Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of August 9. 2022

Time for new books that the Boswellians dig. 

First, Daniel Goldin on A Map for the Missing by Belinda Huijuan Tang: "Belinda Huijuan Tang’s excellent debut, inspired by her father’s upbringing in Anhui province, opens in early 1990s California. Yitian is called back to his hometown when his mother reports his father missing. While Yitian has hardly adapted to America, the return stirs up its own haunted memories, a tortured life with his father, a lost bond with his brother Yishou, and an unfinished longing for his onetime-girlfriend Hanwen. Though framed as a missing person mystery, Yitian’s journey helps him unlock deeper questions of his family and perhaps one day understand his father. The Cultural Revolution is one of repression and loss that affected generations. In making the political personal, Tang brings this period to vibrant life."

Jen Steele keeps it quick and quippy in her recommendation of High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson: "High Times in the Low Parliament is an entertaining lesbian, stoner, buddy romp with political intrigue and angry fairies. War may be inevitable, but so are mushrooms!"

Next it's Tim McCarthy with not one but two new histories for you to read. First it's the new Rinker Buck book, Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure. Tim says: "Winning the American Revolution fully opened land west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers, and the way forward was the rivers. A great migration built fast-growing towns like Pittsburgh, where flatboats (and later steamboats) were made for moving surplus farm products down the Ohio and Mississippi. Many thousands of young farmers and rivermen floated to southern states each year, creating a unique river culture. Buck studied this history and decided he had to try the same flatboat trip himself in our age of massive river barge traffic, a crazy notion for an amateur on the water. Lots of river dwellers told him he'd die. He helped build his own flatboat, and the 2,000 mile adventure with a crew full of characters turned out to be awe-inspiring. The book ties his very personal journey to our past and to the ever-changing United States, as it’s seen from the rivers today. While Buck writes with strong and sincere words about the 'profoundly tragic' role of American slavery and the devastation of indigenous nations, this is mostly a story of our constant expansion, rough independence, and ingenuity. Buck uses a lively blend of historian’s love of research and storyteller’s blunt humor to describe how he revels in the challenges and meets people of all kinds. I confess that along with my intense anger over America’s brutal history, I have a soft spot for the romance and marvelous details in this story. I enjoyed every bit of Rinker Buck’s wild river ride!"

Next, Tim recommends the latest from multi-Pulitzer-winner David Maraniss, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe. Tim writes: "Swedish King Gustav V apparently told Jim Thorpe, as he handed him a gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, that he was 'the most wonderful athlete in the world.' Thorpe was certainly admired and sought after worldwide for his unmatched athleticism and talent. Everyone wanted to see him, wherever he went. He was on World Series teams, he was there at the inception of the NFL, and later he had many small Hollywood film roles, befriending the biggest stars of the day. Thorpe was often used as a novelty as well, a drawing card constantly subject to racial stereotypes, and as time passed he became more actively involved with indigenous people’s rights. As a man, Jim Thorpe had serious human flaws and struggled constantly to succeed, but he was personally kind and generous, offering a huge smile to all. He never seemed inclined to pity himself or stop chasing his dreams. The extraordinary details of his life, including many connections to Wisconsin and Milwaukee, are endlessly fascinating, and Maraniss makes them exceptionally smooth reading. He wraps Thorpe's life into the story of America, and he’s blunt about our cruel contradictions in such an intelligent way that my progressive anger feels completely validated. This is a top-flight history lesson that separates the truth from the myth of a legendary and iconic American!"

And now, paperback picks.

Tim keeps it rolling into paperback land with his glowing (so bright as to be near nuclear) review of Colson Whitehead's novel Harlem Shuffle: "Whitehead starkly defines his characters' world as he unwraps their stories with a direct, graceful style and unique symbolism. I met him once at a Boswell Book Company event. I saw the genius in his eyes; the sincerity, too. And he’s funny! Once again, he drops us into another time. Harlem, 1959, was a much harder place than the one where I was born (that same year). Ray Carney is a loving family man with a small furniture company and modest ambitions for upward movement. He stays at the edges of the hustles all around him, but everything heavy pulls at the edges. He “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked" until his beloved cousin Freddie draws him into a heist. I like Ray, and in Whitehead’s masterful hands he becomes real. I haven’t read a better American novelist, living or dead. He stands with James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and E. L. Doctorow. Back-to-back Pulitzers ain’t bad. By giving us the past, Whitehead leads us toward the future. He's the new King of American historical fiction, the new voice as powerful as Doctorow’s. The torch of greatness has been passed."

Now back over to Daniel for Kal Penn's memoir You Can't Be Serious: "I have always been intrigued by Kal Penn, not just for his acting, but for his detour into civil service, which unlike other celebrities, did not involve running for office. While You Can’t Be Serious doesn’t have a coming out chapter, its revelation that Penn is engaged to a Nascar-loving Mississippian named Josh earned headlines upon the book’s publication. I was also very interested in reading about Penn’s struggles finding good roles as a South Asian and why Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was so groundbreaking. For every celebrity memoir I read, there are five others I put down within 25 pages. I need to like the voice, I want some interesting stories, the author must have something of substance to say, and if I’m promised humor, I better be laughing out loud. You Can’t Be Serious has all of that!"

