Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 22, 2014
From My Shelf
World Book Night U.S.
Tomorrow is the third annual World Book Night U.S., a magical day/evening when some 25,000 people across the country will give 500,000 books to people in their communities who don't regularly read. Givers, who applied months ago, have chosen one title from the 35 that were selected for this year; they receive 20 copies of their chosen book from their participating bookstore or library. The books range from older classics like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and After the Funeral by Agatha Christie to more recent popular titles such as Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. A few of the titles are in large print and Spanish editions, and this year there's an e-book, too.
Altogether there's something for everyone, and all the books are free--thanks to authors forgoing royalties, publishers, printers, wholesalers and shippers donating services, booksellers and librarians coordinating distribution and an amazing staff at WBN U.S., headed by Carl Lennertz, a legend in the publishing industry.
Each year there are wonderful stories of people who give out their 20 books in myriad places, sometimes to relatives, friends and colleagues, often to strangers--on the street, at subway and bus stations, at offices, hospitals, schools and homes. It's a remarkable occasion that combines the joy of giving with the gift of reading--people making meaningful connections with people.
Even if you aren't a giver this year, you're more than welcome to participate in the fun. Tonight there are 23 official WBN kickoff events, most of which feature authors. (See a map/listing here.) If you can't be there in person, watch the main New York Public Library event via livestreaming.
And later this year, remember to apply to be a giver for World Book Night 2015! --John Mutter, Shelf Awareness
Writers' Advice to Grads; Favorite Children's Books
As graduation season approaches, Flavorwire got into the spirit by highlighting "30 writers' invaluable advice to graduates."
Anthea Bell, the award-winning translator of Asterix, shared her "top 10 favorite books in translation that she would recommend for children" with the Guardian.
"The Green Dragon Inn has tapped into an opportunity that Middle Earth has been missing up until now: the need for quality spas, malls, and golf courses," io9 observed in featuring posters that "invite you to Middle Earth's greatest vacation resorts."
Non Pratt, author of Trouble, recommended her "top 10 teens in trouble."
Are you really what you read? Buzzfeed's test asked: "Which type of book are you?"
Although it may be "common to think of great writers as congenital loners," the Huffington Post managed to find "13 kickass literary power couples."
Now in Paper: April
The Borgias: The Hidden History by G.J. Meyer (Bantam, $18)
A fascinating look into the lives of the notorious Italian Renaissance family and its reputation for womanizing, murder and corruption. turns centuries of accepted wisdom about the Borgias on its head, probing deep into contemporary documents and neglected histories to reveal some surprising truths.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, $17)
In Cooked, Pollan asks why our country spends less and less time in the kitchen cooking, but more and more time watching television shows about cooking. Cooking is interesting and worthwhile, he argues; he comes at the subject from four different, elemental angles, examining how we channel fire, water, air and earth into the recipes that create meals.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Broadway, $14)
Ten years after her pioneering transgender memoir, She's Not There, Jennifer Finney Boylan's new memoir reveals how making the transition from a man to a woman affected her wife, Deedie, and their two young sons. It's ultimately a wise (and witty) inspiring tribute to unconditional family love regardless of labels and gender.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13)
Wiman, an award-winning poet, displays considerable craft in each well-honed sentence in this poetic, sometimes visionary collection of linked essays examining his religious faith following a cancer diagnosis. My Bright Abyss is full of heart, grace, generosity of spirit and no small beauty.
The Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge (Jericho Books, $14)
At 27, breast cancer ended Sarah Thebarge's career, her studies and her romance. She fled across the country for a fresh start, where a chance meeting with Somali refugees, the "invisible girls" of this memoir's title, renewed her strength and her faith.
Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright, $13.95)
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson draws on 60 years of research and teaching for a warm, spirited celebration of science, with an elegant introduction to its core concepts. It's bursting with insight and contagious awe for the natural world.
My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It by James Barilla (Yale University Press, $16)
When James Barilla went from renting to owning a home, he decided to get his yard certified as a wildlife habitat. With the constant stream of news about global warming and vanishing species, Barilla felt his wildlife habitat could make a small contribution to the environmental struggle. Barilla travels the world to discover exactly what an urban wildlife habitat is.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer (Ecco, $14.99)
Greta, a young woman in her 30s, longs to live "in any time but this one"--1985. And then she's in 1918. Then, 1941. Greer's fourth novel asks the question: Knowing what we know now, if we could live in another time and place, would we truly love and live differently?
Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith (Grove Press, $16)
The story centers on three months in the lives of the Bravo family of a sleepy little Florida town. Their long-held properties on the Intracoastal Waterway are a magnet for developers. What will it take for the Bravos to sell? And at what price? Old wounds, secrets, heartbreaks and missed opportunities have woven themselves into the fabric of the present--and maybe the future, too.
Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende (Harper Perennial, $15.99)
An endearing young woman finds refuge from her past off the coast of Chile in Isabel Allende's novel of teen rebellion, family love and redemption. Maya's story is woven with mysticism, revelations of complex family relationships, spirituality of several stripes and memories of the dark years after Chile's 1973 military coup.
The View from Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman (Mariner, $14.95)
Elinor Lipman can always be counted on to make you empathize with her characters, whether you're chuckling or looking askance at them. Here, two 50-something sisters have almost simultaneous downturns in their well-planned lives. They decide to share a penthouse; hilarity, poignancy and the expected Lipman-esque satisfying conclusion ensue.
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (New American Library, $16)
Guy Gavriel Kay's novels grip readers with the passions and obsessions of real people--the romantic entanglements, improbable alliances and domestic intrigues that can ruin or make lives--and River of Stars is no exception. It's a deeply engrossing epic set in a fantastical variant of the actual medieval Song Dynasty of China. Kay has profound things to say about politics, art and the escaping of lesser fates through skill and effort.
Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian (Simon $ Schuster, $15)
Words, whether a person can speak them or is willing to speak them, are the cornerstone of Dear Lucy, an inventive debut novel by Julie Sarkissian about an innocent young girl with cognitive limitations and her relationship with those around her, offering themes about the fragility of life, love and being loved.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia
by Joan Chase
"For as long as we could remember we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world." This farmhouse, in 1950s Ohio, belongs to Gram, a ferociously independent woman who is also known as the Queen of Persia. "We" are Gram's four granddaughters, the observant cousins that form the collective narrative voice of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia.
First published in 1983, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award the following year, and thankfully now back in print, this story of women and their daughters is just as much a story of the tender, heartbreaking, dangerous ties between women and men. The cousins navigate around their introverted and violent grandfather. They sit at the foot of the sewing machine as Aunt Libby holds court on the lure and lurking disappointments of sex and love. And in the heart of the story, they reckon with the rapid decline and death of Aunt Grace.
Decades of tough history bubble under the surface, and both adults and children display their equal capacity for love and cruelty. The Queen of Persia herself is fragile enough to shed a tear or two, even as she refuses to budge an inch. In a masterful depiction of a family in all its complexity, the unified voice of the cousins opens up space for empathy rather than judgment. Above all, the novel highlights the ways in which myriad forces--good and bad, lighthearted and profound--are in constant competition throughout all of our lives. --Casey O'Neil, bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company
Discover: A reissue of PEN Award-winning classic that eloquently faces the best and the worst that life has to offer.
Talking to Ourselves
by Andrés Neuman , trans. by Lorenza Garcia , Nick Caistor
Talking to Ourselves, a sad little tale from Argentina, is told in three distinct voices: a mortally ill man, his adoring son and his adulterous but loving wife. The three narrators are all vulnerable, flawed, likable people who both hurt and love one another.
Mario's life is waning, but he's determined to go on a road trip with his son. His son, Lito, is convinced awesome things start happening when you turn 10, like this long-promised trip, making deliveries to remote villages. Deceived by his father's cheerful lies, the boy has no idea the man is dying. Young Lito is having the time of his life, drinking Fanta in a motel with hookers and using his magic powers (he believes) to make the weather change. Elena is not happy about her son going on this dangerous trip with her ailing husband. Though she loves Mario deeply, she no longer desires him. When she confronts his doctor to find out how sick her husband really is, the doctor asks her out to dinner and they begin a savagely passionate affair.
The main voice belongs to Elena, but the rapport between father and son is the heart of the novel--their exchanges are so full of loving humor that the joy of the episodes bleeds into the rest of this melancholy meditation on losing a loved one. It's excruciatingly sad stuff: honest, simple and non-manipulative. Neuman's novel has the double-edged emotional impact of all true loving--the joy of connection and the equal and inescapable anguish of saying goodbye. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.
Discover: An exquisitely sad, short novel about a dying Argentine man on a road trip with his young son.
No Book but the World
by Leah Hager Cohen
The title of Leah Hager Cohen's novel is both a quote from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed in education through experience, and a nod to the long shadow cast by patriarch Neel Robbins. Neel, the charismatic founder of an experimental school inspired by Rousseau, insists that his own young children rely on their experiences for guidance, which has profound consequences in their lives. Ava was fiercely protective of her younger brother, Fred, whose difficult but undiagnosed behavior suggested autism. Fred's outbursts often mixed innocence with a calculated cruelty, and Ava's best friend, Kitty, frequently served as the catalyst. Years later, Ava married Kitty's brother, Dennis, and distanced herself from Fred to forge her own life. When she receives word that Fred has been arrested for the murder of a young boy, though, she sets out to discover what happened and, most of all, to defend him.
