Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Weeks of June 21 and June 28, 2022

Hey book blog readers, thanks for stopping by this week. We got so caught up reading last week that we plum forgot to post out recommendations. Which is a shame, because we read some GREAT books that got their release last week. So we'll include those here with this week's recommendations, and you can simply sit back and reap the rewards of a super bonus double recommendation blog. Sweet!

First, Chris Lee on the latest from Ottessa Mosfegh, Lapvona. Chris says: "Moshfegh is the modern bard of violence and delusion, and Lapvona lies somewhere in the territory between lost books of the Bible and Shakespearian tragedy. In a medieval fiefdom struck by drought and ruled by superstition, a demented power struggle plays out between a bitter shepherd, his deformed but pious son, an ignorant priest, a blind, witchy midwife, and a heretical, frail lord. Is there a wolf among them, or are they all sheep for slaughter? Captivating and brutal, this is a heady novel of ideas that will grab you hard and shake away any scraps of complacency you might have left."

Parker Jensen also has Lapvona on their staff rec shelf. Parker says: "Strange, gross, and utterly compelling, Lapvona is a one-of-a-kind book. As a wise (book review and tracking website own by the company which shall not be named) reviewer once said, "Ottessa, you crazy for this one!"

Next, Parker Jensen also recommends YA novel Never Coming Home by Kate M Williams. Parker says: "Unknown Island is everyone’s dream vacation. It is the most exclusive, all expenses paid, private island getaway, and it will be hosting all of your favorite celebrities. However, you don't choose to go to Unknown Island, Unknown Island chooses you. Or rather, Unknown Island picks 10 carefully curated guests to bring over and enjoy their luxury accommodations. After a lengthy and rigorous viral campaign, everyone is buzzing to find out who the first 10 guests will be. And before long 10 elite influencers make their way to the island, expecting the time of their life. But, they quickly realize things aren't adding up. The accommodations are motel level at best, the marketing team who gathered them is nowhere to be seen, and there is no way off the island. And... they still don't know who exactly owns Unknown Island. Hmm, it seems like the time of their lives might be getting cut a little short. Never Coming Home is an addictive and deadly YA thriller that I couldn't put down. Kate Williams quickly creates a sinister tone, full of black humor and social commentary, that made this so much fun to read. And as soon as the bodies began hitting the floor I couldn't stop turning the pages. Kate Williams has created a devious and campy modern homage to Agatha Christie's classic, And Then There Were None."

And Tim McCarthy has a picture book recommendation - Building, written and illustrated by Henry Cole. Tim says: "I love Henry Cole's illustrations! He uses finely detailed black and white drawings with soft color highlights in just the right places, all to show us the beauty and intricate workings of nature. With a companion picture book called Nesting, he taught us how robins build their nests and raise their hatchlings. This book reveals what beavers do best and how their construction makes a new habitat for many other species. Cole's words are clear and direct. Together, the pictures and the story teach us and also create suspense. Oh, and Building has a young Lego builder's stamp of approval! A six-year-old named Landon liked it and compared the beaver dams to the Mitchell Park Domes he'd just visited!"

Tim also has a few-weeks-past-publication (but why not include it anyway?) write-up for the latest from funnyman and essayist David Sedaris - Happy-Go-Lucky. Tim says: "Once again, David Sedaris lovingly, and with full frontal honesty, embraces the strange ironies of being human: the cold pandemic realities, the oddly positive final days of a tough relationship with his father, America demanding that Black Lives Matter, the fortress of love he’s built with his sisters and with Hugh. The shopping! The best thing about reading Happy-Go-Lucky is that it flows so fast. This is a credit to marvelous writing and storytelling. It's like canoeing a river and immediately knowing you won’t need the paddle. The current carries you, and if you don't run full speed into all the worldly snags and boulders put in your way, then you're just not on the right trip. So enjoy the ride and throw the paddle overboard. That endangered turtle you just cruised past will make better use of it."

