Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of September 27, 2022

The last week of September. Wait, WHAT?! The last week of September? Where does the time go? Well, if you're doing it right, a good chunk of the time goes right by as you're reading books. Why not spend some time with our favorite new releases?

First, a fourfer! That's a word I just made up for books that get four recommendations from Boswellians. That is a lot of recommendations - probably because this is a very good book: Lark Ascending by Silas House has topped two Boswellian year-end lists, too (yes, we're already working on those, yeesh!) - it's one of Chris's top 5 books of the year and one of Daniel's top 10s. Onto the recs.

Chris Lee says: "If, like me, you have a less-than-sunny outlook on the prospect of avoiding simultaneous civil collapse and climate catastrophe in your lifetime, then you may find it counterintuitive when I tell you this novel of a young man running from the aftermath of those very events is the most comforting thing I’ve read all year. A dark book for dark times, Lark Ascending is, all the same, written so beautifully, full of honesty and compassion. In his old age, Lark recalls his harrowing journey to escape an America ruled by fundamentalist and swept by massive fires, sail across a stormy Atlantic, and trek across Ireland to a thin place that may offer sanctuary. House offers something necessary - hope that through all the violence, hatred, death, scarcity, and destruction of the impending collapse, a glimmer of humanity might remain."

From Daniel Goldin: "In the not-too-distant future, fires have ravaged much of the world, and America, like much of the world, has been taken over by extremists. Even the isolated Maine woods have become too dangerous. The only option is for Lark and his family to escape to Ireland, the only country still open to refugees. But during the harrowing voyage, not only does tragedy strike at every turn, but hopes for a peaceful resettlement are dashed. Can Lark, with the help of two newfound companions (one canine) find peace in the legendary settlement of Glendalough? I’m not generally a dystopian reader, but Lark Ascending’s beautiful language and imagery, combined with the emotional heft of the story, drew me in from the first paragraph."

Tim McCarthy adds: "It's Lark's clear voice that carries us through many terrifying moments. As an old man, he's asked to write the “whole particulars” of how he came to be in Ireland, starting with the ocean crossing after America became a war-torn, burning wasteland, and then looking further back to the way his family survived and escaped North America. They headed for the one place Lark’s parents thought they could be safe. All the while, he insists on living. There’s so much regret inside the grief, but ascend he does. And he has reasons: the people he loves who told him not to give up, and the sudden appearance of a dog. Protecting a dog is surely enough reason to live. Ascension defines the novel. The writing ascends to uncommon heights of beauty while affirming life as the refusal to submit, even when the desire to quit is relentless. Lark Ascending is brave in a way we desperately need, brave enough to see beauty through enormous pain. It’s also a warning. House makes us feel that this could easily happen to us, and soon."

And Kay Wosewick rounds it all out: "Lark grows up as climate-driven wars pit gun-toting fanatics intent on complete control against loosely formed bands of resisters. While most of Lark's early life is spent idyllically at a distance, he is finally forced to travel a long distance through war zones. Lark recounts times of bliss and harrowing moments of horror with equally affecting and lovely prose."

WHOA WHATTA BOOK! Surely if we were lucky enough to host the author of this masterpiece, you'd want to come meet him, right? WELL GUESS WHAT - Silas House appears at Boswell on Thursday, October 6, 6:30 pm central. Click here for more info and to reserve your spot for this event right this instant!

Let's stick with Chris, because this is a very good week of books for him. Yet another of his top 5 picks for the year comes out today: Stay True: A Memoir by New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu. Here's what Chris says about this one: "This memoir is so many things: a time capsule of 90s America from a West Coast outsider, a dissection of friendship through lenses of philosophy and language theory, a lived account of Asian diaspora in America. It’s road trips, cigarette breaks, mixtapes, and late nights goofing off. It’s the tone of nostalgia from a Smashing Pumpkins song. It’s the core-deep impact a friend can have, and it’s the tragedy of an early, senseless, violent loss. This book tore me completely apart. For anyone who’s ever found a friend who let them find themselves, for anyone who’s ever lost a friend who took a chunk of you with them, this book is going to destroy you then put you back together again, a little wiser and a little more tender."

We now go to a twofer YA novel, the latest from Kwame Alexander: The Door of No Return. From Jen Steele: "The Door of No Return is one of the most poignant books I've ever read! Told in verse and set in 1800's Africa, this emotional story follows Kofi, a young boy who loves and is loved, who will endure unimaginable heartbreak and faces an unknowable future. Kwame Alexander has delivered what is sure to be a modern-day classic!"

