Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

From My Shelf

William Morrow & Company: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams / The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Mira Books: Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison

Cats Are Alpha

It seems that it's all dog books all the time around here, since we have a dog-centric office. (Although most of our editors are cat people.) So it's a pleasure to come across a lovely cat book, and there might be none lovelier than Alpha Cat, a hardcover published by Officina Libraria, distributed by ACC ($24.95). Illustrated by Gabriella Gallerani (who, oddly enough, lives with a parrot and a Yorkie) and written by Paola Gallerani (who does have a cat named Quazzo), it's an A to Z compilation of cat breeds, and Gabriella Gallerani, a scientific illustrator, has captured the essence of felinity with meticulous detail and wit.

"O" is for Ocicat, a new breed that forms an exclusive bond with a person and suffers from loneliness. The striped cat peers out from an "O" with an intense gaze, daring you to leave it alone. "S" is, of course, for Siamese, and the cat looks quite regal curled around its letter. The Ragdoll coyly poses behind the "R," while a Manx kitten stretches down and across the "X" to reach a goldfish bowl.

In addition to the charming illustrations, Paola Gallerani has added quotes, poems and book excerpts; with each letter entry, she includes tidbits about cats with the corresponding name: "H" has Henri (Le Chat Noir) of YouTube fame; Hope, a cat who survived the 9/11 attacks while protecting her kittens; Humphrey, the Chief Mouser at Downing Street from 1989 until retiring in 1997; Hello Kitty, the iconic  "empress of merchandising."

And cat haiku:

My brain: walnut-sized.
Yours: largest among the primates.
Yet, who leaves for work?

"One cat just leads to another...." In Alpha Cats, it's a delightful progression.  --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


Akashic Books: Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino


Book Candy

Dreams of Summer; On the Trail of Sherlock

An antidote for the Polar Vortex: "Brief, Bright and Beautiful: Three Books on Nordic Summer" were suggested at NPR Books by Anne Swärd, whose latest novel is Breathless.

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He "first appeared in print in 1887 and has been played by 75 different actors in over 200 films." It's not elementary at all. The Guardian featured "Sherlock Holmes, everything you need to know--infographic."

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Buzzfeed showcased "11 women in classic novels who rebelled against their time periods."

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Are you really what you read? The Huffington Post revealed "what your favorite children's book series says about you."

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Flavorwire showcased "50 books that define the past five years in literature."


The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings opens in 1803, on Sarah Grimké's 11th birthday. To mark the occasion, her mother gives her an unwanted birthday gift: the awkwardly beribboned 10-year-old Hetty Grimké--Sarah's very own slave. Sarah is repulsed and tries to free Hetty that very night with a document she draws up herself, but it isn't that easy for the child of one of Charleston, S.C.'s first families. The two girls grow into womanhood bound together but separated by the chasm of their very different circumstances.

Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and co-author of Traveling with Pomegranates, chooses to tell this story in first person and to alternate between the voices of Hetty and Sarah--one of many masterful choices that make The Invention of Wings a remarkable read. The name "Hetty" was given by her owners; Hetty is called Handful by her mother, Charlotte, to whom she is devoted. One of the novel's richest characters, Charlotte tells her daughter only parts of her own past: stories of Handful's father, who never saw his daughter's face, and of Charlotte's own mother, who was brought to Charleston and slavery from Africa when she was a small girl. Charlotte teaches Handful to sew, to make very fine clothes and quilts. This artistry earns them both a relatively privileged place in the household and, importantly, provides a means of recording stories among slaves, for whom literacy was illegal. Charlotte sews her daughter a story quilt, appliqueing squares that tell of her life's greatest events. This rich storytelling tradition is described in Handful's passionate voice, which both contrasts with and matches Sarah's, also passionate, as she experiences limitations of a different sort. An intelligent child encouraged by a father and brother to read books, she harbors dreams of becoming a barrister, which are inevitably dashed against Charleston's expectations of a young lady. Her inclination to teach slave children to read is likewise reviled, although she succeeds in secret with Handful. Over the years, the two girls share confidences across a wary divide, but guilt and resentment present obstacles to their friendship.