Daniel Goldin recommends the latest book from Empire of Pain author Patrick Radden Keefe, which is Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks. Daniel says: "While I have a subscription to The New Yorker, I don’t read every long-form article. In fact, I consider it a triumph if I can get through the cartoons, 'Talk of the Town,' at least one review, and at least one article.  But even when I did read some of the pieces collected in Rogues, I found it fascinating to revisit them as part of a collection. Rogues, particularly if you exclude the closing profile of Anthony Bourdain, reads as a collection of true crime short stories, being that they have the vibrancy of the best fiction. I love the way traditional crime subjects like drug cartels and arms dealers are mixed with the corporate misdeeds of unscrupulous hedge fund managers, look-the-other-way bankers, and unrepentant television producers, leading me to wonder if we should reshelve some of those corporate narrative books that are currently in our business section. Whether you want to read more Patrick Radden Keefe or are just hungering for juicy narrative nonfiction, this should satisfy you 12-fold."

Now we go back to Tim McCarthy for his write-up on the latest from Beautiful Ruins and The Cold Millions author Jess Walter, a story collection entitled The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories. Tim says: "Jess Walter is a very fine writer. The Cold Millions is one of my favorite novels, and with this collection he's delivered again, in style. These contemporary stories are hilarious and clever views of love and pain. They ride life's ironies like bucking broncos while staying on a clear-minded literary path. I felt a kinship with some characters, while others were fascinating strangers, but the sharp conversational tone was always a breath of fresh air. There’s plenty of redemption and even some happy endings. Walter dares to tell us, in writing, that writing can’t hope to capture the depth of living; but his characters have extraordinary dimensions, and they were a whole lot of fun!"

Kay Wosewick has a middle grade book recommendation for us next. Woflstongue by Sam Thompson, illustrated by Anna Tromop. Kay says: "This middle grade book stars Silas, a boy who has trouble speaking when under pressure, and two talking wolves ‘on the run’ from a colony of foxes that enslave wolves. Silas helps wolf Isengrim by removing a sliver from his paw; Isengrim returns the favor after a fox gives Silas a nasty bite on his ankle. Dangerous adventures ensue with Silas, the wolves, and other talking animals, including a crow and a cat who love to taunt each other. Delightful!"

And now back to Tim McCarthy for his words on My Name Is Jason. Mine Too.: Our Story. Our Way. This YA book is a collaboration of Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin. Tim says: "Two men, one black and one white, college roommates and friends so close that a single "self" has emerged. Their combined talent was clear in Ain't Burned All the Bright, a loving word-picture of family rising through our desperate times; now we get the inside story of how it all came to be. One man graduated from college, the other dropped out to make art, and together they decided New York City could be the place to express their newfound freedom, to struggle and grow together. What I love most is the sense that they're focused on me, on telling their truth to a reader of Jason's poems, a viewer of Jason's art, and a recipient of this hard-won culmination of beauty and success!"

Recently released in paperback editions:

Kay Wosewick recommends 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."

And back to Tim McCarthy for his words on The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin: "In some ways​ it has a ​classic western feel: the tough towns always primed for violence, death in an instant, or more slowly if water isn't found soon, the clanging of rail spikes as the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific hammer toward their convergence. In other ways it surprises: the 'miracles' revealed by the Ringmaster of a traveling magic show, the wisdom of a prophet with no memory who knows what's on the horizon, the truly amazing quality of the writing. Ming Tsu is a Chinese American orphan, raised by the white killer-for-hire who trained him. "For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill." He married a white woman after her father laughed at his proposal and was beaten for it, then convicted of miscegenation and sentenced to work the railroad line. Now he's got scores to settle and a wife to find, even though a judge ruled they were never married. He's wanted, but whites likely wouldn't know he's coming except that he's 'bigger than them Chinese normally is.' Oh, he's coming, and just pray he’s not coming for you! The novel has a mysterious air about the fleeting aspects of memory, what we try to hang on to and what we try to get back. These characters often frightened me and always filled me with wonder. Remarkable!"

See you next week, assuming we don't forget again!

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of June 14, 2022

Books books books and more books! Here's what we've been reading that as of today, you can read, too!

