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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 31, 2022

The end of the month brings lots of new releases. Let us help you start your summer reading off well with these books.

Chris Lee recommends We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets: "Get through the work day, and don’t let the work get to you. That’s the goal of everyone who labors, at least to some degree. And, of course, it’s impossible. Manual work breaks down your body, the service industry eats away your personhood. And in her crisp, quick new novel, Hanna Bervoets tells the story of one woman’s year spent in the latest temple to soul-sucking drudgery: a social media company’s content moderation facility. The question is begged (I admit, I wondered, too): what’s the worst thing you ever saw? And boy oh boy are there ever some eye-watering answers. But there’s fun here, too, particularly that old dirtbag pleasure of getting away with as much as you can on the clock – loafing, drinking, smoking dope, even screwing. We Had to Remove This Post is a very now working class novel that asks age-old and essential questions of life under capitalism: what does our work do to us? How much of ourselves will we give away for money? The answers Bervoets finds are disquieting at best, and the longer you think about them (and you’re going to keep thinking about them, trust me), the more your skin crawls. I really like this book."

Chris also recommends The Coward by Jarred McGinnis: "The Coward is a spectacular dirtbag bildungsroman. Jarred is paralyzed after a car accident that killed a woman, and he blames himself for her death. In fact, blames himself for a lot of things; classic King Midas in reverse syndrome. Maybe the only person he blames more is his estranged, alcoholic father, under whose roof he’s now stuck living. Alas, Jarred can barely push himself down the block before he’s out of breath, so his tried and true method of running away from his problems is no longer a particularly viable option. Some soul-searching and past-confronting may be in order, as quick wit and anger are only going to carry him so far. Is he destined to spend the rest of his life as a living, breathing (and annoyed) cautionary tale / inspirational token to the able-bodied? How long can he dodge medical bill collectors? Could the barista at the fancy coffee shop actually be interested in him, like, that way? And can he reconcile with his father, finally mourn his mother, and learn not run out on the people who care about him? The Coward will probably not be the book for everybody – the voice is callous, sarcastic, and comes with quite the chip on the shoulder – but if your interest is piqued, I can promise this book will lend your heart some serious warmth by the end."

Margaret Kennedy recommends A Little Bit Country by Brian D Kennedy (no relation): "From debut author Brian D Kennedy, A Little Bit Country not only gives us a sweet-as-can-be love story that will rival any ballad on the radio but also a much-needed look into what it means to love country. The book is set in Wanda World, a country music theme park owned by one of the biggest superstars in the industry. Emmett, an openly gay country singer is working there for the summer in the hopes that he will leave with a record deal. Luke, who comes from a struggling home with bad ties to country music, is only there for the paycheck. When the two meet, sparks will fly, and unexpected family secrets will come out of the closet. The characters are well written - they care for and accept the other even when they are unable to relate and struggle to make good decisions despite the tough situations they are put in. With an ending that left me elated and wondering how I didn't see that coming, I couldn't put this book down. To all those who are gay and love country music, an industry that doesn't always love you back for that, A Little Bit Country gives a nice sense of hope for the future."

Jenny Chou recommends The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz: "Phoebe Oppenheimer arrived in the world seventeen years after her triplet siblings, but as she likes to point out, she’s exactly the same age. Sally, Harrison, Lewyn, and Phoebe started as four embryos in a petri dish, three implanted, and one sent off to be frozen and just about forgotten. The triplets don’t exactly create the loving, close family their mother Johanna envisioned, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they can’t stand each other by the time they leave for college. In addition, their dad has checked out of their lives, supposedly (but only partially) due to his obsession with his art collection. Johanna, still hoping to create the blissful, loving family of her dreams, makes what feels like an impulsive decision, but actually did take quite a bit of planning. She hires a surrogate to carry the embryo that becomes Phoebe, the child nobody really wanted (including Johanna), but perhaps the one they all needed. Her wise and slightly cynical voice carries the novel from beginning to end, catching the reader up on all the many things she missed out on through her arrival seventeen years too late. She’s one of the few people you won’t want to strangle by the end of the book, but if you like messy family dynamics, then this one is a winner!"

Jen Steele recommends Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris: "David Sedaris offers a heartfelt and earnest new collection of essays that left me laughing one minute, agreeing with his astute observations and contemplative the next. If you have the chance, I recommend listening to the audiobook. It's like being at one of Sedaris's show, which is a completely unique experience."

