Summer Booknotes 2019
In this novel, written by a Chinese exile whose work is banned in his home country, the director of the fictional China Dream Bureau leads a project to rewrite the dreams of the Chinese people as they sleep in order to further unify (and control) the population. However, having lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the director cannot purge some of his own nightmares. Brimming with sharp contrasts and horrific—though often hilarious—contradictions, this Orwellian novel is a brutal investigation of modern Chinese society, and of the impossibilities of totalitarianism. -Justin
The locally based author of two unforgettable books on military conflict, Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go To War, Karl Marlantes surprises, delights, and illuminates with his newest novel. Deep River is a rich story tracing a Finnish family's life in their homeland and their subsequent flight to the logging country of the Pacific Northwest. The powerful story of a family who seeks fair opportunity and social justice, alongside a vividly rendered landscape, makes this book one of the most memorable, resonant reads of the year. -Rick
Ted Chiang has the ability to make the cerebral seem intimate. As each short story reaches further into the imagination and into the future, it gets closer to matters of the human heart. Accessible yet mind-opening, Exhalation is astounding to read and savor; it’s the kind of future speculation that makes you question how to have a better present, and Chiang’s prose makes the journey as easy and essential as breathing. Some stories are simple, while others will turn you on your head and make you want to flip back to the beginning right away to read anew. -Elaine
Email or call for price.
Marseille, 1940. France has fallen to Germany. Varian Fry, American journalist, is working desperately, clandestinely, with scant resources, and at great personal risk to find a way to safety for those on a list of some two hundred artists, writers, and thinkers in peril of Nazi capture. Most are desperate to leave; others, blithely unconcerned. In addition to Fry and his team, this breath-stopping narrative affords the pleasure of encountering such notables as Hannah Arendt, André Breton, and Marc Chagall. Equally unforgettable is the teeming, writhing serpentine of hope and despair that was Marseille. -Peter
In Sarah Blake’s stunning novel, a wealthy New York family must deal with the prospect of losing the summer house that has become a symbol of their prosperity and virtue. The house is also the site of a betrayal, the consequences of which will reach far into the family’s future generations. Will the revelation of secrets festering beneath the family’s—and their society’s—apparent goodness lead to more tragedy, or to new beginnings? This family’s tragic and compelling story will be one to savor and discuss long after the last page is turned. -Karen
Email or call for price.
Pacific Northwest author Pete Fromm returns with another beautifully stirring novel. Taz is a young man in Montana grieving the loss of his wife after she dies in childbirth. His struggle to take care of his newborn daughter despite his debilitating grief will invoke sympathy from parents and non-parents alike. What defines adulthood better than having no idea how to do something, but soldiering on regardless? Rippled with melancholy, wry humor, and Fromm's lilting prose, this novel is a testament to the power of love and the importance of family. -Liz T.
Lanny is a mysterious, hard-packed little book, like nothing else you've read. It feels like dark crescents of charcoal dug under the nails, a tulgey exhale down the back of the neck, the smell of sun-baked summer brambles thick in the nose. Max Porter conjures a familiar modern world whose underbelly seethes with twisted fairy-tale currents. Lip-biting page-turns feel heavy with the question: will the well-trodden rules of daily life lead us to a simple and comforting (if slightly disappointing) conclusion, or is our story following other laws, laws murky, ancient, and ineffable? -Lara
A body in the library. Books whispering conspiratorially on the shelves. Ivy Gamble is unquestionably unmagic and unwelcome in the world of mages that her twin sister inhabits—until she's asked to look into a death at a school for magical teenagers and she discovers exactly how weird and ugly that world can get. Sarah Gailey unfolds their story with a cool and natural ease. Easy to slip into and hard to put down. Believable lies tug you along gently until suddenly you're looking up to realize it's later than you thought, you're not where you started, and you're not sure who you can trust. -Callie
Kristen Arnett shows up to her debut novel with gloves on, already reaching in to pull all the ugly guts out into the light. She cuts close to the bone, but it's done with love rather than cruelty. She understands how painful it is to be cut open and exposed, but she pushes past the discomfort of seeing ourselves revealed in the hopes of finding whatever might be on the other side. Hers is a dark and funny slice of life you never want to end. Hot and sticky as the Florida summer, but cool and compelling even as she constantly and repeatedly pokes at the bruises of family, love, and loss. -Callie
Molly cowers in the hallway, clutching her small children. Was that the sound of someone else in the house? As the paranoia ebbs and normalcy seems to return, Molly’s reality is abruptly twisted by the shocking presence of a freakish intruder emerging from her coffee table. The questions that arise from the arrival of the intruder set the course of this fantastical narrative. This is an utterly unexpected, genre-bending novel that ponders motherhood, identity, and our very existence. Phillips brilliantly draws a world and then even more spectacularly blurs its lines. -Holly
Set during the 1960s in a segregated Tallahassee, Florida, Whitehead's rapturous novel prods us to follow the plight of two young black boys, Elwood and Turner. The unlikely pair meet at the reform school Nickel Academy and learn the hidden horrors of the nefarious institution. Faced with a decision that will tinge the rest of their adult lives, each boy must grapple with exactly the type of person they wish to become. Whitehead's command of structure, deft use of dialogue, and acute understanding of African-American history undulates throughout this work. -Blair
Vuong's debut novel reads like a Barthesian inquiry into the relationship between mother and son. Pushing the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, grappling with generational traumas of diaspora and displacement, and navigating nationhood through the eyes of immigrants, Vuong's novel reads as an extension of his award-winning poetry. What flows is a beautiful soliloquy addressed to the speaker's mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who does not read English. Confronting our current world with tender insights on family and identity, this moving work and its creator are both treasures. -Riley
Email or call for price.