Friday, Daniel Goldin and Tim McCarthy have write-ups on the latest from Pulitzer-winner Geraldine Brooks: Horse. First, from Tim: "Horse is based on the life of a truly great American racehorse in the middle 1800s named Darley, who came to be known as Lexington. It's also the story of Lexington's glory being rediscovered many years later at the Smithsonian, by lovers of animals and paintings. The stallion's history is endearing, and through his courage and grace, Brooks reveals the nature of people and of America, on the brink of Civil War and as we live now. She’s adept at showing the beautiful Kentucky landscape, the personality of the horses, and the spectacle of racing in a society where whites casually own people. All this in stark contrast with the anguish and terror of being owned and used at the owner’s whim. It’s the enslaved young trainer Jarret’s close connection with the horse that fully exposes the single-minded profit motive for possessing them both. Jarret tells us that, in the end, it's only horses who are honest, and in the end a memorable story needs heart and strong characters. This novel has both, in human and equine form."

And from Daniel: "Much like People of the Book chronicled the Sarajevo Haggadah through a contemporary rare books expert, Horse tells the story of Lexington, a legendary horse whose bloodline courses through many a prized thoroughbred, via the investigations of Jess, a White scientist at the Smithsonian bone lab, and Theo, a Black art historian who comes into possession of a once-lost painting. In telling the story of the groom Jarret Lewis, Brooks chronicles how slavery was entwined in the horse breeding and racing, benefitting stakeholders even if they didn’t own slaves themselves, and the legacy of racism that Theo endures. Brooks’s novels celebrate the untold stories that are in the margins of history; she’s done it again with Horse, and the fact that her late husband, beloved writer Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic), helped her with the research, makes her latest novel even more poignant."

Geraldine Brooks in conversation with Sarah Maslin Nir for a Virtual Event on Thursday, June 30, 7 pm. Click here to register.

Our next book rec also comes from Daniel and goes to Jackie & Me by Louis Bayard. Daniel says: "The mythology of the Kennedys is baked into the brains of many an American. So it’s fascinating to me when a writer like Louis Bayard switches it up. His take on a single Jacqueline Bouvier being courted by the well-connect Congressman is told through a fictionalized version of Kirk LeMoyne Billings. Lem was a prep school friend of Jack’s and known as a walker to Kennedy women. Jack assigned Lem to occupy Jackie while he ran for the Senate and who knows what else? Could he stay true to both parties, especially when they were not exactly on the same page regarding what exactly this relationship was? Jackie and Me is at once wryly entertaining and wistfully somber. Prime historical fiction!"

Louis Bayard is in conversation with Christina Clancy, In-Person at Boswell on Monday, June 27, 6:30 pm. Click here to register and find more info.

And now, how about Jason Kennedy for One's Company by Ashley Hutson. Jason says: "Ashley Hutson's absurd debut novel is a revelation. Bonnie wins the lottery, and not just a little win - think the biggest win you can remember, then triple it. She suffered some major trauma which has blended into the background of her life. Upon winning the lottery, she buys a remote piece of land and builds a replica of her dream sitcom show, Three's Company. Bonnie wants to disappear so completely into the sitcom, and she has every little detail replicated that she possible can. From the décor to the TV shows, Bonnie spares no expense for historical accuracy. This book is a deep dive into a person's mental illness brought on by life's many dangers and her attempt to escape from them."

Next it's Parker Jensen on Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator by Sofia Warren. Parker says: "New Yorker cartoonist Sofia Warren was never that involved in politics. She didn't know who her local officials were, what policies were being passed, or what names would show up on her ballot. That is until Julia Salazar started following her. On every street corner there was a volunteer handing out flyers with her face on it, at every bus stop a poster, and all her friends were talking about her. Salazar, a young 27-year-old democratic socialist, had begun a grassroots campaign for New York Senate in hopes of achieving major rent control and tenant protection policy reform. When she defied the odds and won, she inspired and united a coalition of activists, organizations, and local residents. And left Warren wondering, what happens next? Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator chronicles what came next as Warren follows Salazar and her staff during their first year in office. Warren's graphic memoir is a truly exceptional and unique look inside the world of politics, community organizing, and progressive policy. From candid conversations with Salazar and her whole staff, to attending protests, to speaking with community organizers, Warren creates a compelling and informative story that sheds light on what the political landscape looks like today and what we could shape it into."