Speaking of Sedaris shows - David Sedaris appears in-person at Boswell on Friday, June 17, 2 pm, for a ticketed talk which will be followed by a free and open-to-everyone signing. For more information, click here.

Jen also recommends Barb and the Ghost Blade (Barb the Last Berzerker #2), written and illustrated by Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson: "Our favorite Zerk is back! Barb and her friends are on a quest to save the world from the sinister Witch Head. To do that, Barb must enlist the Wise Wizards to join her. Finding a Wizard might be tricky, and Barb will need to go undercover in a monster city that doesn't take too kindly to humans - what could go wrong? Barb and the Ghost Blade is full of humor, heart, and nonstop action! This is fast becoming my new favorite graphic novel series."

Jen also recommends (go, Jen, go!) Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez "Imagine a medieval Spain with dragons instead of bulls and matadors. Isabel Ibanez vividly brings to life a world full of danger and intrigue; you can feel the heat of the dragons and the flair of flamenco on every page. Together We Burn is a great mix of fantasy, romance, and mystery. I felt transported to another land."

That's it for this week of recommending, so happy reading to you for the rest of this week, and we'll see you back here for the start of June with more recommendations.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Staff Recommendation Catch-Up (Week of May 24, 2022 Post)

This week's recommendation post is something of a catch-up blog - a good thing for it to be, I suppose, since it's also a bit late this week. But hey, plenty of great stuff for a long weekend of reading. We have one brand new book, a couple of picture book recommendations for great books that came out in May, and a romance paperback original that Rachel just discovered. Read on!

Jason Kennedy starts us off with his recommendation for Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon, just released today. Jason says: "Bill Bear lives in a future that has gone through several Covids and Ukraine War-like instances. The US is a bit of a disaster, and Bill makes a living as a courier. He mostly moves people and objects and does the odd cleanup and assassinations if called upon. He is a master of living on the fringes, outside the system, a ghost with no real identity. So, when he is in the middle of a contract job and one of his burner phones goes off, it freaks him out. Nobody should have any of the numbers of his phone at this point, but that's when more of them go off, with a very insistent person on the other end about to change Bill's outlook on life and royally piss off Bill’s employer. Dan Chaon provides a road novel, a rundown, and a harsh future world. While I don't want to live there, I loved reading this bleak future of ours."

Jason also just finished River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, the latest history from Candice Millard. Jason says: "Candace Millard delves into the history of the expeditions of Burton and Speke as they try to discover the source of the White Nile. The logistics were mind-boggling, and the amount of supplies and the number of people it took to make the trek seemed like overkill - until it wasn't. And then the food began to run out. The amount of illness and its severity visited upon everyone made me wonder what form of insanity these explorers had to have suffered. The individual personalities and vistas are fascinating. Candace Millard follows the fortunes of these two British fellows along with Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was brought in to handle working with local African groups. Bombay is the real reason this expedition didn't fail spectacularly as the two Europeans worked against each other. Another great historical adventure that opens our eyes to an era that I just don't understand anymore but found amazing."

Rachel Copeland recommends Set on You, by Amy Lea. Rachel says: "Fitness influencer Crystal Chen made a name for herself by ignoring the haters - she's curvy and her followers love her body positivity message. When an offensively hot new gym patron steals her squat rack, she takes it upon herself to teach him a few things about gym etiquette. The last person she expects to see at her grandmother's engagement party is Squat Rack Thief - but of course he's the fiancé's grandson. Look, I'm completely allergic to the concept of exercise, but I loved Set on You anyway. Amy Lea captures the stress of being a one-woman social media force and the difficulty of balancing a private life with a public persona. I also enjoyed how, once Crystal and Scott called a truce, the two became best friends in a way that felt so organic. I'm 100% on board to hear more from Amy Lea."

And now, new kids book recommendations from Tim McCarthy. First, The World Belonged to Us by Jacqueline Woodson. Tim says: "This just became my definitive summer picture book! School empties and the children are "free as the sun." Just imagine everything a group of kids could do to live their joy on a Brooklyn city street, on a day that lasts forever. Yes, of course there's an open fire hydrant, and a stickball game, an ice-cream truck, and a big kid helping with scraped knees, and... I think they even snuck in an image of Woodson herself writing Another Brooklyn. I have vivid memories of the sun finally going down against my own exhausted body on summer days that almost didn't end, and I'll never get enough of Woodson's gorgeous storytelling or enough images of childhood summer joy!"