Like many people, I’ve been waiting for a new Karen Russell collection for some time. She’s a master of blending fantasy and mundanity, creating fascinating backdrops for stories populated—more or less—with normal people experiencing normal feelings and normal events. A tornado farmer suffers a midlife crisis in one story, while a quartet of sisters use their powers of echolocation to make a living in another. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story I expected to enjoy the least ended up being the one that stuck with me the most. Leave it to a brilliant writer to challenge reader expectations. -Alex
As in her debut novel Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn refuses to coddle her characters in Patsy. Patsy moves to New York to be with her childhood love Cicely, leaving Tru, the five-year-old daughter she never wanted, behind in Jamaica. Patsy’s dreams of living uncloseted with Cicely are thwarted by Cicely’s abusive husband, while at home Tru struggles with her abandonment and gender expression. Both Patsy and Tru grapple with depression and the cost each must pay to be themselves. For me, the grim events of Patsy were counterbalanced by my gladness this story was being told. -Ellis
Madeline ffitch’s debut novel tells the story of a radical Appalachia and one woman’s will to live off the land. Helen doesn’t expect her boyfriend to abandon her when they move to rural Ohio, but as winter approaches she finds herself, though resilient and resourceful, broke and alone. She narrates her journey with humor and grace, providing alternative conceptions of community, family, and friendship. The author’s personal history of environmental activism echoes through these pages as she reimagines both the collective and the individual’s responsibilities to the land and to each other. -Riley
Twelve beautifully wrought vignettes catch the essence of the lives of their characters, crisscrossing the world by air. Flying from London to Madrid, a woman is unexpectedly emotional after interacting with her aislemate. He, in turn, flies home, unaware a family tragedy, which has been witnessed by a lonely pilot on his way to the airport, awaits. A continuing cascade of connections—fateful or accidental, dreaded or anticipated—is so deftly revealed as both personal and universal, that I eagerly reread this small jewel of a novel so as not to miss a single intricately woven detail. -Erica
Eric Liu’s “civic sermons,” originally given through his organization, Citizen University, are collected in this great book about the importance of civics to all citizens. The book’s title, Become America, carries multiple meanings: an active process for the nation itself and a call for citizens to embody the ideals of America. Liu has a decidedly progressive perspective, but he is not averse to engaging with individuals with opposing political views. Become America reminds us that to be a living entity and worthy of the word, our democracy requires citizen participation beyond voting. -Greg
David K. Randall delivers a gripping account of San Francisco's close encounter with bubonic plague in the early 1900s—a lesser known, but deadly part of US history. Equally, if not more frightening are the varieties of social plague—racism, political gaslighting, and Luddite-like medical skepticism—that congealed and blocked the efforts of federal health officials to diagnose and contain the plague. Alongside some interesting San Francisco history, this book delivers a sober warning: let scientists speak and do their work! It may also motivate you to deflea your pets. -Cody
Author of the Binti trilogy (and my favorite sci-fi writer) Nnedi Okorafor opens herself up in this little memoir, giving readers a glimpse into the driving forces behind her powerful storytelling. A child of immigrants from a lively Nigerian hometown, a star athlete who became paralyzed overnight, a black woman who experiences racial harassment—Okorafor has plenty to draw from when creating her characters: strong-willed black women who repeatedly overcome hardships. She believes that out of the broken emerges the fantastic, and this is precisely what you feel in her storytelling. -Allen
Bren Smith is in the vanguard of ocean farming. Part memoir and part how-to, Smith’s inspiring journey from fisherman to ocean farmer is told with aplomb and humor. Smith refers to his work as "restorative" not only because the ocean has the ability to produce food (sustainable “climate cuisine”) now and into the future, but because we need to be stewards, cleaning and rehabilitating the ocean. The enthusiasm he brings to the ocean farming of “sea greens” (aka seaweed) is positively infectious; it made me want to lease some acreage on the water and start my own farm. -Greg
The Reverend Willie Maxwell was never convicted of a crime, but it is likely no coincidence that, during the 60s and 70s, several of his relatives met untimely deaths, leaving him the beneficiary of numerous life insurance policies. Maxwell's story would be better known today had Harper Lee published The Reverend, a work of true crime centered around Maxwell, the man who murdered him, and the lawyer who represented them both. Furious Hours is a thrilling literary excavation, turning up not only the bones of a murder but also the lost pages of what surely would have been a true crime classic. -Emma
Whether it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, or Hannibal, Pulitzer Prize-winner Emily Nussbaum likes to watch TV. She might not like everything and you may not always agree with her, but her essays are always a pleasure to read—incisive and insightful, intelligent and relevant. Nussbaum makes a case for her favorite medium, arguing that it demands viewers do more than just watch, while dissecting what falsely makes some shows highbrow and others a mere guilty pleasure. You’ll certainly discover your next binge-worthy series in these pages. -Elaine