And Rachel Copeland recommends How to Fake It in Hollywood, a romance by Ava Wilder. Rachel says: "Grey Brooks is known for starring in a teenage drama, but she wants more substantial roles now that she's nearing thirty. When her publicist sets up a fake, tabloid-pleasing romance with former-heartthrob-turned-Oscar-winner Ethan Atkins, the arrangement seems easy enough - until it becomes clear that the chemistry isn't only for the paparazzi. But with Ethan's alcohol abuse after the tragedy that derailed his career, is a Hollywood happily ever after even possible for them? I started this book expecting a frothy Hollywood fantasy type romance, but instead I was pleasantly surprised by the gravity and depth of the story. Wilder brings these two lonely characters together in such an artificial way, yet their connection is immediate and palpable. I can't wait to see more from this author."

This week is nice for paperback fans because we've got lots for you - both paperback originals above that were just released today as well as the books below this sentence getting their paperback release after being out in hardcover.

Madi Hill recommends The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. Madi says: "Lynette just wants to be safe. That's why the only time she leaves her overly secure apartment is to meet with the five other final girls (the women who are left alive after defeating their killer. Think: Laurie Strode in Halloween) and their therapist in a church basement. But when it seems like their monsters are coming back to kill, she is forced to leave her hiding place to figure out why someone is going after final girls again. This was my first-time reading Grady Hendrix's work, and I am already hooked. Imagining classic horror films as if they were the result of tragic realities is done in an extremely original way that leaves you wondering where the story will lead, while trying to match each final girl to the correct classic horror heroine. Hendrix's style is so much fun but surprisingly tense, perfect for the horror fan who doesn't take themselves too seriously."

Conrad Silverberg recommends Talk to Me by TC Boyle. Conrad says: "Unknotting topical issues that raise complex ethical questions is Boyle's specialty. So are crafting hysterically flawed and self-deluded characters who think that they rise above and are the best ones to take on such dilemmas. Here Boyle confronts the unethical treatment of animals with the plight of a chimpanzee being taught sign-language. Everything is fine as long as the chimp remains young and cute, but once adolescence hits, his future becomes increasingly bleak as he grows larger and stronger and wilder. His handlers want to save him, but their motivations are selfish and self-serving, especially when they think they are most altruistic. Can he be saved?"

We'll be back next week with more book recommendations. Until then, read on, dear readers.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of June 7, 2022

Welcome to June! Now how about some books?

Proprietor Daniel Goldin has three new books out this week to recommend. First, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by literary biographer Paula Byrne: "Finally, after hearing about this biography for almost a year, it’s available in the United States, and I couldn’t be happier. Byrne chronicles the life of one of my favorite writers, whose work was acclaimed in the 1950s, couldn’t get published in the 1960s, and then was rediscovered in the late 1970s. The text flows in short, punchy chapters - you’ll discover that many of the excellent women (and not quite so excellent men) came from Pym’s own life - one that had more than its share of bad romances and a penchant for stalking people who captured her interest. I don’t think ‘spinster’ quite captures her! And even if you’ve read A Lot to Ask or A Very Private Eye, you don’t know the whole story - her longtime friend Hazel Holt offered readers an expurgated life (minus the Nazi boyfriend, for example). If you don’t know Pym’s work but you’re a Jane Austen fan, you’ll understand by the end why there are so many cross-over fans."

We'll host Paula Byrne for a virtual conversation with Bill Goldstein on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 7 pm. Click here to register.

You've surely noticed that often Daniel's recommendations are featuring event books (that's shorthand for books whose authors we're hosting for events, fyi), and here's another: City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town by Susan Hartman. Daniel says: "Like many cities in America’s heartland, Utica, New York struggled as manufacturing headed abroad and corporate headquarters and technology innovators (it once had strong players in General Electric and UNIVAC) headed to tech hubs. The city struggled with its future, leading to years of arson-related building destruction. In the nineties, refugee families started settling there, continuing Utica’s tradition of welcoming immigrants, and breathing new life into the communities. Hartman, who teaches at Columbia’s MFA writing program, follows three individuals who offer different perspectives on new lives in America - a Bosnian entrepreneur who dreams of a café and event space, a young Somali Bantu woman whose strong family ties force her to balance her American dreams with her cultural obligations, and an Iraqi refugee who struggles to get enough work because the new communities generally do not speak Arabic. Will he leave his found family for economic gain? Like the best of community journalism, City of Refugees offers understanding through engaging stories, as well as roadmaps to success for cities and their inhabitants."