And from Tim McCarthy: "This is the fictional story of Kofi Offin. He's on the verge of manhood. It’s based on the real lives of people in an 1860 West African Asante village, in the nation now known as Ghana. Kofi lives a loving family life. He's 'smitten' with a young woman, who also likes him. He's bullied by a cousin and must find a way to defeat him. He struggles with school, where a teacher refuses his traditional language. He knows the history of warfare between two villages that once lived as one, and he will soon learn that greed and power and revenge can usurp family love. How will he keep any comfort or integrity or hope in the face of brutality? Kwame's introductory note says that this was a hard story to write, but it needed to be told. He needed to open a door, and his lyrical, graceful, powerful writing does just that. Now we must walk through, with 'eyes unshut' and our 'heart unlocked.' It's an intensely profound walk. Do join me."

Jen Steele also has a quick note on The Flamingo, a graphic novel chapter book by Guojing. Jen says: "The Flamingo is a breathtaking graphic novel full of wonder and love. I was absolutely charmed by everything about this!" That says it all!

Tim also has a graphic novel suggestion for us: Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile. Tim says: "I was eight years old in October of 1968 as I watched Tommie Smith and John Carlos receive their Summer Olympic medals with raised, black-gloved fists. I didn't notice they were also shoeless and wearing black socks to represent poverty, or see the beads and scarf representing lynchings. I admit that the moment scared and confused me. This suburban white kid didn't understand how a great victory would make these men look so sad. It was perhaps the first time I really wondered what was wrong with America, and it remains one of my life’s strongest visual memories. Now I've been given a chance to learn Tommie Smith's life story directly from him. He was also young when he started wondering what was wrong, why his large, loving, hard-working, faithful family of Texas sharecroppers had so much less than whites, despite tireless, honest effort. The story of his path from childhood to the moment they took a stand for human rights and a better nation is inspiration from an American hero, for which I’m deeply grateful. With exquisite illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile, this graphic novel answers questions that began in my eight-year-old thoughts fifty-four years ago. Now that’s extraordinary!"

And Tim (oh, Tim) has yet another staff rec for us, Oh, Sal, the new middle grade book from beloved Wisconsin creator of books for children, Kevin Henkes. Tim says: "Kevin Henkes has come back to writing about the Miller family. He couldn't let go of eight-year-old Billy and his little sister Sal, especially when COVID made him want the comfort of their familiar world. A beautifully warm world it is, with a new addition! Four-year-old Sal has a tiny baby sister who doesn't even have a name yet, and being between Billy and the baby has left her feeling left out. At first the baby made Sal’s heart bell ring, but now so much seems to be about everyone else. How will she find her place? While the first two Miller family books were told in Billy’s voice, this one gives us a smart, strong, and sometimes sad and angry little girl finding her way, with lots of loving help. I personally still need comfort in these terribly unstable times, and I was thrilled to be back in the Miller's world. Thank you, Kevin Henkes!"

Now here's Jenny Chou with a rec for a much-anticipated trilogy finale from Naomi Novik, The Golden Enclaves. Jenny says: "If you are anything like me, the last line of Naomi Novik’s book The Last Graduate destroyed you in that astonishing way that only the best fiction can. After declaring his love, Orion shoved El out of the graduation hall and stayed to fight the maw-mouth on his own. Since no one survives a maw-mouth attack (except El herself), she needs to get back into the Scholomance and save the life of that “bag of jumbled screws,” Orion Lake, and not for the first time; she’s keeping score. While this quest propels the story forward at a don’t-bother-me-I’m-reading pace, Novik’s social justice theme brings the real depth to this brilliant conclusion to the Scholomance series. When El discovers the hideous secret that allowed the enclaves to create their structure of safety and advantages, Novik forces readers to contemplate the damage inflicted on the weakest among us. The emotional journey taken by El, Orion, and their many enemies and few friends made for a series I’m sorry to see the end of, but I couldn’t have imagined a more fulfilling conclusion."

How about this for a paperback release: Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr's follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See comes out in paperback today. Is this book also a fourfer? It is! Am I going to reprint all four staff recs for it right here? I am! From Jason Kennedy: "Anthony Doerr intricately weaves together three story lines, scattered throughout time, in a brilliant tapestry of wonder. What holds this all together is an ancient Greek text that should’ve been lost to time. As we bob in and out of the different characters’ stories, we see how the text moves and influences their decisions and actions. We see the power of a written text and how people will devote resources and lives to the discovery and protection of the written word. There is so much to talk about in this book; please read it so I can discuss it with you. An amazing, epic novel!"

From Daniel Goldin: "An ancient Greek text ties together three stories in this long-awaited follow-up to All the Light We Cannot See. Whether he is writing about the Siege of Constantinople, a small-town Idaho library under attack, or a rocket’s worth of humanity trying to escape Earth’s devastation, Anthony Doerr has a way with compelling characters and a story that is both beautifully written and compulsively readable through its short chapters bursting with tension. Together, Cloud Cuckoo Land becomes a triumphant ode to storytelling and a heartfelt celebration of libraries."

