Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Harper: The English Spy by Daniel Silva

From My Shelf

Minotaur Books:Run You Down by Julia Dahl

Harper Paperbacks: Us by David Nicholls

Epistles

Today's release of Carlene Bauer's debut, Frances and Bernard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) marks a new opportunity for readers to meet literary characters through their correspondence. As our reviewer noted, the 1950s setting lends itself to this epistolary form.

Thirty-five years ago Elizabeth Forsyth Hailey introduced Bess Steed Garner in A Woman of Independent Means, whose first letter in 1899 was to her fourth grade pal, later her husband. Her correspondence spans half a century and is rich in history (aboard the Lusitania, Kennedy's assassination). Bess was indeed ahead of her time, yet her letters flow from the pen of a proper lady, and this novel is a delightful peek at her era.

Ella Minnow Pea's island paradise is named after the man who wrote the iconic sentence using every letter: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When the town leaders ban specific letters, one at a time, writing requires increasing cleverness in Mark Dunn's 2001 "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," a cautionary tale to delight wordsmiths and Scrabble addicts. (Lipogram: a writing composed of words not having a certain letter.)

Peeking into a stranger's mail suggests a surreptitious intimacy, and Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer's beloved 2008 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society epitomizes the epistolary form. Letters and telegrams fly across the English Channel between author Juliet and the charming citizens of Guernsey, so recently deprived of communication during the World War II Nazi occupation of their island.

Agoraphobic Bernadette is lucky to live in a world of multiple means of communication that allow her to remain reclusive, including e-mail, school memos, NPR weather bulletins, police reports and tape recordings, all neatly linked by her daughter, tech-savvy teen narrator Bee, in Maria Semple's hilarious 2012 Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

While most 2013 communication might be via texts and tweets, reading these letter-writers could inspire you to purchase stationery and a sheet of forever stamps, just in time for Valentine's Day. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Book Passage, San Francisco


Katherine Tegan Books: A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis


Book Candy

Super Bowl-Poe Quiz; Google Maps Catching Fire

Post-Super-Bowl pop quiz. Mental Floss tested both our literary and sports fan skills with its quiz: "Baltimore Raven or Edgar Allan Poe character?"

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"Long before Edward Gorey offed children alphabetically, writers sought to instill good manners and exemplary behavior through strange, scary cautionary tales," Mental Floss observed in showcasing "6 creepy cautionary tales for kids of yesteryear."

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Hunger Games spoiler alert: Buzzfeed featured a series of aerial photographs over the set of Catching Fire, which was filming in Atlanta, Ga., last October when "the production accidentally ended up in the crosshairs of a Google Maps satellite."

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Calling it a "provisional, partisan list," the Guardian proposed "English literature's 50 key moments from Marlowe to J.K. Rowling"

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Flavorwire featured a selection of "great literary characters inspired by real famous people."


Inklings

A Skeptic's Quest

Nathanael Johnson is a journalist who lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. All Natural*: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (Rodale) is his first book.

In researching my book All Natural*, I ended up debunking a lot of my assumptions about the virtuous healthfulness of whatever seemed closest to the earth. That squared with the conventional theory for how progress works: for most of human history nature was the enemy, and technology allowed us separate and protect ourselves from nature (starting with the rocks cavemen presumably piled in front of their caves to keep out the sabertooth tigers). Technology's triumph has given us longer life spans, nearly effortless travel, and a lot of really cool gadgets. Everything seems to get better and easier every day.

But I also began tripping over all sorts of counterintuitive paradoxes--ways in which our attempts to improve our lives have left us worse off. For instance: we have amazing successes in protecting ourselves from germs, but this seems to have given rise to a surge in debilitating autoimmune disease. One in 10 Americans is medicated for depression, and yet the more antidepressants we take, the sadder we become, and severe, disabling depression has reached record highs. We spend more per capita on fighting disease in this country than anywhere else, and as a side effect we now have so much unnecessary treatment that more U.S. citizens die because they get too much health care than those who die because they don't have access to health care. Our culture has developed a scientific understanding of nutrition, and along with that came an endemic obesity problem. And of course, everything we do seems to diminish our environment. When you add all this up, it yields a reply to the dominant theory of progress: We were shaped for Eden and grasping at knowledge yields misery. The trick, I think, is to accept both perspectives at the same time. Nature wants to eat us, but it also wants to feed us.