Susan Hartman will be in virtual conversation with Mitch Teich (formerly of WUWM Lake Effect) on Monday, June 20, 2022, 7 pm. Click here to register.

And now, a non-event book recommendation from Daniel: Tom Perrotta's Tracy Flick Can't Win. Daniel says: "Thirty-something years after Tracy Flick’s run at student council president, Tracy is assistant principal at her high school, once again in the running to move up with the pending retirement of Principal Jack Weede. In her court is Kyle Dorfman, a graduate who’s returned to town after making a bundle in tech, with a modernist mansion-ette squeezed in among the suburban houses to show for it. What’s up with that? Tracy just has to do Kyle one little favor – serve in the committee for the new Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame and throw her weight behind former football star (and reminder of Green Meadow’s glory days) Vito Falcone, Kyle’s preferred candidate. But between all the secrets and scandals, it’s hard to imagine everything’s going to turn out alright for anybody. Told from multiple perspectives, including two students on the committee with drama of their own, it isn’t the heebie jeebie-est of Perrotta’s reads (if you read him, you’ll know what I mean), but it’s funny, smart, and provocative, and fitting of Tracy’s Election legacy."

And now we jump to Jen Steele. First, she recommends The Lost Ryū, a debut YA novel by Emi Watanabe Cohen: "Set 20 years after the bombs fell over Japan, Kohei, a young boy is determined to make his Ojiisan, his grandfather, happy again. With the help of new friends, he just may accomplish it. The Lost Ryu is a gentle novel in a world of dragons and loss, pain and healing, love and understanding. I was captivated by the story and rooting for Kohei the entire time."

And how about a great middle grade chapter book recommendation from Jen? Okay! That'd be Leave it to Plum by Matt Phelan. Jen says: "Plum is the most cheerful peacock you'll ever meet! Along with his fellow peacocks, Plum is an ambassador for the Athensville Zoo. All day long, Plum roams the zoo freely gets to delight and entertain the guests. It's another bright sunny day at the zoo for Plum until a certain small creature, who would not make a very good pet, thank you very much, hatches a plan to get rid of the peacocks once and for all and become the new ambassador for Zoo. Matt Phelan brings to a life a new loveable character. Short chapters and delightful illustrations make this a perfect pick for early middle grade readers."

And now, book fans, for the paperback releases

First, a construction site thriller from Nickolas Butler, as recommended by Tim McCarthy: Godspeed. Tim says: "True Triangle Construction is just three guys who've managed the modest step of starting their own company with three matching trucks. They don't even have a website. So why would a wealthy, worldly, beautiful San Francisco lawyer pick them to build the majestic house she plans to tuck perfectly into the Wyoming Tetons, next to hot springs and a cold, pure river? How did Gretchen Connors even find them? These are the questions they ask as they start to dream of all the ways a project like this will change their business, and their individual lives. There’s all that money and a shiny new reputation, but can they do it, and at what price? Gretchen’s expectations are so high, and the timeline! Why? Butler has given us a study in desire, where it comes from and the damage it can cause. It’s a fascinating and very intense ride, and the best part is that we see both sides of the story in the detailed lives of characters, the rich woman and the men struggling with a transformation that’s making regular guys like them feel less at home in their own town. I felt compelled to stay with them, and I felt rewarded for seeing them through to the end."