John Zada's prose makes what is ostensibly nature writing read like an investigative thriller. Plunging into the vast, mysterious world of the Great Bear Rainforest—the land where Sasquatch is said to dwell—Zada searches for Sasquatch and investigates the fascinating complexities that underlie the hunt for this creature, showing readers that it has far greater significance than just a silly fringe theory. In fact, the quest to find him has deep connections to our relationship with the natural world and our very capacity for imagination. -Jacob
Hoping to close the growing gap between humankind and our environment, Renkl penned this poignant memoir, a reminder that the cycle of life and death affects us all. These vignettes shift between pastoral observations of present-day Tennessee and reflections from her childhood in rural Alabama. She has experienced much loss, but grief is not an unbearable weight. Her tone is peaceful, resigned to the juxtaposition of beauty and sadness that is being alive. Family members pass on, backyard wildlife perishes, and humans alter the Earth's climate. All things must die; the wheel turns on. -Liz T.
Toxic masculinity, which Sexton calls out in this book, is not new to many of us; it is endemic in white men, an addiction and an obsessively choreographed, force-fed act. It robs men and anyone near them of their humanity and sometimes their lives. Sexton contextualizes toxicity with both political examples (conspiracy theories, racism, war) and with his own grueling struggle with masculine identity and a rash of male anti-role models. Filtered through his personal story, this is a great book to read if you’re interested in how and why the patriarchy still reigns, as well as the havoc it wreaks. -Cody
Many of us are told that in order to succeed we need to start young and specialize quickly; if we don't get a head start, we're already too far behind. In Range, David Epstein explains how exploring many interests is more likely to generate success than focused specialization. Using a range of examples, from the Challenger explosion to the rise of Nintendo, Epstein argues generalists are more inquisitive, flexible, and better able to problem solve than specialists. If you've ever been afraid to quit, Range will convince you that starting over can actually be critical to success. -Emma
At the age of nineteen, Lara Prior-Palmer entered the Mongol Derby, a race that spans over one thousand kilometers of Mongolian grassland, moves through fourteen different microclimates, and involves twenty-five wild ponies descended from Genghis Khan’s Takhi horses. Underprepared and inexperienced, Prior-Palmer nevertheless emerges as the first-ever female winner. Rough Magic is told with wit, grit, and poetry, making you feel both the grace and the arduousness of her task. More than that, you come to understand and love Prior-Palmer’s tempestuous soul as she thunders toward the thrilling finish. -Elaine
In the concise and powerful This America, historian Jill Lepore yet again demonstrates the importance of understanding the present political moment within its historical context. Perhaps writing most of all to the beleaguered among us, she reminds us that conflict between those encouraging the nation to live up to its ideals of equality, citizenship, and equal rights, and those choosing an illiberal, nativist path is not new. Woven with insights from prescient and thoughtful figures such as Frederick Douglass, Lepore has created a provocative, moving, and inspiring treatise. -Karen
Taddeo’s prurient exposé looks at the sexual lives of three disparate women: Maggie, who as a teenager was seduced by her high school English teacher; Lina, a mother of two whose husband no longer touches her; and Sloane, a savvy, successful businesswoman who wants fewer sexual boundaries for herself and her husband. While the book is graphic in detail, the emotions evoked have less to do with lust or desire and more to do with a spectrum of outrage, dismay, and shock. What is clear from this distinctive work is that the carnal lives of women are still very much in the hands of men. -Holly
Part essay in verse, part art criticism, and part autobiographical prose, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through anchors itself in two distinct themes: the artworks of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the author's personal exploration of community, gender, and physicality. Fleischmann's voice strikes a chord I can't quite pin words to; it creates a space where limits fade and all things exist simultaneously, where joy can be "deadly serious." Their frankness might be shocking, if it weren't so tender. It's a set jaw and a gaping heart, both of the same body, both at the same time. -Shawn
This book pulls the reader into the earth and splashes them across time and through cave systems, underground rivers, catacombs, and laboratories deep beneath the sea. The narrative shifts from pure adventure (a skin-prickling account of tunnel explorations with Parisian “claustrophiles”), to excursions into deep geological time, to passionately written analyses of how these spaces have co-evolved with us. MacFarlane’s erudition casts a vivid light on these hidden spots, illuminating the ways that they have molded our languages, societies, and myths. A great read to burrow into and get lost in. -Wesley
Email or call for price.