When the girls are still very young, Charlotte extracts a promise from Sarah: that she will free Handful one day. This promise haunts Sarah, who will eventually journey north to escape her stifling family and the peculiar institution she despises. She meets a Quaker man, whose own peculiar religion at first repels her but comes to fascinate and draw her in; this new alliance shapes Sarah's more independent adult life, and distances her from Handful, who necessarily remains in Charleston. Along with her indubitable younger sister, Nina, Sarah will finally become a renowned (and infamous) activist for abolition and women's rights. Overcoming a speech impediment that is a literal portrayal of her difficulty articulating her desires, she will slowly, painfully create the independent existence she has always craved. Handful's fate will, of course, be rather different.

The Invention of Wings is a novel based on fact: the Grimké sisters were real-life abolitionists, and are joined in the historical record by a number of other characters in this novel, including Denmark Vesey, a free black man executed for planning a slave uprising; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker activist for women's rights and abolition; and Sarah Mapps Douglass, a free black activist and educator. Hetty Grimké, however, left tantalizingly scarce facts: she was given as a gift to Sarah, but disappears shortly thereafter from the historical record. And Charlotte is entirely Kidd's creation, an intriguing and complex character who tempts the worst of slavery's brutalities in her search for something better for herself and her family.

Sue Monk Kidd portrays the parallel lives of her two protagonists in sensitive and touching sketches. Readers of her earlier work will recognize strong, sympathetic characters and deft use of nuance. The heart-wrenching nature of Sarah and Handful's stories lies in the complexity of their relationship: they tend toward friendship, but Sarah's guilt and Handful's natural resentment--as when Sarah claims to know how she feels--may prove too wide a gap to bridge. And slave traditions such as the story quilt add a layer of detail informed by Kidd's extensive research, as well as an emotional depth for Handful and Charlotte.

The Invention of Wings ambitiously tackles a swath of issues, including feminism, abolition, religion, activism and relationships between races and genders. This subject matter might be heavy under another hand, but the historical record of Sarah Grimké's remarkable life and Kidd's strengths in narrative and in rendering relationships make for a story that is both thought-provoking and engrossing. Strong female characters, solid roots in history, and the compelling lives of two women the reader deeply cares about make The Invention of Wings a thoughtful, moving tale that ends on a hopeful note. --Julia Jenkins

The Invention of Wings was recently chosen as Oprah’s new Book Club 2.0 pick. Kidd commented: "I'm thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection. After researching and writing The Invention of Wings for the past four years, I can't tell you how exciting it is to launch the novel with Oprah's Book Club 2.0."

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670024780

Sue Monk Kidd: Inhabiting the Past

photo: Roland Scarpa

Sue Monk Kidd was born and raised in Georgia and now lives in Florida with her husband, Sandy, and their black lab, Lily. First published in 1988, she has written fiction, nonfiction and memoir. The Invention of Wings is her first work of historical fiction. Kidd's bestselling books include The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair and, with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates. Kidd is very active on Twitter.

How much research did you do on the real Grimké sisters?

Well, I began reading about the Grimké sisters, and I could hardly stop. I was inspired to write the novel because I discovered them at Judy Chicago's Dinner Party exhibit in New York, and I came home very excited and began to read about their lives. And that went on for months. I suppose I did full-time research for about six months before I began writing, and then I wrote for three and a half years, during which I was still doing a lot of research. I would sit in front of the computer, inventing and writing, and suddenly I would have to get up and figure out what kind of mourning dress widows wore in 1819. Or what were the emancipation laws in South Carolina at that time. It was constant, ongoing research. And it wasn't just reading books; I made trips to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the New-York Historical Society--and of course a lot of places in Charleston. That was a primary site for me, and a lot of organizations were helpful.

Did you enjoy that research?

I loved it so much that I had to make myself stop and start writing. I think a writer can get lost in her research if she's not careful! There's a point where you just have to put it aside and begin writing. I was very concerned that I get that era right. I wanted it to be as authentic as I could make it, rich with details, and I wanted the reader to be plunged into a real world. So I needed to gather a lot of information, and I really had fun doing it.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction, and how faithfully does this novel stick to the historical record?