Next up is Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer, a book that comes with three staff write ups from us! First, Parker Jensen says: "John Paul Brammer's voice is everything I've been looking for in the many essay collections I've picked up in the last couple of years. Simply put, Brammer's voice is fantastic. He is self-aware in a rare way that allows for the wittiest and most truthful of observations on life, relationships, one's own history, and the world, without crossing into the self-indulgent or self-deprecating. Although, I think he'd say I was giving him too much credit (but I'd wholeheartedly disagree). The essays in ¡Hola Papi! come together to compose a glimpse into the many different phases of Brammer's life, stitching together his coming of age as a gay Mexican boy growing up in rural Oklahoma to the many triumphs and tribulations of life as a gay man across the country and world. As a reader I felt like I was growing up alongside Brammer as he came to reckon with his self, his identities, his past, and his own actions. His own acceptance of the many parts of himself, the many experiences that culminate to make him who he is today, gives me hope and faith. I had to keep sticky notes next to me while I was reading, something I rarely do, to make sure I was saving passages to come back to. Passages that so concisely put into words things I've felt and thought, but so much more beautifully than I could have imagined saying myself. And passages that will stick with me and encourage me to grow. And what marks a better read that something that fundamentally changes the way you think, makes you want to grow, and excites you to see how you too will change and develop in the years to come?"

And from Kay Wosewick: "Each chapter of ¡Hola Papi! begins with John Paul (JP) asking an important question, followed by a story that describes his personal path to an answer. This is fitting given that JP stumbled into writing an advice column, and quickly surprised himself by giving solid advice drawn from years of irrepressible self-examination. Growing up in small-town Oklahoma at the bottom of the pecking order gave him empathy for outsiders. High school in a larger town proved he could build his identity from inside-out instead, instead of having it defined from outside-in. In college he stumbled through awkward and uncomfortable gay experiences before finding successful ways to move easily through the gay world. JP found a large, needy audience ready to gobble up his advice on such issues. Alas, PJ’s memoir also depicts a society that still contains a staunchly anti-LGBTQ faction. While there is progress, the US sadly has a long way to go to achieve full acceptance and integration of LGBTQ individuals."

Finally, from Jen Steele: "LGBTQ advice columnist John Paul Brammer delivers an earnest and quick-witted memoir with stories about his life, from growing up in rural Oklahoma and being bullied in middle school to moving to New York City and finding his voice. ¡Hola Papi! has that fresh memoir experience where each chapter is a response to a reader's question. Reading this was like being invited in and staying a while; there was a connectedness I felt while reading about JP’s experiences, whether it was being able to relate to growing up mixed race and not speaking Spanish or commiserating with him as meets “the one.” Do yourself a favor and luxuriate in the warmth of each chapter."

And now back to Daniel for Joan Silber's Secrets of Happiness: "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!"

Was this an event book, too? It was! Check out the video of Silber's insightful conversation with CJ Hribal here: 

That's it for this week, so we'll see you in 7 days dear readers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Five Questions for Author James Kennedy

From Boswellian Jenny Chou:

Here at Boswell, we are excited to host author James Kennedy in person on Thursday, June 9th for the paperback release of his sci-fi thriller Dare to Know, a Times (UK) Best Book of 2021. James joins me on the blog today for my Five Questions series, and I admit that the first thing I want to ask him about is the twisty ending of his book, but (unfortunately) we don’t believe in spoilers at Boswell. Before we dive into some non-spoilery questions, here’s a short recap of this wild thrill ride of a novel:

Once the top salesperson for a phenomenally successful tech company called Dare to Know, the unnamed narrator’s career has crashed and burned, leaving him short on funds and desperate to close a deal. Dare to Know sells death dates. That’s right, their formula will predict with 100% accuracy exactly when their client’s time is up. Stealing their potential clients is a company that will predict not only when, but also how. Yikes! Are people really interested? You bet they are! After a nightmare sales call and a spinout into a snowbank during a blizzard, our embittered narrator violates the very first rule of Dare to Know: he calculates his own time of death. What follows becomes an unnerving slide into chaos, because the formula is never wrong, and it predicted he died twenty-three minutes ago. And while there is someone from his past smart enough that she might be able to make sense of all this, unfortunately he broke her heart decades earlier, lending a whole lot of self-realization and regret to our narrator’s current mess. Twisty, thought provoking, and delightfully quirky doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, so set aside a day and the better part of a night, because putting your copy of Dare to Know aside won’t be an option.

Thanks for joining me on the blog, James! Speculative sci-fi can go off in so many philosophical and weird directions, which is why I enjoy it! My first question has got to be about inspiration. How did you come up with the idea of a company that sells death dates? Are there any authors who inspired you that blog readers should check out?

