Monday, April 29, 2024

Staff Recommendations, Week of April 30, 2024

This April is a classic five-Tuesday month, which means one more Tuesday of new books, which means one more Tuesday of staff recommendations. And isn't that just great? Here go the recs - 

The first rec of the last Tuesday of the month (okay, leaning a little too hard into this bit) - it's Real Americans, the second novel by Rachel Khong, which has earned raves from four booksellers so far here at Boswell. Might just be one of our big books of the summer! First, from Chris Lee: "Khong’s immersive second novel is a literary saga that follows three generations of a Chinese American family through more than half a century, from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the Y2K panic in America to Covid and beyond. The courses of their lives are entwined, like strands of DNA, with the machinations of a pharmaceutical corporation that dabbles in genetic engineering. Real Americans asks, is any person ever truly free to choose who they become? It’s a stunner of a book about fate, luck, country, science, and even a tic of magic."

Next, from Gao Her: "There is so much to say about Rachel Khong's new magnificent novel. Khong's writing transports you into the psyche of three generations of a Chinese- American family as it intertwines fate with reality. What makes you a “real” American? What can we, as humans, really control about who we are and what we become? There is an overflow of heart and intricate emotion poured into this novel and it captivated me from page one."

And from Daniel Goldin: "From the peasant farms of China’s Cultural Revolution to cutting-edge tech in San Francisco, Rachel Khong’s expansive second novel tackles money, class, genetics, family, and cultural identity, along with all the requisite secrets and betrayals that a story like this entails. The focus is on three generations of one family, May, Lily, and Nick, and my only complaint is that each time I got to the end of one character’s story, I didn’t want it to end. We can’t stop talking about this book among ourselves, and it’s likely that once you read Real Americans, you’ll want all of your friends to read it, too."

Finally, from Jenny Chou: "Lily Chen is slogging through that time between finishing college and becoming a grownup when she falls in love with the extraordinarily wealthy Matthew Allen. While sometimes thrilling, his vast wealth is also disorienting, leaving Lily even more uncomfortable in her own skin. Lily’s mother, a geneticist who fled China during the Cultural Revolution, seems to find her daughter perpetually disappointing, while Matthew’s father sees no reason for his son to work in private equity when he could be taking over the reins at a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical empire. Lily’s immigrant parents never spoke to her in any language but English, and they seemed to embrace the trappings of American life, but not out of any sort of genuine interest. And they never elaborated on their past. When this past crashes headlong into both Lily and Matthew’s present, the shattering revelations are life-altering for all. Real Americans is a great read from a messy family relationship angle, and also a thought-provoking story that asks readers to consider what makes a real American. But as the story progresses, and Lily and Matthew’s son is born, there’s a chilling feeling that something bigger is amiss. Nick doesn’t present as Asian or even biracial. Anyone who finds genetics and the mysteries of DNA and genes as fascinating as I do will be intrigued by the unexpected path author Rachel Khong takes us down. It isn’t until the third portion of the novel, set during the Cultural Revolution, that some questionable choices made by Lily’s mother begin to make a sort of shocking sense, and ultimately, this novel asks the question, can we control our own luck?"

Guess what! This is a Boswell event book - Rachel Khong will be at Boswell on Wednesday, May 15, 6:30 pm for a conversation about this very book with Boswellian (and above recommender) Chris Lee. Click here to register for that event and find more info right now. Thanks to AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin and OCA Wisconsin for cosponsoring this event, too!

And, fun bonus note - Real Americans was just announced as the May Today Show Read with Jenna book club pick. Watch the announcement video below.

Let's go to Kay Wosewick, who recommends Beneath the Surface of Things: New and Selected Essays by Wade Davis. Kay writes: "COVID put hard brakes on Davis’s far-flung travels and writing focused on anthropology and cultural themes. While confined, his sharp eye found obscured aspects of familiar historical stories and contemporary issues. The result is succinct, piercing thought-pieces on subjects as disparate as South American cultures' coca rituals, widely practiced daily for 500+ years; Jerusalem’s 2000+ years role as a sacred site for Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and an unusual look at WWI. His essay about climate fear is a welcome alternative to daily doom stories. Great writing about interesting subjects!"

Now we go back to Daniel for his take on the latest from The Paris Library author Janet Skeslien Charles. Her new novel is Miss Morgan's Book Brigade, and of it Daniel says: "The author of The Paris Library’s latest is another classic historical that should please bibliophiles and Francophiles alike. The story follows Jessie Carson, a New York Public Librarian recruited by socialite Anne Morgan to help rebuild France’s libraries at the tail end of The Great War, but how can she do that when the war hasn’t ended yet? Seventy years later, another librarian is working in NYPL archives when she realizes she also has a quest – to make sure that the world knows about Jessie Carson and the CARDS. I found Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade to be a satisfying dual narrative with overlapping themes, an intoxicating mix of solid research, mystery, and a little romance too."

This, too, is an event book! Skeslien Charles visits for a ticketed luncheon at at Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, 813 E Kilbourn Ave on Saturday, May 4, 11:15 reception, 12 pm lunch and talk. Click here to get tickets and find out more.

And now it's on to Jason Kennedy, who recommends The Book Censor's Library by Bothayna Al-Essa,  translated by Ranya Abdelrahman and Sawad Hussain. Jason says: "Throw in some 1984, add a dash of Fahrenheit 451, and put in a whole bunch of original Big Brother content that has flowed from Bothayna Al-Essa's imagination, and you have the magic that is The Book Censor's Library. The unnamed protagonist works as a book censor at a bureau that attempts to kill all creativeness and imagination in the books that get published. Obviously, this is only one aspect of a society where the ruling elite attempt to suppress the population. When he is charged with reading and listing all the wrongs in a newly translated copy of Zorba the Greek, he starts to awaken to the power and beauty of reading actual books. He falls down the rabbit hole and starts helping to smuggle books doomed to be burned to safety. His family suffers for his choices, even though his daughter has needed these stories and her imagination to be used. A surprising, haunting, twisty ending left me flabbergasted and wanting the story to continue."

Rachel Ross also has a novel in translation to recommend: A Magical Girl Retires by Park Seolyeon, translated by Anton Hur. Ross says: "Wow, you certainly don’t need to have been an avid Sailor Moon fan in your youth to relate to this pithy tale. Park Seolyeon presents us with the whimsical premise of magical girls, then systematically dismantles every part of the trope. A Magical Girl Retires is about the millennial desire to be plucked from your mundane life, bestowed powers, and inducted into an elite society. But this fantasy is swiftly deconstructed as we learn more about the dark side of magical girl society. It perfectly encapsulates the snowballing hopelessness of debt, the climate dread that hangs above all of our heads, and why we must find a way to persist regardless."

Jen Steele has a new mystery to recommend, the first book in a new series. It's Every Time I Go on Vacation, Someone Dies by Catherine Mack, and of it Jen says: "This was such a fun mystery! An Italian setting, a cast of characters each with a motive and a secret, and so much talk of spritzes and food that will leave you wanting to book your own Italian getaway. I loved how our main character, Eleanor, broke the fourth wall to readers and even gave insight into the publishing world. A delightful summer read for sure!"

And those are the recs of the week. We'll be back here next week for the first recommendations of May. Until then, read on.

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