Ava, Kitty, Dennis and Fred alternate in telling the story, a technique that highlights the limitations of any one person's perspective, how little we know the interior world of even those closest to us and how our deepest beliefs offer truths beyond the realm of empirical knowledge. Cohen is an observant writer, and Ava's relationships with Dennis and Fred are especially sensitive. Kitty and Neel's self-involvement can seem at odds with Ava's loyalty, and Cohen's long descriptive flashbacks that foreshadow the present crisis sometimes dilute their emotional impact. But Ava's gentle introspection makes her a sympathetic guide to the novel's central questions, deserving of its suggestion of grace. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: A family drama about the complex relationships between siblings and the ambiguity of truth.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion... So Far
by Stephen Briggs , Terry Pratchett
The fictional realm of Discworld is a treasured and many-storied place, with 40 novels set within it by author Terry Pratchett. Someone had to create a compendium, and it fell to Pratchett-phile and dramatist Stephen Briggs, who has now revised the impressive tome (first published in 1994) for this fourth edition.
Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion... So Far is updated to include information through Snuff, the penultimate volume in the series, and restores much of the original content that was excised from the last two editions. The book reads as an encyclopedic volume, with entries on everything mentioned in the Pratchett books (and then some) arranged in alphabetical order.
Far from a dry read, each entry sparkles with Pratchett's wit, including the following description of Ankh-Morpork, the main city of the Discworld novels: "Population: 1,000,000 (including the suburbs). Chief exports: manufactured goods, most of the processed animal and vegetable produce of the fertile Sto Plains, trouble. Main 'invisible' exports: banking, assassination, wizardry, trouble. Imports: raw materials, people, trouble."
The thoroughly researched book ends with an insightful and charming interview with Pratchett himself, reprinted from the first Companion, showing the whimsical author fully at play.
Briggs, with the oversight of Pratchett, has tirelessly catalogued the unenviably huge amount of trivia and content that fills the Discworld novels in all its minutiae and has clearly enjoyed himself. Readers will dig into this volume time and again while reading the original stories, or as a satiating pastime of its own. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A comprehensive look at Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, now updated to include the 39th book in the series.
Food & Wine
Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed
by Bryant Terry
In Afro-Vegan, award-winning chef, activist and educator Bryant Terry hopes to pay homage to the influence of the African diaspora on modern global fusion cuisine (especially Southern food) and "move Afro-diasporic food from the margins... to the center of our collective culinary consciousness." Most importantly, he hopes to prevent illnesses like heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes caused by a meat-centric Western diet.
He begins with the foundation of Afro-diasporic cooking--spices, sauces and heat--by reinventing classics like Ethiopian berere, Cajun blackening and Creole spice blends. An entire section focuses on okra, black-eyed peas and watermelon, three ingredients Terry believes are emblematic of African-American cooking.
But Afro-Vegan covers everything from soups, stews and tangines to greens, squashes and roots, from breakfast fare to desserts (with no white sugar!) and beverages for all ages. Each recipe is accompanied by a song recommendation; many have suggested literary accompaniment as well, since Terry aims to celebrate the rich history of African-American culture both in and out of the kitchen. Near the end, welcome additions include menu suggestions according to the season, tips for starting an Afro-Vegan garden and an imperial-to-metric conversion chart.
Terry (Vegan Soul Kitchen) began his food activism with the mantra "start with the visceral, move to the cerebral, and end at the political." Afro-Vegan celebrates all three in a glorious celebration of cuisine. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics
Discover: Bryant Terry's vegan recipes honor the history of Afro-diasporic culture while addressing the public health crisis within today's African-American community.
Biography & Memoir
All Fishermen Are Liars
by John Gierach , illus. by Glenn Wolff
Real fishing, fly-fishing, is done mostly alone and in the wild, and John Gierach is to fishing what Roger Angell is to baseball--a seasoned observer who writes with knowledge, humor and a touch of reverence. Gierach (Standing in a River Waving a Stick) describes his days as a professional fishing writer in the first chapter of All Fishermen Are Liars with characteristic self-deprecating humor: "The worst that happens is that you occasionally go fishing without turning a profit: something normal people do every day."