Until next week, when we return with more recommendations, read on dear readers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of August 2, 2022

New week, new month, new Tuesday, new books! Lots of them. Let's get to the recommendations.

First Daniel Goldin on a Milwaukee-set debut novel by Sarah Thankam Matthews, All This Could Be Different. Daniel says: "All Sneha really wants when she relocates to Milwaukee is a circle of friends, a special someone, and a steady income, but even those goals turn out to be a harder to achieve in this debut novel. She’s got a few friends and a possible love interest, though most of them are struggling with goals and money, plus both her contractor boss and the flat manager turn out to be, well, two pieces of work. Plus, contract work kind of sucks - you’re in the company (it’s obvious to any Milwaukeean where she works, but it’s never spelled out in the story), but not really of the company, much the way that Sneha must navigate her life in Milwaukee as a queer South Asian woman. There’s almost a chaotic feel to the narrative - will Thom forgive Sneha, will things with Martina work out, can Tig get her commune together, and just how much money is Amit going to spend trying to save a drug-addicted friend? – but to me, that’s just the way things feel during the kind of quarter-life crisis that Sneha is experiencing.  And props for getting the Milwaukee details right circa 2016, considering Mathews never lived here, though she went to school in Madison. Milwaukee is usually used as a no-place-in-particular setting, but here, Mathews plays off oddly Edenic history of socialist mayors that is meaningful to some millennials, even if the contemporary city struggles with prejudice and crime. Even the name-checked restaurants reinforce the narrative – not necessarily fancy, but a little too expensive for the unsteady paychecks of most of this crew, particularly Tig, who generally orders the most expensive thing on the menu. In the end, everything’s going to work out. Right?"

We host a virtual event with Sarah Thankam Matthews in conversation with Dawnie Walton for a virtual event on Thursday, August 11, 7 pm. Click here to register.

Next it's The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, as recommended by Chris Lee: "Wow. The Rabbit Hutch is wonderful, insane, and brilliant, and I love, love, love it. Rust belt, Indiana. The denizens of a crumbling apartment building are desperate to transcend their crumbling lives; to transcend trauma, forgottenness, and fame, to transcend the emptiness of material circumstances. To transcend the body. This book is ALIVE. The lives within it pop, scream, and bleed off the page."

Tess Gunty appears In-Person at Boswell on Wednesday, August 10, 6:30 pm in conversation with Chris Lee. Click here to register. We did a great little 5-minute mini-interview with Gunty, too - click here and watch that video now.

Now, Rachel Copeland on The Proposition by Madeleine Roux: "Clemency Fry thought her fears of marriage were unfounded when she became engaged to a man who appreciated her rebellious spirit - until she finds out that her fiancée has a dark past with multiple victims in his wake. When the mysterious Audric Ferrand comes into town on the hunt for her fiancée, Clemency has no choice but to participate in Audric's plan to bring the scoundrel down. This is my first time reading Madeleine Roux, but I wasn't surprised to find that she usually writes in the horror and science fiction genres. The Proposition has a sinister edge to it that kept me turning the pages. The real standout is the prose - Roux fits right in with Austen and the Brontës."

Now we have Jenny Chou on Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd. Jenny's take: "Olive is one of those lively middle grade narrators whose voice pulls readers right into her story. She’s creative and funny and determined to live a life full of adventure. At age twelve, her brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, has kept her home from school, but she dreams of attending Macklemore Middle School and finding a BFF. Olive may be fragile, but that doesn’t mean she’s not capable. Even so, convincing her protective parents that it's time to let go turns out to be easier than actually fitting in once she gets her chance. Hummingbird is a terrific novel of friendship and sacrifice, and I loved this story for the characters that captured my imagination. But the believable way the author weaves magic into the story makes this book a real gem."

Back to Daniel we go for his take on Cyclorama, the latest novel from Adam Langer. Daniel says: "Since you asked, cyclorama is a theater backdrop and not a velodrome, as I first thought. And what a theater novel this is! The story centers on the North Shore Magnet High School production of Anne Frank, helmed by a very inappropriate drama teacher, with a cast of ten extraordinary students, in which events are set in motion during the rehearsals that have repercussions thirty-some years later. Langer’s latest harkens back to his over the top, Chicago-centric epics filled with intricate plotting, an unforgettable cast, and lots of humor. Muley Wills from the much-loved Crossing California even gets a cameo. The story can be cringe-funny in a Tom Perrotta way, but also exuberant in a Gary Shteyngart way, and powerful in a, well, Anne Frank way. A joy!"