JAMES KENNEDY: Thanks for having me! The idea comes from my own personal vibe shift with computers. When I was a kid I loved programming goofy video games on my Atari 800XL. When I was in my twenties I was fascinated by the handmade, weirdos-only feel of the early internet. Into my thirties I enjoyed working as a computer programmer.

But then something about computers began to feel rotten to me. The feeling in the industry went from a “We can change the world!” optimism to a joyless grind and a cursed realm for grifters. I watched a lot of startups flame out, or become sad shells of what they once were (indeed, I worked for such a company), and I wanted to portray that cultural transition in the tech world.

But it was also a personal thing. For me, computers used to be all about exploration, creativity, and liberation. But starting around 2012, for me they began feeling more and more like a portal to an icky zone of surveillance, distraction, and propaganda. I wanted to explore that gross new feeling - not a realistic account (other books like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts or Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley have that covered) but in a more indirect way that expresses feelings that are difficult or even embarrassing to say otherwise. Basically: isn’t this all starting to feel demonic?

And what happens to us when our most intimate details are reduced to data that can be bought, sold, and exploited? Indeed, what if everything about you was so humiliatingly subject to algorithms that a company could even sell you the precise time and date of your own death? And just like so many other once-dazzling innovations - what happens when your death becomes just another trite datum? That’s part of what Dare to Know is about.

As for inspirations, I love the science fiction short stories of Ted Chiang. He often takes a speculative premise and pushes it to its logical limit. I was also inspired by Philip K. Dick because he often crosses that limit into something trippier and weirder. I wanted Dare to Know to begin in our familiar world and slowly pull the reader into something more nightmarish.

JC: Did you start Dare to Know with the concept of an algorithm that predicts death dates, or with a character, or with the plot, or did you start somewhere else? And did you work from an outline or did you just let the story unfold as you wrote?

As soon as I had the idea of an algorithm that predicts death dates, I realized I already had the perfect protagonist waiting in the wings. For a long time, I wanted to write a novel about a burnt-out salesman. I’m not good at selling things (even as a child I hated going door-to-door to sell things for Boy Scouts or school fundraisers) and I am a terrible negotiator. But I’m interested in the kind of person for whom that comes naturally. And I wanted the product for sale to be an odd speculative thing that doesn’t exist in our world - like memory deletion in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or accessing someone else’s consciousness like in Being John Malkovich. (On reflection, maybe I just want to be Charlie Kaufman.)

Dare to Know started out as a simple short story, but it wouldn’t stay that way. I realized that there was longer and deeper story to be told, delving into the narrator’s life and exploring the social and even cosmic implications of the technology. Dare to Know is about death, but it’s also about reckoning with the life you’ve lived. The choices you’ve made, the opportunities you’ve blown, the memories that you can’t get away from. The novel naturally grew to accommodate that. The original short piece ended up serving as a kind of outline, although an outline that was itself constantly changing as my developments warped the original story. It’s a roundabout, improvisational way of writing, but it leads me to genuine discoveries that excite me. Hopefully the reader will feel that excitement too. Anyway, it’s exactly how I wrote my first book as well, so I guess I’m stuck with this method.

JC: You studied physics in college. Can you explain how you took your scientific knowledge and incorporated it into what I hope is a fictional formula for the calculation of death dates?

JK: Yeah, like my narrator, I was a physics and philosophy double major in college. I drew on that background to craft an invented physics of thanatons (“death particles”), and I situated it in the story in the context of real-life physics like virtual particles and black hole theory.

Making up the fake science of Dare to Know was such a pleasure. It started from me not wanting the client to learn their death date from an app or a computer. That felt banal - and indeed, right before Dare to Know was about to hit bookstores, a movie came out called Countdown in which you find out the time you die from an app. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? That’s because the movie flopped. (Even I haven’t seen it.) Anyway, the time of one’s death is bizarre information; there should be a bizarre way of finding it out.

In Dare to Know, one’s death-date is calculated using a surreal mathematics that can’t be performed by a computer, but only by hand, by a human - a “subjective mathematics” in which both the math problem and its human solver change each other through the execution of the algorithm. I got the idea from the weirdness of quantum physics, in which the observer is thought to affect the existence of what they’re measuring.