From Jenny Chou: "Readers will carry Doerr’s latest story in their thoughts as they go about their day, checking watches or phones, waiting for the minute they can return to his world and his characters. The book is a breathtaking tribute to the art and power of storytelling and a reminder of the wondrous places libraries are to those of us who love them. An ancient Greek manuscript is at the center of the story, and its passage through time connects children (and the adults they become). Anna, in 1453, is a clumsy seamstress by day and a stealthy thief by night. She unearths the manuscript, and the story within, and goes on to protect it with her life during the siege of Constantinople. On a snowy night in Idaho, centuries later, a small library hosting a play based on the manuscript becomes the accidental stage for a teenager’s burst of righteous anger. And generations into the future, after humans have managed to ravage our home planet, a spaceship carrying our hope for survival as a species speeds through space. Onboard is fourteen-year-old Konstance, whose fascinating use of the latest library technology binds all the stories together. Cloud Cuckoo Land dances between emotionally wrenching and simply beautiful, and I was left in awe of Anthony Doerr, storyteller."

And from, yep, you guessed it, Tim McCarthy: "These characters are beautiful outcasts, different in ways too clear to miss, ways that push them out. They're beautiful for how they fight to keep what’s best about the Earth, and life, in spite of the most painful circumstances. They focus on the people, objects, natural places, and stories that stand side by side with the indignities of humanity. In the brutal siege of 15th century Constantinople, in a beloved and threatened 20th century Idaho forest, in a harsh Chinese prisoner of war camp, and in the containment of a ship blazing through future space, they dream of possibilities. From the opening it seems the time to save a healthy Earth has past. This is the story of saving an ancient piece of tattered writing, an ancient story rescued from the decay of time by these outcasts, as they fight for hope. Doerr's extraordinary details of living in these places make the characters all the more real as he makes a dramatic case that saving stories may indeed have the power to save us as well."

One of Margaret Kennedy's 2021 top 5 picks gets a new cover in paperback this week: Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke. Margaret says: "Surrealist humor meets monotonous office life in the new book Several People Are Typing. Written in the form of instant messenger conversations, this book had me laughing in disbelief at the absurd and unexplained happenings at this company. Each employee has their own problems, ranging from the mundane to the hilariously insane, but none more so than Gerald - who accidentally uploaded his consciousness into the firm's slack server. But who cares, because his productivity is suddenly through the roof now that he doesn't need to eat or sleep, so does he really have it that bad? With constant, sourceless howling, frighteningly illegible emoji conversations, missing briefs, and a growing sentience in the app's help Bot, Kasulke exaggerates the average American office to seem as crazy as it sometimes feels like in this wonderfully deranged novel."

Madi Hill adds: "Several People Are Typing is the kind of book you get someone else read with you just so you have a person to text "WHAT JUST HAPPENED" after every chapter. I am a bit leery when it comes to AI, and this nightmarish set up had me giggling and gasping at every hilarious twist. Perhaps it is from familiarity with Slack and mundane office work, but for a novel about a man trapped in a professional instant messaging program and told through the very same media, I myself was ensnared. Read this as a commentary on capitalism and the toxic praise that comes from not taking a break and working yourself into oblivion (in this case, literally), or just enjoy it as a humorous science fiction mix up - either way, it is an enjoyable foray into a very weird book."

One of Conrad Silverberg's top 5 of '21 also gets its paperback release today: When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash. Conrad says: "A plane crash-lands at a small town North Carolina airport during the dead of night. All the passengers and crew have disappeared before the sheriff can investigate. The only body he finds is that of a local black man lying nearby, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The sheriff's investigation is hampered by interference from his main political rival: the scion of old plantation money whose close ties to the Klan and history of good ole boy hellraising threatens to derail finding answers. The deep-seated and virulent racism of the town threads its way through every twist and turn of this gripping novel. A truly can't-put-it-down read."

And from Jason Kennedy: "Winston Barnes, Sheriff of a tiny North Carolina community, is awoken one night in 1984 to news of an unknown airplane coming in at the local airport. Upon investigating, he finds the plane is empty, barely contained to the runway, and there’s a dead body near it. Wiley Cash spins his tale out from this tight moment in time to explore everything from racial tensions to drug smuggling to families being upended by tragedies. This is more than just a mystery or whodunit, it’s a story about relationships between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters. This seven-layer salad of a novel surprises with each unfolding scene, and the last layer has the punch to your gut that will leave you mute. I am such a fan of Wiley Cash, and you should be too."

That's a lot of recommending! See you next week, and until then, read on.

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