That is such a large question for any author of historical fiction. In this case, I was not only writing about a time and place that existed, but I decided to populate the book with real historical figures. As this was my first book of historical fiction, it was a learning curve for me. I started off so enamored with Sarah Grimké's history, just in reverence for her life and her history and that of her sister, too, that it was very hard to deviate from that historical script. It took me a long time to come to a place where I understood that there was Sarah Grimké, the historical figure, and then there was Sarah Grimké, my character. And I'm not a biographer, and I'm not a historian; I'm a novelist. I had to come home to that again, because I was so caught by her history. I would say that I wrote the truth of Sarah's life as much as I possibly could, and I think that anyone who reads the novel will find her life rendered there pretty closely. But my goal, I realized, was to serve the story itself, and that meant that I had to deviate some. It meant that I had to invent; it meant that I had to find Sarah in my own imagination as well as in history, and that was really crucial. The moment that I was able to let go and do that, she became alive for me in this book.

How did you make the decision to write this story in two voices?

When I began, I was inspired to write the story of Sarah Grimké, and that was as far as I got. I knew I wanted to write her story in first person, because I love the intimacy of that first-person voice. I feel like I can inhabit her and her mind and her heart, and I love seeing the world through her eyes. I love the closeness of that and what it allows me to do, to get into her inner life. But as I began reading about the history, it became very quickly apparent to me that I could not just tell her story without telling the story of an enslaved character. It seemed that in order for this whole time and place to be fully fleshed out, I needed to enter the lives of two characters. So as I was reading about Sarah's childhood, I discovered she had been given what she called a waiting maid, when she was somewhere around 11 years old. This waiting maid was named Hetty, and Sarah taught Hetty to read, and then Hetty died soon after that, as a young person. That's everything I knew about her life. But the moment I read about her I knew that this was the character, and that I could have this close relationship between them that's also a complicated, difficult relationship, and I could talk about both worlds. Now, it was daunting to me to do this, to be honest, because writing first person from the standpoint of an enslaved female character is pretty far flung for me. So that was sort of my literary sky dive, I guess! But it was apparent to me that that's what I needed to do, to tell both stories.

Sarah left plenty of detail to history, including many writings in her own voice, while Hetty barely existed at all on the record. Was it freeing to write Hetty, in comparison?

It was absolutely freeing. Maybe the biggest surprise in writing this novel for me was that Hetty's voice was more accessible, that it came to me more easily. This I did not expect. I thought it might be the opposite, actually. I think it was because Sarah came with this big historical script, and we knew basically nothing about Hetty. So I had this broad imaginary canvas to fill in. It freed me, I think, just to be able to explore and to just let her talk--and she would talk! I mean she would just talk, talk, talk to me.

Hetty's mother, Charlotte, is a rich personality who keeps her secrets. Does she have a historical counterpart? Where did you find her?

There was a little seed of something that kind of helped me to create her character. When I was reading the slave narratives, I came upon one sort of secondhand story: one woman was speaking about her time in slavery, and referred to someone named Sukie, who was apparently a very defiant, unusual woman. She told a story about how Sukie resisted her master's advances and pushed him into--I think it was a hot pot of lye soap or something like that--and he was burned, and for that she was sold. And she remained very defiant to the very end. Something about that ignited this idea in me, and I wanted to be sure that Charlotte was someone who could protest and resist and who was concerned about her own self-possession, who had this spirit of insurrection and even subversion. I think it's important to offer images of enslaved women who are not just victims. We've had far too much of that, I think. I wanted to show women who were not just victims, certainly not in their minds. They were in a struggle to be human, self-possessed, to fight back and to show this kind of defiance and resistance. In that regard, the slave narratives were evocative for me of the kind of character that I tried to bring to Charlotte.

Do you have a favorite character? Or one with whom you especially identify?