Baen: His Father's Eyes by David Coe


Book Review

Fiction

House of Earth

by Woody Guthrie


Woody Guthrie's posthumously published novel, House of Earth, is about the connection of the people to the land and the inherent injustice of private property, themes at the heart of his best known song, "This Land Is Your Land."

Tike Hamlin has never had much, but then he falls "about as low and lousy as he can get... ending up being just another [share]cropper." Worse yet, he's dragging his beloved Ella Mae with him. Together they are tethered to a hardscrabble piece of Texas land they can never own, trapped in a one-room shack that leaks flies and dust and wind. There is still love and laughter of course, but the daily grind against indignity and despair takes its toll. The one ray of light is their dream to build a house of earth.

Experiencing firsthand the devastating dust storms that ravaged the Texas plains in the 1930s, Guthrie sought a more secure shelter for the people there and found, in the ancient adobe structures of New Mexico, inspiration for a better way of life--and for his only novel. It's impossible to avoid the obvious comparison to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: In theme, ethos and character, the two books are kissing cousins; in terms of style, however, they are a breed apart. Told in the unmistakable vernacular of Woody, at once earthy and erudite, House of Earth is less a novel than an extended prose poem interrupted by healthy smatterings of folksy dialogue. Tike and Ella Mae are figures torn from the pages of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but rather than leaving us on the outside to stare back at his characters' stark gazes, Guthrie gains us entry into their world. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Johnny Depp and Doug Brinkley launch their publishing imprint with a powerful tale of poverty and poetry on the upper plains of Texas from one of America's greatest folksingers.

Infinitum Nihil/Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062248398

Baen: Chicks and Balances by Esther Friesner


All This Talk of Love

by Christopher Castellani


All This Talk of Love is the conclusion of a trilogy Christopher Castellani began with 2004's A Kiss from Maddalena, and it is by far the best of the three novels. Castellani has hit his writerly stride in exploring the hopes, wishes and dreams of an Italian-American family: Antonio and Maddalena Grasso, their daughter, Prima, and their son, Frankie.

Prima decides that she is taking the whole family--including her husband and their four sons--to Santa Cecilia, the Italian village where her mother was born. But Maddalena has no desire to go back to the town she left more than 50 years ago. She is estranged from her brother and sister; furthermore, her sister married the man she really loved. (A Kiss from Maddalena tells the full story.) A full-blown soap opera ensues, with Prima and Maddalena at odds about everything, not just the trip. The men in the family mostly stay out of the way.

Then Fate intervenes: Prima and her son Patrick are in an automobile accident that leaves Prima needing therapy; Frankie moves home; Maddalena begins the long slide into Alzheimer's, sometimes failing even to recognize Antonio.

Antonio, seeing Maddalena slipping away, insists they go to Italy; Maddalena goes along without objection. Prima hopes that when her mother sees her sister and brother she will recognize and forgive them. What happens in Italy is an act of kindness on Antonio's part that gives Maddalena back to Prima and Frankie for a moment--a pure act of love. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A lovely and loving story of an Italian-American family, not far from their roots, coping with loss, old myths and memories.

Algonquin, $13.95, paperback, 9781616201708

Chicago Review Press: Big Top Burning by Laura Woollett


The Tin Horse

by Janice Steinberg


Family identity comes from a shared collection of origin stories: how parents got together, how fortunes were made or lost, why allegiances were made or ties broken. In The Tin Horse, Janice Steinberg spins a decades-spanning drama of familial discovery that examines the seismic shifts in self-understanding when the underlying legends of a family prove unreliable.

Retired activist lawyer Elaine Greenstein is packing to move to a senior community. When she runs across an intriguing clue to the whereabouts of her long-lost twin sister, she is swept back in reverie to her prewar Los Angeles childhood in the historical Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. As Elaine recounts the family legends--a dangerous love for a Christian in a time of pogroms, a young girl who walked across Romania to emigrate, an entrepreneurial egg ranch in California--she also remembers the pain of learning some of those family-defining stories were less than accurate. As she gets closer to finding her sister, it becomes clear that, even at this late age, she must once again challenge herself to face the inconsistencies in family lore if she wishes to come to terms with the truth of her sister's disappearance.

Though the present-day scenes are compelling, Steinberg's writing really blossoms in her re-creation of the Boyle Heights of Elaine's youth. And though Steinberg is a mystery writer, here the "mystery" is merely a tool to uncover a sometimes painful wisdom: Families often build their identities on cherished stories of questionable veracity. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: A rich drama of family identity set in the historic Jewish community of Los Angeles.