In my book, the process of calculating a client’s death takes the form of an intense one-on-one interview not unlike the scene in Blade Runner where an investigator asks odd questions to a subject to determine if they’re secretly a robot (“You're in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise . . . "). In Dare to Know, the subject is asked to free-associate when given prompts of nonsense phrases, and their responses give the clues that lead to calculating their death-date. Since computers can’t be used, the interviewer must be constantly consulting bulky reference books in order to perform the death date calculation, while he and the subject exchange nonsense phrases. I liked the idea of a rigorous mathematical process that also feels like the chanting of a supernatural babbling ritual; indeed, a lot of Dare to Know is concerned with blurring the line between the science and the occult.

JC: Your cynical, unnamed narrator stumbles through his life making all kinds of wrong turns, which he freely admits to when looking back, but all his issues mean he’s not always the most likable character. What are the challenges of writing an anti-hero, and how did you pull off convincing readers to go along for the ride? Because once I started reading, I couldn’t put your book down. Also, why doesn’t he have a name?

Thank you! You’re my kind of reader. I have a different take on anti-heroes, though: if you write a book with a traditionally “likable” main character, then you might be in trouble. My favorite books have unlikable characters. The narrator of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is a drunk, self-sabotaging blowhard. Ignatius Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces is a reactionary incel who can’t stop belching and farting. The narrator of Notes From Underground is a passive-aggressive prick. Even Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited is a privileged nullity. I love these books, and I’m not alone!  

Some readers get upset if you have an “unlikeable” main character who isn’t immediately correct about everything in the way they’d prefer - or if the writer isn’t always anxiously whispering to the reader, “Hey, I know this guy is bad! You and I, the good people, can both agree he’s bad!” Such readers act as if you had literally made a bad person and set him loose on the world to wreak havoc. I’m fine alienating those readers. I’m especially happy if they bought my book, because that way I made them suffer and took their money. Win-win! (There: wasn’t that more fun to read than if I was being likable?)

(JC: HA! I am laughing.)

“Unlikability” is great untapped potential energy. Perhaps counterintuitively, we trust someone more if they’re being candid about their flaws. (At one point in Dare to Know, after the narrator says something particularly awful, he adds as an aside, “Save your contempt, I know it’s snotty. Try telling your own life story, commit to reporting honestly, see how likeable you come across.”)

We’re all problematic. We’re all unlikeable. It’s energizing to write in a way that leaves one open to objection. The alternative - writing in a way that always hedges your bets with careful caveats to indicate you are a Right Thinking Good Person - feels like an artistic dead end.

As for leaving the narrator nameless - it’s a sly trick to build intimacy with the reader. If I gave him the name “Harold Bloopman” or whatever, then you could more easily hold him at arm’s length and say to yourself, “Well, of course that’s what Harold Bloopman would say.” But if he doesn’t have a name, you can’t distance yourself from him quite so easily. You become a little bit complicit.

And honestly, after the first couple pages, I hardly notices his lack of a name. I love the concept that the reader becomes a little bit complicit. Okay, last question. Before you published Dare to Know, which is for adults, you wrote the YA novel The Order of Odd Fish. What’s next for you? More YA or another speculative sci-fi thriller mashup? Or maybe your writing journey is taking you in another direction. With your imagination, I feel that anything is possible.

JK: That is sweet to say, thank you! As it turns out, my next novel is also being published by Quirk next year, in 2023. It’s another book for adults called Bride of the Tornado. It’s more of a horror love story - Rosemary’s Baby meets Twin Peaks meets Twister or the Weather Channel, I guess. It’s scary and romantic and weird - like Twilight put through a David Cronenberg machine.

One day I’ll return to young-adult and children’s books, though. I still keep a foot in that world through a film festival that I’ve run for the past ten years called the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the stories of Newbery-winning books in about ninety seconds. Before the pandemic hit, we would feature the best movies at big screenings in about a dozen cities all over the country. Hey, maybe next year we can bring the film festival to Milwaukee!

JC: A film festival of Newbery books? That's super cool! Thanks for joining me on the blog today, James. We are excited to host you on June 9th in-person at Boswell - click here to register to attend. Blog readers, be sure to follow James on Twitter at iamjameskennedy.