Oh, it's always hard for an author to say which character is her favorite! It's like picking between your children! As a writer, I feel like you have to love all your characters, even the so-called misbehaving ones. But having said that, it's true, your heart gravitates to your characters in special ways. I remember reading something Alice Walker said that I referenced recently. She spoke about writing about her mother in literature, and she said, my mother was all over my heart, so why shouldn't she be in literature? And I just loved that line! I thought, that's how I feel about Handful. She's just all over my heart. And every day that I wrote, I had this very special feeling about her. I love Handful's great hope, and the way she used irony and wit to deal with things.

Sarah's big struggle, at least in my novel, was to find her voice. I literally gave her a speech impediment, which the historical records say she did not have, but I have this idea that writing a novel is really about taking a bad situation and making it worse! Sarah had difficulty speaking in public, but she didn't have an impediment, so I sort of enhanced it and made it a little worse. That's one example of how I deviated from the record to serve the story. Her journey was to find her inner voice and to be able to articulate her truth in the world, and I identify with that--I think many people identify with that.

What have you read and loved lately?

Well, I just made this long transatlantic flight, and I hauled books on board instead of my iPad! I don't know what that says about me. I read three Edith Wharton novels that I had not read before, and I hate to admit that I hadn't read these; but I guess we all have classics that we've not read and we're ashamed to admit we've not read until we finally do! Those were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, and I thought--what took me so long? And then I read Delia Ephron's Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., which I just loved. The other book I read recently was Dear Life by Alice Munro. All wonderful books. There are so many and so little time! That's what's so great about a nine-hour flight, you know. --Julia Jenkins


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Book Review

Fiction

Radiance of Tomorrow

by Ishmael Beah


Ishmael Beah made his mark in 2007 with A Long Way Gone, his striking memoir of the time he spent as a boy soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone. In Radiance of Tomorrow, his first novel, he revisits Sierra Leone to examine not only what happens to those communities devastated by war, but also their traditions and the outlook for their future. What begins as a story of survivors returning to what used to be home and attempting to reconstruct the rhythms of normal life takes several surprising turns as Beah carefully unfolds his elegant and layered narrative.

The novel opens with Mama Kadie traveling on foot to Imperi, dreading what she might find: "There were bones, human bones, everywhere, and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult." Mama Kadie is soon joined by village elders Pa Moiwa and Pa Kainesi; together, they clean up what they can, burying the bones that have been lying in the streets for seven years. People start coming: Bockarie, a schoolteacher and bellwether of the new community; Colonel, a take-charge young man hardened by his war experiences; Silas, a man who had one of his hands amputated by a child known only as "Sergeant Cutlass"; and then, Sergeant Cutlass himself.

There is no clear path forward for Beah's characters. At the end of the novel, those who have survived are still moving, still searching for the titular "radiance of tomorrow" that they trust lies beyond the dawn. Through their graceful endurance, Beah shows us the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Discover: A novel of survival, endurance and grace set in Sierra Leone, where people gather in a destroyed village to reclaim their lives.

Sarah Crichton Books, $25, hardcover, 9780374246020

Fabled Films: The Nocturnals by Tracey Hecht - 11 Fun summer boredom buster activities!


The Bird Skinner

by Alice Greenway


Alice Greenway (White Ghost Girls) approaches the familiar themes of war and loss with a fresh perspective in The Bird Skinner. Jim Carroway is a curmudgeonly, wheelchair-bound World War II veteran ensconced in his boyhood summer home on the Maine coast intending to live out his days in solitude. But his plans go awry when a Solomon Island native who spied on the Japanese with Jim and joined him in tracking and preserving birds sends his daughter, the beautiful and brilliant Cadillac, to stay with him the summer before she enrolls at Yale.

Set in 1973, the novel slips smoothly back and forth in time to reveal Jim's life story, from his privileged but emotionally pained childhood to his Pacific Island service, the postwar loss of his beloved wife and his career as a scientist. Lovely sketches of birds, rich in ornithological detail, underscore Jim's true love and talent, countered by the revelations of a disgruntled biographer assigned to profile Jim for a museum magazine piece.

Though he may seem unlikable at first, the truth about Jim slowly reveals his generosity, the funds he sent for Cadillac's education, the wartime rescue of a friend. Cadillac's warmth thaws him around the edges and captivates everyone else.