Tim also recommends Lizzy and the Cloud by The Fan Brothers. Tim says: "The Fan Brothers have amazed me again! Several of their picture books are among my favorite combinations of story and illustration. Lizzy is the latest gem, about a girl who walks to the park with her parents and runs straight to the cloud seller. His clouds are in the shapes of many animals, but Lizzy wants an ordinary one. She learns to follow the Caring for Your Cloud instructions exactly, and the result is a lesson in love beyond anything she had imagined. The beautiful pictures enhance the unique and tender-hearted storytelling in a way that must be seen to be understood."

And then Tim takes us for a walk with Hot Dog by Doug Salati. Tim says: "Salati's picture book is an instant summer classic. The baking-hot, crazy-complicated city sidewalk is no place for a little dog who just wants a curious sniff. It's all 'too close! too loud! too much!' When the frustrated pup finally refuses to budge, the person at the other end of the leash takes them both on a fabulous journey to the beach. Being a hound lover, my first reaction was that this dog is such a... dog. And there's so much more here to admire. Facial expressions throughout are beautifully telling and fun. The illustrations are unique and dramatic, with details offering sweet surprises big and small. The poetic story is told with subtle strength, and this gift to the heart is wrapped in a perfect ending. Come and get one for the children you love, and perhaps another for your own life-tested soul."

And do we have any paperback picks this week?

Jason also suggest Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin, just now out in paperback. Jason says: "Morningside Heights chronicles a family’s attempt to make their life work through an unexpected curveball. There is real love between the parents, Spence and Pru, and their child Sarah, and even for Arlo, Spence’s child from a previous, short-lived marriage. When Spence is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, everyone’s life is turned upside down. While this story centers around Spence’s decline, it really is Pru who shines. She loves her husband, though she never conceived of becoming a caregiver and slowly dissolves into his disease. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. A great testament that life continues to evolve and rebuild in the face of adversity."

Daniel Goldin recommends Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else, by UW-Madison's Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Mathematics Jordan Ellenberg. Daniel says: "Shape is the perfect title for this book, which shows that geometry is about more than proving whether two of the angles of an isosceles triangle are congruent. (They are!) Geometry is mapping and game theory and cryptography and artificial intelligence and predicting epidemics. I love Ellenberg's voice. He's such a good storyteller, and no lie, I have already laughed out loud many more times than I have in many a so-called comic novel. Did I sometimes get a little lost reading the book? I did! But it's kind of like falling into a body of water with a life preserver - even if you're only an okay swimmer, you don't have to worry about drowning."

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Happy reading.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Make No Mistake: You Should Be Reading Jonathan Lee's THE GREAT MISTAKE

The reason I read The Great Mistake Jonathan Lee is probably not the reason you should read The Great Mistake, but trust me (or, hey, make no mistake…), you should definitely read The Great Mistake.

So, why, you may or may not ask, did I read The Great Mistake? Because its authors surname is Lee, just like mine, and I like to read at least one book by another Lee every year. This habit started some years ago when someone I met told me, “oh, Lee, that’s the most common surname in the world,” which is actually not even close to true, it only even hovers in the top five if you include varied spellings like ‘Li,’ but whatever, I didn’t know that at the time, I just immediately thought, I bet there are a lot of other Lees who’ve written books. You know, like Harper Lee, Laurie Lee (ask a British friend), and Min Jin Lee, and hey, the great Don Lee, with whom we just had a virtual event for his new story collection, The Partition, which is my Lee book for 2022. Is this a dumb way to choose books? Probably, but also probably not the dumbest. Besides, I have my own writerly aspirations, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look at my own book on a store shelf one day and see all its Lee friends around it and have read them, too? Of course that is the aspiration that I cling to even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit!

Last year, I was in a reading slump – you know how it goes, for whatever reason every book you pick up is just a total slog, and besides, there’s all this great TV and napping to catch up on – and I was casting around for something to get me into reading again. I had an advance copy of The Great Mistake on my stack, and grabbed it, thinking, “well at least I’ll get my Lee read for the year,” and dove in. And whoa.