Kay Wosewick gets in on the recommending with her write-up of a new Tin House paperback original, The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel. Kay says: "The setting is dark: an isolated Scottish island whose residents are deeply haunted by WWII losses. Residents enact a ritual every October 1st to pacify a massive population of crows who terrorize the island for exactly one month. The ritual goes awry this year. Perfectly drawn moments of horror are eventually redeemed by genuine healing of the residents. Your heart will race, it will break, and it will finally rejoice."

Finally, Tim McCarthy wraps up our new book recommending with a great new middle grade novel called My Life Begins, a posthumous release from Patricia MacLachlan. Tim says: "Jacob Black's life begins at nine years old, when the “Trips” are born: his identical triplet sisters. He wanted puppies instead. They're cuter. He was actually lonely, but the babies will be his parents’, not his. He studies them for a school research project. They change every day, becoming individual selves. When Lizzie stops crying to look at him, he picks her up, and she suddenly smiles straight at him. That’s it. Life begins again! I absolutely love Jacob's voice. He's honest in a calm, matter-of-fact way. He's funny. He's wise. He's the creation of a talented, Newbery Medal-winning author, and he'll be a joy for any reader near his age! It’s a loving story of friends and family and new beginnings."

But wait, that's not all! We've got four paperback picks for you this week. These books were released once before, but now their cover is soft and light, perfect for toting about.

Our first two paperback picks come from Daniel. The first is All the Lonely People by Mike Gayle. Daniel says: "Hubert Bird is an 84-year-old widower living in Bromley. Every week his daughter Rose calls from Australia, and he entertains her with stories of his friends. Only one problem – he’s lying. So when Rose tells him she’s coming to visit, he realizes he’s got a limited time to make some real friends, perhaps starting with the new neighbor, a single woman, and her daughter. The story jumps back and forth and time, where we learn that he once had a wife named Joyce, a best friend named Gus, and a son named David in his life. What happened to them? And what will happen to Hubert as he’s slowly roped into a town-wide anti-loneliness crusade. This story, equal parts sad, happy, and funny, also shines a light on the indignities that a Jamaican immigrant would have suffered in London. Hubert’s spirit, despite numerous incidents that would break another person, is what keeps him going, the same spirit that makes All the Lonely People compelling reading."

Our Readings from Oconomowaukee series of virtual events hosted Gayle when this book came out, visiting all the way from England. Check out that video right here.

Daniel also offers this write-up for We Are Not Like Them, the novel cowritten by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza: "An aspiring television reporter and the wife of a policeman, friends since childhood, find their relationship frayed by the shooting of a young Black man. This powerful story is sure to start a lot of important conversations. The authors do a great job creating sympathetic characters in Riley and Jen (though to my thinking, Riley is the true protagonist), with lots of interesting family dynamics and revelations both past (a lynching in Riley’s family) and present (Jen’s pregnancy complications) move the plot along. There’s some humor too, and even a little romance. I’m not giving anything away by saying there’s no way to have a completely happy ending, but maybe, just maybe, there’ll be at least understanding."

We were able to host a virtual event featuring authors Pride and Piazza for this book upon its hardcover release. Click here and watch the video of their great chat.

Now over to Jason Kennedy for his recommendation of All's Well, the second novel from Bunny author Mona Awad: "Miranda’s brilliant career as a stage actor was halted by a fall that broke her hip.  After surgeries and therapy, she is still in chronic pain. Hobbled, she has become a teacher for a theater department, and they put on a Shakespeare play every year. Everyone seems to have written off Miranda’s pain as in her head, and they (her ex-husband, her best friend, and her physical therapist) can barely hide their disbelief that she has any pain. After a mutiny lead by student who wants a different Shakespeare play, Miranda is distraught and in pain. She drowns her sorrows at the pub, where she meets three mysterious men who know all about her and her pain. After a golden drink, Miranda is able to start transferring her pain to others, and her life takes on a new light. Much like Mona Awad’s Bunny, All’s Well starts to get more and more surreal and fantastical. I loved every minute of this crazy, amazing novel - Mona Awad is madly creative and inventive. Bravo."

And now we return to Chris for his thoughts on Out of Mesopotamia by Salar Abdoh: "In what should well become an essential portrait of the fight against the Islamic State, Salar Abdoh’s novel reinvigorates the way we write about war. Saleh, an Iranian journalist and reluctant drama-as-propaganda television writer, travels between the urbane art world of Tehran and the battlefields near the northern border of Syria and Iraq, where he’s gotten more involved than a reporter is supposed to be. The novel digs into Saleh’s meditations and struggle to understand: why do we choose to bloody our hands? The answers are many, uneasy and contradictory, but as Abdoh riffs on the Western canon of war – the adrift disillusionment of Hemingway, the absurdity and commerce of Catch-22Out of Mesopotamia is nothing less than profound."

We were so lucky to host Salar Abdoh for a virtual event when this book first came out in hardcover, in conversation with the sadly now late Meg Jones. What a fantastic, special conversation they had! Click here to watch the video.

Until next week, read on dear readers.