Gierach meanders through Alaska, Canada, Wyoming, Colorado, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula in search of good fishing and good company. His target species doesn't much matter; they all have their particular habits and especially picky tastes in flies. Sometimes a fisherman's biggest field decision is choosing which "comeback fly" to cast when the first one "presented" fails to get a hit. As an Oregon steelheader describes the process, the first fly is "the steak and potatoes that gets him in the door," but the comeback fly is "that little piece of cheesecake dessert that closes the deal."
Gierach amusingly dissects the secrets of great fishing lodges, iconoclastic guides and fly-fishing rod selection. In the end, he reminds us any gear will do, since "your odds of catching fish... increase the longer you keep the hook in the water"--even if, like one diehard Alaskan fisherman, you "pee in your waders rather than stop casting for five minutes to wade ashore and take care of business the normal way." Now that's a good fishing story. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: An entertaining trip through fly-fishing's "cradle of civilization" from a veteran fishing writer.
by Adam Begley
Adam Begley's literary biography of John Updike comes about as close to perfection as a work of its genre can; he is comprehensive and undeniably sympathetic without succumbing to hagiography. Begley skillfully interweaves the narrative of Updike's life with close readings of many of his works. This seems especially fitting when assessing a writer whose fiction drew so heavily on his own experience, and Begley lauds the "particular brilliance with which he made his autobiographical material come alive on the page." He devotes ample attention to Updike's close relationships--the ones with his writer-mother, Linda, and his wives, Mary and Martha, the most noteworthy--and offers candid insights into his literary friendships (Joyce Carol Oates and Ian McEwan) and rivalries (John Cheever and Philip Roth).
Begley is generous in his appreciation of the books he considers Updike's best, highlighted by the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, a chronicle of four decades of American life. But even when lavishing praise on an early novel like Of the Farm ("a small, quiet triumph"), he doesn't hesitate to give fair billing to a critic like John Aldridge, who dispatched the same work in a savage review, concluding that Updike had "nothing to say."
As determined as Adam Begley is to deliver John Updike to what he considers his rightful place in the top rank of 20th-century American fiction, the man whose life and career are considered in these pages is fully human. This is a work Updike would have read with a wry smile, and one he likely would have admired. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Discover: A comprehensive and sympathetic literary biography of one America's best writers.
by Rob Lowe
Eighties heartthrob Rob Lowe (Stories I Only Tell My Friends) has concocted another tasty memoir to follow the success of his debut book. For an actor whose excessive drinking and carousing (ahem... remember his sex tape scandal) and bad-boy roles in About Last Night and St. Elmo's Fire made him notorious, Lowe's penned a memoir that's surprisingly charming.
The Rob Lowe of this book has been happily married for more than 22 years, and he's clearly crazy about his two teenage sons. The only shocking thing going on in the book is how... well... normal this famous actor seems as he coaches kids' basketball teams, goes camping with his in-laws and bawls in the corner as his cherished first child goes off to college.
But Lowe is no normal family man. That's evidenced when he's on a field trip with his son's Boy Scout troop and a soccer mom he has no recollection of reminds him that they slept together many years ago. Besides offhand references to kicking it with celebrities like Matt Damon and Amy Adams, Lowe's memoir shares juicy Hollywood stories only an insider would know. One absurd encounter with a Playboy Bunny at Hef's place (she was, uh, with a professional athlete as she struck up a conversation with Lowe) comes to mind.
Lowe praises his fellow actors and speaks graciously of his recent career success. Above all, this memoir is appealing because, despite Lowe's past addictions and notoriety, he seems like a stand-up guy you'd like to have over for a barbecue. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend
Discover: A wild ride of a memoir by Rob Lowe that will leave you amused, fascinated and ultimately charmed.
In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint
by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. , Peggy McCracken
The story of St. Josaphat--a prince who gave up his wealth to follow Jesus--was told throughout medieval Europe, but it was not until the 19th century that scholars noticed certain parallels between that tale and the life of the Buddha. Both figures rejected material comforts to pursue spiritual truth, acquired followers and were revered for the examples they set for living in the face of inevitable suffering.
The tales diverge in several ways: there is scant evidence of a "historical" Josaphat; the saint's father is often portrayed as his adversary in a way the Buddha's family is not; Josaphat is a follower of Christ and an adherent of Christ's teachings, while the Buddha is portrayed as a divine teacher himself. Yet the close parallels in the two figures' lives have encouraged scholarly investigation. In Search of the Christian Buddha maps the journey of the Buddha's tale from its roots in India and Persia through the eyes of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian authors who reinterpreted the story through the lens of their respective faiths. As the Buddha's life morphs into saintly devotion, similarities and differences between the foundational faiths arise, complicating subjects as diverse as the meaning of death, the place of women and the problem of desire.