Within three pages, I could tell the Lee book trick had worked again. (In fact, it pretty much always has worked for me, obviously because [note to big time, big money agents and editors out there] all Lees are fantastic writers.) But boy oh boy, this time the trick really worked.

And so here we come to the reasons non-Lees should also read this book:

THE HISTORY! Go ahead, google Andrew Haswell Green, the central figure of The Great Mistake, and see what comes up – you’ll find that he’s the ‘unsung hero of Central Park,’ the ‘Father of Greater New York City,’ and also was murdered in his old age. He is, very simply, a fascinating dude. And the book uses him to travel back in time and relive the city as it grew into the Gilded Age. From life on a poverty-stricken farm upstate to the private libraries and halls of power, the book offers a glimpse into the history of the city, not as a survey class or set of factoids, but how it actually felt to live in.

THE MYSTERY! The book jumps back and forth between the life story of Green and the police investigator who is at once trying to suss out why on earth someone would shoot dead an old man and at the same time trying very hard not to succumb to consumption. This is very fun to read.

THE PROSE! And I know, this feels like something somebody says about a novel when they just don’t know what else to say, it’s all, “oh, the prose, it’s just so, you know, prose-y,” but I promise this is not the case with this book. Jonathan Lee is very, very obviously obsessed with language and crafting delightful paragraphs. Now, I think a part of this must be his British heritage – as a friend pointed out to me, the Brits have superior vocabularies to us. And his is not only excellent, but he uses it the way (terrible but apt metaphor alert) Chagall used color. Every page is full of sentences and paragraphs crafted with the precision and care of obscenely expensive Swiss watches. And the best part of them -

THE SURPRISES! I often stopped to reread pages throughout the book as I was going along because so often Lee is able to just completely blindside you with where he’s going and what he’s about to say. Really. If half the fun of reading is finding out “what comes next,” this book is a feast of delights, because from page to page, from even the beginning of each sentence to its end, you never know where Lee is going to take you.

THE HEART! For all this, there’s one thing you’ve gotta have in any book to really care about it, right? A bit of heart. Well, for all of the amazing writing about the city and the murder mystery and the past, The Great Mistake has at its beating heart the story of a restless, creative man determined to shape history while at the same time being bound by the moral code of his day. Here is a man who wants so much and the only real question is, what will he decide he wants the most?

The greatest mistake of all would obviously be not reading this book.

If you are reading this on or before May 24, you can attend this virtual event live by registering on Zoom here. And if it's after May 24, there's a good chance we'll have a link to the recording.

Photo credit: Tanja Kernweiss

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Staff Recommendations, Week of May 17, 2022

Welcome to another week of staff recommendations from your favorite Boswellians. 

First it's Jenny and Daniel for This Time Tomorrow, the latest novel from the beloved Emma Straub. Jenny says: "2022 is shaping up to be an excellent year for time travel novels. Literally one super-star read after another, and as I write this, it's only February. In This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub's take on the time-travel twist, we don’t need to understand the science behind main character Alice’s journeys to her past, just her motivations for going back to age sixteen - first accidentally and then on purpose. At the start of the book, she’s forty, and it’s apparent that Alice is not living her best life. Her father, the most important person in her life, is dying, and everyone else is caught up in the chaos of their own life or is just dull background noise in Alice’s. So, when the opportunity arises, Alice tries to rearrange her present-day life over and over again from the springboard of her sixteenth birthday. Fixing certain problems often leads to bigger problems and lots of laughs for the reader, but the heartbeat of the novel is Alice’s relationship with her dad. Her longing to somehow adjust his path by changing her actions gives This Time Tomorrow a sense of poignancy and tenderness. Trust me, you’re going to fall in love with Alice and the people who stumble in and out of her life over the course of this absolutely delightful book."

And from Daniel: "On her fortieth birthday, with her life in a holding pattern, Alice Stern inadvertently spends the night in the guard house of her father’s Upper West Side co-op and finds herself back at the age of 16 with so many of her life decisions ahead of her. Most notably, her father, author of the legendary Time Brothers novel, is alive and well and no longer facing the end of his life in a hospital bed. Can Alice change her own life’s trajectory in 24 hours? Should she? After reading this alternatingly whimsical and poignant but always delightful story, I am convinced that every writer, whatever their chosen genre, should write a time travel novel. The reading world will be better for it!"