Random House, $26, hardcover, 9780679643746

Baen: Hell's Gate by David Weber and Linda Evans


Biography & Memoir

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography

by J.G. Ballard


J.G. Ballard's haunting autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun chronicled his experiences as a young boy in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where he was separated from his parents and put into a prison camp; his imagination helped him survive. Miracles of Life, Ballard's autobiography (and his last book before he died in 2009), returns to this formative period--and more.

In his introduction, China Miéville calls Ballard an "epochal writer" whose science fiction "sits like a single alien tooth in a human mouth." "Ballardian" has entered the 21st-century lexicon as a descriptor of the dystopian modern world and its effects on the human psyche: His novels portrayed a world filled with monstrosities of violence and urban debris intended to shock readers into emotions, reactions, especially repulsive ones. In 1970, when Nelson Doubleday actually looked at a collection of Ballard's stories he was publishing, The Atrocity Exhibition, he ordered all copies destroyed.

Ballard once arranged for an exhibit of crashed cars and hired a woman to walk around topless (she refused to go naked). Later, he wrote Crash--"my psychopathic hymn"--and gave the narrator his own name, "accepting all that this entailed." (Just as many know Empire of the Sun from Steven Spielberg's adaptation, you might also recognize Crash as a David Cronenberg film.) A quiet, loving family man, Ballard wrote haunting, even horrific books to show us what was happening all around us, over and over. He finally believed that it was no longer possible to "stir or outrage spectators by aesthetic means alone." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A beautifully written autobiography by the controversial and contentious English writer Martin Amis calls the "most gifted writer of the last century."

Liveright, $25.95, hardcover, 9780871404206

Shelf Awareness 10th Anniversary Giveaway


A Child's Walk in the Wilderness: An 8-Year-Old Boy and His Father Take On the Appalachian Trail

by Paul Molyneaux , illus. by Asher Molyneaux


Adventure tale, heroes' journey, environmental treatise, inspirational memoir--Paul Molyneaux's A Child's Walk in the Wilderness is all these and more. Temporarily unemployed and struggling in his marriage, environmental writer Molyneaux decides to join his eight-year-old son on a hike of the Appalachian Trail. Assuming the trail names Tecolote (owl) and Venado (deer), father and son begin at the midpoint of "the AT," at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in order to avoid the worst of Lyme disease season. At times, they are joined by Venado's 10-year-old sister (Bluish) and mother (Seaweed), as well as other hikers and like-minded friends who follow along on their Facebook page.

Molyneaux discusses the vision of Benton McKaye, the co-creator of the Appalachian Trail, at every opportunity; "in order to understand life," McKaye wrote, "people need connection to three critical things: community, rural processes, and wilderness." Most people Molyneaux meets have never heard of McKaye but are soon converted by his passion.

Since the first "thru-hike" was completed on the Appalachian Trail 1n 1939, countless individuals have turned to this terrain to cleanse and rejuvenate their minds and souls by exhausting their bodies. Molyneaux continues this tradition in true form, and the pairing of his eight-year-old son's enthusiasm and wonder--and endless questioning--with his own 52-year-old wisdom and keen storytelling produces an inspiring and thought-provoking tale of perseverance and tenacity that will surely inspire others to tackle the AT with their own children. --Kristen Galles blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: A Child's Walk in the Wilderness is a testament to a father's love for his children as well as his love of the natural world.

Stackpole Books, $19.95, hardcover, 9780811711784

How Literature Saved My Life

by David Shields


David Shields (The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead) once again, in How Literature Saved My Live, tries to convince readers that fiction is dead and that the essay--and perhaps the memoir--are the most authentic genres extant today. In this ongoing crusade, he succeeds in writing personal essays that are clever, entertaining, erudite, funny and genre-bending.

Shields here continues the process of examining, through his writing, every nook and cranny of his psyche. His subjects have ranged from his stutter to his familial relationships, failed love affairs, his take on sports and race--and, in this book, his dogmatic statement that literature is the only stay against oblivion, despair, chaos and the abyss.

What saves all of this from being simply a narcissistic exercise in navel-gazing is that Shields is possessed of a mordant wit and a nicely overstuffed brain. He has read widely. "If you want to write serious books," he says, reflecting on his earlier book Reality Hunger, "you must be ready to break forms." Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, he says, shows us a path to this goal: "She establishes the problem, deepens the problem, suggests 'solutions,' explores the permutations of these solutions, argues against and finally undermines these solutions, returning us to the problem." (Which is, he admits, "pretty much the M.O. of this book as well.")