In 1914, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison embarked on the first of what was to become a decade of summer road trips, calling themselves "The Vagabonds." Across untamed wilderness at eighteen miles per hour and along poorly maintained, signless roads, they traveled the American expanse, developing their friendship and helping to establish the Great American Road Trip as a cultural tradition. A story of self-made innovator tycoons, with plenty of politics, newspaper sensationalism, and drama, Jeff Guinn's book is a fascinating and entertaining look at the beginning of the truly modern, truly American 20th century. -Andy
Oh, the fairy tale! Imaginative, magical, inspiring. But wait! What’s inspiring about oppression? Why does one person’s so-called happily ever after have to come at the expense of someone else’s? Lucky for us, accomplished writer and activist Rebecca Solnit asks those questions, too. Cinderella Liberator is a fresh tale, with a multidimensional heroine, and lots of little gems and subtle twists. I myself was pleased to see that the glass slipper won’t fit the stepsisters because their feet are too small. Way to flip the script, Rebecca! -Alex
The author of many books, including Goodnight Moon and The Important Book, Margaret Wise Brown led a distinctive and original life, one that was always authentic to her. She had a “door to nowhere” in her house, and when the library would not carry her books, she and her editor had a tea party on the steps of the building. What really makes this book shimmer so vibrantly is the way Barnett contrasts Brown’s unconventional work with the bounty of books we can now choose from, and how no one can judge them (or us) so long as the stories feel true. -Holly
Laura Dean is a Grade-A hottie, but she is a terrible girlfriend. Empathetic without romanticizing toxic relationships, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me follows Freddy as the relationships in her life are starved because she stays with Laura Dean. Emotional abuse, which is often invisible in the queer community, is illuminated in a tender black, white, and pink palette. This book is so engrossing that you may only realize how revolutionary it is after you’ve finished. -Ellis
Skulls have a tough job. So it’s kind of unfair that they get such a bad rap sometimes. Blair Thornburgh wants us to understand and even befriend that great big bone in our head. Thornburgh’s narrative is gentle and uplifting, and Campbell’s dreamy watercolor illustrations are softly mesmerizing. Alongside some cool skull facts, there’s so much to look at and imagine; I loved that Thornburgh addresses some of the scariest aspects of skulls, like all of those holes. Understanding something a little better really can make it less scary. -Alex
You’d expect the story of a girl who got pregnant at fourteen to be sour, but this book is subversively sweet. In Acevedo’s follow-up to National Book Award winning The Poet X, high school senior Emoni balances motherhood, work, school, and planning her future. Emoni’s relationships with ‘Buela, who raises her; her best friend Angelica, a lesbian artist in love; and Malachi, the boy who respects her boundaries, are rich with reality. Seasoned with Emoni’s talent for expressing herself culinarily, With the Fire on High is a story to be savored. -Ellis
A Wolf Called Wander is a fast-paced adventure based on the true story of OR-7, a wolf who journeyed through the Pacific Northwest in 2011. Named Swift at birth, our young protagonist finds himself alone, separated from his pack. While searching for a new home, he learns about the importance of family, both the one you're born into and the one you create for yourself. Gorgeous illustrations transport readers into the mountains, making this a perfect book for readers of all ages, especially fans of Erin Hunter and Katherine Applegate. -Liz T.