction writer who’s concise and plain-spoken, one who gets straight to the point. Frans de Waal is that writer, and his points are extraordinary. He has hard-earned insights into gender and sex among hominid apes (yes, that's us and our close genetic family). He’s a self-proclaimed feminist who’s not interested in condemning chimpanzee societies for being male dominated, admiring bonobos for female domination, or dismissing the individual variations found in members of every species. A naturalist just wonders why life works the way it does, and his wondering comes with tested science about nature and nurture related topics like sexual pleasure and reproduction, social organizations and group hierarchies, the toys genders choose, our emotional tendencies, nurturing young, competition and cooperation, altruism, friendship, and all types of violence. There is a wide variety of research discussed, including studies done in captivity (zoos and primate centers), which always makes me uncomfortable, but by looking at human sex, gender and society related to other primates and animals in general, de Waal blasts needed light through the murky debate over what people see as right and wrong. I’m personally very grateful."

Paperback picks, too? You betcha. We've got four.

From Daniel, Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. Daniel says: "Marian Graves is a pilot who disappeared on a groundbreaking flight. Hadley Baxter is the actress, tarnished by scandal, who hopes an important role playing Marian in a biopic will burnish her reputation. With alternating voices, Great Circle ponders, can you really know someone’s story? Historical fiction of the highest order!"

Daniel also recommends The Guncle by Steven Rowley. Daniel's rec: "Patrick O’Hara, Golden Globe winner of the iconic television comedy The People Upstairs, has been holed up in Palm Springs after the cancellation of his show and the death of his partner. When his college buddy turned sister-in-law also dies, and his brother confronts his addictions by heading to rehab, Patrick agrees to take in his niblings Grant and Maisie for the summer. As Patrick’s disagreeable sister Clara notes, Patrick is no Rosalind Russell, but that doesn’t stop The Guncle from calling to mind Auntie Mame, notably when the ready-made family has a Christmas-in-July party. I’m well aware that quirky children are a shortcut to sympathy - ask any screenwriter - but Maisie and Grant (or Grantelope; nicknames don’t become Maisie) do a particularly good job of forcing Patrick to overcome his grief-fueled-malaise. And like Rowley’s novel, they are also charming and funny."

Margaret is next with her recommendation of Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau. She says: "Amidst the clashing viewpoints and lifestyles of 1970s America one teen girl tries to make sense of it all and find out who she wants to be in Mary Jane. The story opens on a 14-year-old girl from a straight-laced, conservative family whose worldview is shaken when she takes a summer nanny job for a doctor. Expecting a family much like her own, Mary Jane is surprised and strangely delighted when the Cones turn out to be a bohemian, openly amorous, rock n' roll couple with a free-spirited 5-year-old. On top of it all, a rock star and his famous wife are living in the attic as the doctor helps the rocker recover from his drug addiction. Throughout the summer, Mary Jane encounters and embraces new music, new clothes, and a new way of looking at herself and what she wants to be, all while inadvertently helping the Cone family and their guests grow as well. A wonderful read about found families and finding yourself - this is already one of my favorites of the year!"

Does Daniel chime in here too? You know he does! "Baltimore, 1975. For 14-year-old Mary Jane, life is Roland Park Country Day School, lemonades at the Elkridge Country Club, and cooking and cleaning with her mom. A summer nanny job offers a surprising twist - a rock star and his actress wife are in hiding at the house, being treated for addiction. That’s one crazy summer. Jessica Anya Blau does a great job of capturing that moment when you realize that life could be more than what you’ve been offered. For all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Mary Jane only occasionally veers into raciness. Mostly it’s smart and funny and charming."

And finally, Madi Hill recommends Whisper Down the Lane by Clay Chapman: "Whisper Down the Lane is a love letter to the horror classics of the 70s and 80s. An alternating story of six-year-old Sean and his single mother together against the world as they try to establish themselves in a new town and a new school in 1983, and Richard, an elementary school art teacher newly married with a stepson with which he is trying to establish a father-son relationship in 2013. Sean tries to keep his mother happy and ends up embroiled in a school wide scandal about a satanic cult, while thirty years in the future Richard is starting the school year trying to make sense of what seems to be a series of escalating grotesque pranks.  A psychological horror with just enough gore, Chapman crafts the story with twists and turns that keep you gripped. This book perfectly shows how dangerous groupthink can be and shows the similarities between the mindset that allowed the Satanic Panic to flourish, and the dangerous conspiracy theories that lead to real harm today."

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