"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness," he writes at the end. "Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this--which is what makes it essential." --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: An incisive, deeply thoughtful meditation on literature, life and where they intersect.

Knopf, $25.95, hardcover, 9780307961525

History

Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage

by Jeffrey Frank


The dynamic between an American president and his vice president always seems mysterious, mostly because the latter's role is so loosely defined by the Constitution that it gets reimagined with each administration. Perhaps no such duo in modern history, though, has been quite as odd as the team of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In Ike and Dick, Jeffrey Frank (The Columnist) explains how the affable and beloved Eisenhower held the brooding and bristly Nixon at bay for decades like a distant father--and how the need for both affirmation from his ostensible mentor as well as a desire to escape Ike's massive shadow shaped Nixon's troubling political destiny.

Based in large part on the personal correspondence and histories of the two men and those who knew them, Ike and Dick describes how Eisenhower reluctantly chose the rising-star Nixon for a running mate in 1952 and then made no secret that he considered dumping him during the reelection campaign--and spent the rest of his life vacillating between support and indifference for his former veep. Assuming that Eisenhower's ambivalence must have stoked the younger man's inherent bitterness and paranoia, it's hard not to wonder if Watergate would have happened had Ike treated Dick differently--and it's ultimately to Frank's credit that one comes away sympathizing for Nixon's plight as the red-headed stepchild of the Eisenhower administration. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: A fascinating examination of the unhealthy dynamic between Eisenhower and Nixon.

Simon & Schuster, $30, hardcover, 9781416587019

Essays & Criticism

The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story

by Ian Condry


Japanese television broadcasts 90 animated series each week, only a fraction of which cross international lines through commercial distribution, amateur "fansubbing" translations or piracy. Harvard cultural anthropologist and anime connoisseur Ian Condry set out to examine the shifting, relatively unknown world of Japanese animation and discern just what makes this labor-intensive, low-paying niche art form an unbridled success.

The critical essays in The Soul of Anime, each of which could stand as its own case study, dissect the genre at its most basic level to explore the interplay between the creative texts and the social contexts, with an emphasis on the collaborations between the artists and filmmakers who create the characters and worlds and the fans who devour them.

To understand better how this "collaborative creativity" works, Condry immersed himself in the day-to-day workings of the anime studio--attending script meetings, storyboard sessions and voice acting read-throughs--and interviewed some of Japan's most important animators, including Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). On the fan side of the equation, he examines a "Never Never Land" of grown men searching for social acceptance in a harsh world, redefining masculinity through their consumptive love of two-dimensional cartoon characters. It's the global network of avid fans and geeky consumers supporting these doe-eyed characters, he says, that is essential to understanding anime's explosive worldwide success. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: An ethnographic study on how the makers of Japanese anime and its fans work together to promote the art form on a global level.

Duke University Press, $23.95, paperback, 9780822353942

Children's & Young Adult

Etiquette & Espionage: Finishing School, Book the First

by Gail Carriger


If spunky Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey happened onto a steampunk set, she might look a lot like Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.

It's 1851, and Sophronia tumbles into Gail Carriger's (the Parasol Protectorate series) debut YA novel through a dumbwaiter she deems the ideal eavesdropping conveyance. However, her tampering with the pulley system expels her onto precisely the scene for which she'd hoped to remain a fly on the wall. Her mother, at wit's end, commits 14-year-old Sophronia to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. While in transport, Sophronia must save herself and two others under Mademoiselle Geraldine's guardianship from a group of renegade flywaymen (highwaymen who travel by air). She realizes there's more to Mademoiselle--and the story--than is immediately apparent.

As she does in her adult novels, Carriger peoples Etiquette & Espionage with enchanting werewolves and vampires, and the dynamics among the humans will keep readers turning the pages. There's Sidheag Maccon, a titled young woman raised by wolves--literally, albeit werewolves; and Preshea Buss, who speaks with "clipped elocution, as if each word were being prematurely assassinated." Lady Linette stands out as an especially entertaining instructor. The tale builds to a hilarious and eventful denouement at a coming-out ball hosted by the Temminnick family for Sophronia's younger sister, Petunia. Carriger delivers a grand mix of etiquette and espionage with a dash of humor and enough subterfuge to spring some surprises. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A funny and suspenseful steampunk tale of a teen sent off to an unusual finishing school.