Want to see Straub in person? Great news! Emma Straub will be in conversation with Noah Weckwerth at the Elm Grove Women’s Club, 13885 Watertown Plank Road, Thursday, May 26, 2022, 7 pm. Tickets cost $28 plus tax and fee and include a copy of the book. Click here to purchase tickets.

Let's stick with Jenny for See You Yesterday, the newest book from Rachel Lynne Solomon. Jenny says: "Signing up for physics her freshman year of college was a mistake that becomes clear the moment Barrett sits down next to the unbearably annoying Miles, a know-it-all who puts her on the spot in front of the class and the professor for absolutely no reason. She’s never seen Miles before in her life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know each other. It doesn’t take long for Barrett to figure out she’s become stuck in a time loop of endless Wednesday the 21st of Septembers. And caught there with her? Ugh. Miles. What ensues is hilarious and very nearly broke my heart (not unexpected for a Rachel Lynn Solomon novel). Writing a book set almost entirely in just one day is challenging, but Solomon’s creativity makes for a real page turner. Barrett’s combination of outspoken and insecure land her in trouble with every repeat, while Miles pretty much has to be dragged out of the physics library, where he’s determined to find the scientific solution to reaching Thursday, September 22nd. Barrett’s sense of adventure doesn’t mesh with Miles’s cautious personality, so watching the two learn to understand each other makes for a charming read. I’m not giving anything away to tell you that my favorite enemies-to-lovers trope is well played here, but the path to Thursday, September 22nd leads through an unexpected and epic twist that fans of YA romance won’t want to miss."

And now, over to Jason for his take on Just Like Mother, the debut book-for-adults from Anne Heltzel. Jason says: "Anne Heltzel has put a disturbing ring to the term Mother in this book. Maeve is born into a cult called The Mother Collective, which has extreme views on motherhood. Maeve’s best friend is her cousin, Andrea, who makes Maeve promise she will never leave. When Maeve is caught in a tight spot, she flees and enters foster care. Years later, Andrea reaches out to reconnect with Maeve, and that is when some real creepiness reintroduces itself. There are some very graphic scenes that left me squeamish, but Heltzel does an amazingly dark job of weaving a perfect trap for her character and not triggering it until Maeve is almost too far inside. Really looking forward to what twisted ideas she can come up with for what should be normal, comforting life experiences. Mother will never mean the same thing to me."

And now, as is often the case here on the staff rec roundup, two from Kay! First, Kay recommends Family Album by By Gabriela Alemán and team translated by Dick Cluster and Mary Ellen Fieweger. Kay says: "Alemán’s eclectic short stories left traces that unexpectedly popped up and demanded my attention again: why this, how that? The stories meander around Ecuador to places where mysteries may be solved or deepened, where curiosity may be rewarded and lack of curiosity punished, and where characters range from kind to cruel, outlandish to simple, but always one-of-a-kind."

Kay also suggests Metropolis, the latest from BA Shapiro. Kay says: "This clever, engaging, and twisty story is set in a gothic storage warehouse in Cambridge, MA. The book opens with news of a serious injury after someone falls down an elevator shaft. The warehouse is fascinating: two people live in their units, another uses it as an office, and a fourth moved the contents of her children's bedrooms there after the father unilaterally sent them to school in Switzerland. The residents' lives are entwined at the time of the accident and become more-so in the aftermath. As with Shapiro’s other books, there is a strong art/artist thread. The setting is picture-perfect for a thrilling story."

And now, out in paperback today, guess what? It's ANOTHER Kay rec. Woohoo! The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us by Meg Lowman is the book, and Kay says: "Meg Lowman is a scientific powerhouse and innovator. She is a pioneer in researching the top of forests where there is a great diversity of life that has barely begun to be recognized. Many natural areas around the world have followed Lowman’s lead and have built systems to convey visitors to treetops to observe entirely new habitats. Lowman’s leadership and creativity have led to significant leaps in understanding this previously overlooked habitat, which she calls the Eighth Continent. Lowman’s introduction to this overlooked habitat is fascinating."