A joint effort of University of Michigan professors Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken, In Search of the Christian Buddha offers the rigor of scholarly analysis without the obfuscation of academic language. The various versions of the Buddha/Josaphat myth are beautifully told and their intersections revealed with luminous clarity. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket
Discover: A brief but clear exploration of how a Buddhist story became incorporated into European Christianity as the life of a saint.
Nature & Environment
The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World
by Russell Gold
Russell Gold, known for his coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has compiled a comprehensive and fascinating history of this newest way to extract natural resources from deep within the ground. Prior to 1919, oil rigs were in remote locations or offshore, but when oil was discovered in and around the town of Burkburnett, Tex., the path of the oil drilling industry drastically changed. Suddenly, money was to be made by drilling anywhere, including next to people's homes. Vertical wells were drilled and peppered the landscape, but were often a hit-or-miss operation. Then engineers drilled horizontally across sheets of shale, ensuring a better chance at hitting the target. To open up more access to the cracks and fissures, drillers detonated bombs, including nuclear bombs, to open up larger cracks (and then wondered why the gas and oil were radioactive on extraction). This method evolved into injecting a variety of slurries into the well under extremely high pressure, including the modern method of using vast quantities of water mixed with sand and some nasty chemicals. Gold writes, "As of 2013, more than fifteen million Americans lived within a mile of a well that has been fracked in the past few years."
Although his main emphasis is on the historical development of this industry, Gold does discuss the impact fracking is having on ground water, aquifers and the environment, noting that released methane is "a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide." Gold leaves readers with the haunting feeling that profit margins are more important in this industry than the future of the earth. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: An in-depth look at the newest and controversial technique of extracting natural gas and oil.
Children's & Young Adult
The Geography of You and Me
by Jennifer E. Smith
In Jennifer E. Smith's (The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight; This Is What Happy Looks Like) latest novel, she ignites a spark between two teens during a citywide blackout, just as they are separated by circumstances.
When New York City is "snuffed out like a candle" during a blackout, Lucy and Owen find themselves stuck in their building's elevator. Sixteen-year-old Lucy goes to a private school and lives in apartment 24D; 17-year-old Owen lives in the basement with his father, the new building superintendent. There's instant chemistry as they await rescue, despite the fact that Owen is not as enamored with the city as Lucy is, having just moved to Manhattan from rural Pennsylvania after his mother died in a car accident. But shortly after the lights come back on, Lucy and her family move to Edinburgh for her father's new job, and Owen and his father travel out west after he's fired. Smith tugs at the heartstrings of her characters and readers as this romance unfolds across the world.
Owen and Lucy stay in contact through e-mails and postcards, but Smith realistically depicts the two teens as their lives move forward. Even so, they both still think about that one night "the world went dark." Readers will find themselves lost in the long-distance trials of longing and hoping, and, in her strongest novel to date, Smith ultimately finds a glowing end for her protagonists. --Adam Silvera, children's bookseller
Discover: Two teens who live in the same building but in different worlds ignite a spark during a citywide blackout.
by Elizabeth Fama
Elizabeth Fama's (Monstrous Beauty) latest book starts strong and never lets up. She sets her dystopian tale in the modern-day United States, but imagines a world divided after the 1918 flu pandemic into those who live by day (Rays), and those who live by night (Smudges). Rays run the world, and Smudges are mostly relegated to factory jobs or worse.
Sixteen-year-old narrator Sol, a Smudge who's spent her life in school and a factory, decides she's going to kidnap her newborn niece (a Ray), so Sol's ill father can see his grandchild once before he dies. Sol's brother, a technical wiz (and father of the newborn), was transferred to the Rays because he was useful to the government. She hasn't seen him since. Her plan is simple: at the factory, she'll mutilate her hand enough to be sent to the hospital, where she'll steal the baby. She's treated by a Ray medical assistant, D'Arcy, and things quickly go wrong.
Sol's sense of wonder as she discovers the outside world during the daytime coincides with her growing feelings for D'Arcy. The love story starts slowly and builds to a satisfying resolution with two people bound to each other before they even knew it. Fama does an excellent job of creating a world rooted in the now, but also convincingly alternative. Like the best of dystopian fiction, the author asks readers to look at society from a slight remove and draw inevitable conclusions about the world we live in. --Nan Shipley, literary scout
Discover: A teen romance in a dystopian future that tackles big issues in a thoughtful way, from the author of Monstrous Beauty.
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