Little, Brown, $17.99, hardcover, 9780316190084

Look!

by Ted Lewin


Breathtaking watercolor images of animals native to Africa make this addition to the "I Like to Read" series pure pleasure.

The book begins with a full-page image of a wide-eyed boy: "Look!" His command introduces an array of animals engaged in various activities. "Look! An elephant eats" accompanies a picture of a pachyderm pulling branches with its trunk. Have you ever thought about how "giraffes drink?" Author-artist Ted Lewin depicts them with front legs splayed so they can lower their extra-long necks to a pool of water. A gorilla's fur seems to shimmer as it hides among thick, leafy vines.

Lewin captures the animals as if in a candid photo with a zoom lens. For "Wild dogs listen," they stand at attention, their ears perked, their necks taut. You can almost feel the dust fly as a herd of zebras stampedes across two double-page spreads ("Zebras run"), and feel the water as "hippos splash." The action comes full circle when Lewin returns to the boy at play, surrounded by his stuffed animals--many of them featured in Lewin's glorious nature scenes. The story closes with an image of the young hero ("A boy dreams").

The animals go through many of the activities a child experiences in the course of his or her day, so parents can help children make that connection during mealtimes or bathtime or be encouraged to listen attentively, like the wild dogs. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Animals in the wild that come alive through short declarative sentences and breathtaking watercolors.

Holiday House, $14.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780823426072

Performing Arts

TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet

by Cynthia Littleton


In November 2007, the Writers Guild of America brought much of Hollywood's television production to a standstill with a strike that lasted roughly three months. As Variety TV correspondent Cynthia Littleton describes the core of the WGA's dispute with the Alliance of  Motion Picture and Television Producers, the writers wanted to be paid when the studios sold or streamed their shows over the Internet--they hadn't gotten the best of deals when they had a similar dispute over home video distribution back in the '80s, and many of them were itching to right the balance.

TV on Strike is a play-by-play account of the strike's origins and the ebb and flow of the negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP. Littleton is at her best when she's got behind-the-scenes revelations about the personal drama, like the animosity studio heads felt toward the WGA's leadership--and the growing realization among other top writers in the Guild that they probably did need someone else handling their end of the discussions. There's also a lot of juicy material about tensions between the WGA and Jay Leno, who brought his show back on the air in the midst of the strike but seemed to draw more fire than other late-night hosts who did likewise. (David Letterman, who owns Late Night outright, cut a separate deal with the Guild.) As for the financial issues involved, Littleton observes this strike was likely just "the first act in a high-tension drama" we'll come back to again, as writers and producers continue to adapt to their shifting technological playing field. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com

Discover: What was at stake when Hollywood's writers went on strike in the winter of 2007? Variety's television correspondent lays out the economic issues along with the major backstage dramas.

Syracuse University Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9780815610083

Poetry

Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths

by Sholeh Wolpe


Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe explores pain, personal and public, in her third collection, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths. The book is divided into four parts. The first uses an epigraph taken from Robert Frost: "The best way out is always through." Many of the poems in this section--"The Chill," "Matrimony," "Illusion," "Divorce"--are emotionally painful, as they speak about the breakdown of a marriage and love's leaving, filled with sadness and anger, loss and truth. "What's buried among their bed's decaying springs?" Wolpe asks in "Measure." "He says I love you, she says I love you/ to something she cannot see in the dark."

The second section uses an epigraph from Eliot's "The Rock" ("Where is the life we have lost in living?") to introduce poems about the past, Wolpe's schooling in England, her family and the Iranian home she can't go back to, as she tells us in the poignant "Sanctuary":

"Home is a missing tooth.
The tongue reaches
for hardness
but falls
into absence."

The poems in the third section are more political, like "I Am Neda." A young woman shot to death protesting Ahmadinejad's controversial election speaks: "Leave the Basiji bullet in my heart,/ fall to prayer in my blood." The final section talks about keeping time with spring's blue hyacinths, echoing Frost's simplicity:

"grace in movement, movement in grace,
like the lifting of a hand,
...the rotation of the heart."

--Tom Lavoie, former publisher 

Discover: A gifted Iranian-American poet beautifully explores love and the loss of love, beauty and war and the ghosts of the past.

University of Arkansas Press, $19.95, paperback, 9781557286284

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