The latest out in paperback from Taylor Jenkins Reid is Malibu Rising, and here's Jen with recommending duties: "Nina, Jay, Hud, and Kit are the children of the world-famous crooner Mick Riva. However, they may know him best through celebrity magazines. Raised by their mother June, the siblings grow up in Malibu and bond over surfing. Told in two parts, we learn the family's history from the mid-fifties to late seventies and then of the day of the Riva's annual end-of-summer party in 1983. Each chapter reveals a new heartbreak, all leading up to the most explosive party the siblings have ever hosted. Taylor Jenkins Reid sets the scene for family drama and manages to transport you to Malibu's past effortlessly. I was mesmerized by the Rivas, my heart breaking with them at one turn, and laughing out loud at the next, especially at Kit's astute observations. Make an 80's surfing playlist and add this to your summer read pile!"

Next up, Chris has mucho praise for The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin: "By now, anyone who’s paying attention at all knows what happens to the families on the losing end of gentrification. And if we’re being honest, we don’t care – that’s development, that’s progress, catch up or get left behind. That’s the starting place for Vlautin’s latest. Lynette wakes up before the sun to work shifts at two crappy jobs (plus her sex work side hustle) as she tries to scrape together enough cash to buy the house she lives in with her alcoholic mother and developmentally disabled brother from their absentee landlord. Vlautin brings a razor-sharp eye for detail to his dirty realism version of ‘the night of crime that changes it all.’ This isn’t just what happens when a person is pushed over the edge – Vlautin is unflinching about staring back at the economic, social, and familial pressures can shove a person over the cliff. It’s also a tour of the “before” photo of Portland – definitely the latest & greatest book for those who dig glimpses of the parts of cities that lousy new money hasn’t ruined yet. Also, I’ll say that the vibe of the novel is that of an Eagles song turned into a book by someone who hates the Eagles because they’re too soft. This a compliment. I think I’ll be walking around Vlautin’s Portland in my head for a long time to come."

Now, back to Daniel to wrap things up with Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng: "Dawn is an architecture student whose love for Beethoven and classical music proves to have dangerous consequences during China’s Cultural Revolution. Momo is another music lover, but he safely kept to engineering. And as for Cassia, the love of her life was attacked for being the son of a spy, and worse, for liking Western literature. Cassia wound up marrying Momo and mothering Junie, but the parents struggle with June’s disability, and a second pregnancy does not fare better. All three adults wind up in the United States, but the mess of the past isn’t any less messy stateside as it casts a shadow on the present. Linda Rui Feng’s gift is in the descriptions, the little moments, and the internal ruminations. Quietly beautiful!"

We hosted a great event featuring Linda Rui Feng last year when this book came out in hardcover - click here to check out the video evidence of her fantastic conversation!

Finally, Chris raves about The Great Mistake, a novel by Jonathan Lee (no relation): "Wow. If you want a classic, capital N, The Novel kind of book, you couldn’t do much better than The Great Mistake. As a stylist, Lee is top shelf; he so obviously delights in the English language, and each of his sentences is a masterclass in wonder, humor, and precision – even the shapes and sounds of his lines are full of surprises. You want more than style? You got it. Lee tracks the life of Andrew Haswell Green (the mostly forgotten Father of Greater New York) through the 19th century, creating a remarkably full measure of the man’s life, public and private. In doing so, the book offers a window into the life of America’s greatest city as it came into its modern form. Honestly, the best comparison I can think of is that this is the novel Charles Dickens might write if he’d recently crawled out of the grave."

Tim chimes in for this one: "The last attempt on Andrew Haswell Green's life, the one that succeeded, came in November of 1903. It was Friday the 13th. This we're told on page one, and with the end of his remarkable life a new mystery began. Did the people of New York really know the man they credited with the very existence of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library, and a unified Greater New York City? Jonathan Lee gives us a novel of this renowned and yet somehow obscure historical figure. With a unique talent for using words and phrases, Lee unwinds the details of a life and a death. He opens a window into the heart of someone who knew mayors, governors and presidents, but was so often alone. It’s possible that over a century later we feel closer to him than people of his time, so who cared enough to kill 'the father of Greater New York' on his own Park Avenue doorstep? The Great Mistake is beautifully crafted and thought-provoking historical fiction, a novel of substance and style for lovers of literary intrigue."

Jonathan Lee joins us this coming Tuesday, May 24, 7 pm for a conversation with Chris about this fantastic book, and we hope you'll join us as well - click here to register and get more info now!

Read on, dear readers. We'll see you next week with another armful of great books.