Greenway skillfully veers between lush prose and sentence fragments mimicking scientific labels--a voice at once abrupt and richly complex, much like Jim Carroway himself. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: Alice Greenway was inspired by her grandfather, a famed ornithologist, to write this novel about a World War II veteran revisiting his past.

Atlantic Monthly, $25, hardcover, 9780802121042

Akashic Books: Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes


Before I Burn

by Gaute Heivoll, trans. by Don Bartlett


In 1978, desperately overworked volunteer firefighters in a small mountain community in southern Norway battled 10 fires in a single month. Thirty years later, Gaute Heivoll returned to the village where he grew up and re-created this true-life siege. The result is Before I Burn, a ferociously readable double-stranded novel, chronicling the lives of two "good boys" 30 years apart: the author and the arsonist.

The fire chief has a single child late in life. Heart pains on the night of the third fire cause him to turn over leadership to Dag, his handsome fire-fighting son--who is secretly setting the fires. Gaute is not yet two months old when the first building is set alight. Now he's putting together the pieces of the story that's haunted him all his life. Interwoven with his saga of the fires are his interviews, letters and diaries, chronicling his own evolution as a writer--in particular his touching childhood interactions with his adored father.

Characters glimpsed in old newspaper photographs are interviewed three decades later. Anyone still alive who witnessed the fires or knew the pyromaniac is questioned. Dag's aunt, his teacher and his piano instructor each come forward with pieces of the puzzle, trying to understand what could cause the fire chief's earnest, well-loved son to destroy the barns and homes of people he's known all his life.

Before I Burn is an uncomfortably creepy, frequently heartbreaking investigation written by one good young man into the life of a small town where everyone knows everyone else's history, but not everyone is lucky enough to discover who he really is. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: An arsonist terrorizes a small Norwegian village, and 30 years later an author born during the pyromaniac's siege returns to the village to understand what really happened.

Graywolf Press, $26, hardcover, 9781555976613

Silver Dolphin Books: Kisses for Kindergarten by Livingstone Crouse, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan


Once You Break a Knuckle

by D.W. Wilson


The first story in Once You Break a Knuckle finds an aging policeman violently punching a pad his smaller son holds in place. It's an abrupt entry into D.W. Wilson's world--a gritty, working-class town in British Columbia where the forests swallow lives and sentimentality seems erased by the snow. (Once You Break a Knuckle was originally published in 2012 in Canada and the U.K., where it was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.)

The scene could serve as shorthand for all 12 stories in this collection, as each concerns strained emotional moments expressed through physical means. Though it is a distinctly masculine world, Wilson's sparse prose hints at undercurrents of emotional complexity. Most of the characters are bruised, physically and otherwise. They are low on money, and they carry heavy regrets.

While the men are revealed to be deeply feeling, the women are tough, embracing the physical challenge of their male-dominated jobs. They're important, but they do not eclipse the awkward love between male friends, the shifting gravity of power between father and son.

Though each story is distinct, they eventually connect with one another. Like small-town gossip, these revelations are sporadic and vaguely disturbing. It is as if with each piece, the reader revisits a local bar where memories slowly fall into place. --Annie Atherton

Discover: D.W. Wilson's short stories shine a light on the hidden emotional worlds of tough, working men in the Kootenay Valley in British Columbia.

Bloomsbury, $16, paperback, 9781608199945

Crown Publishing Group: The Little French Bistro by Nina George


Leaving the Sea: Stories

by Ben Marcus


As a short story writer, Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String) tends toward the enigmatic, the abstract. As one of his characters says, "There's no need to cripple our thinking with specificity."

Leaving the Sea, Marcus's second story collection, brings together 15 stories, divided, like chapters, into six numbered parts. One section includes two brief stories (more like reflections, really), both structured as questions with answers, while the title story, just six pages long, is mostly a single sentence, a man's rambling, disquieting disquisition on his impending madness. The tone lightens up with "I Can Say Many Nice Things," where Fleming, a cantankerous, unfunny writer teaches a writing class on a cruise ship in an airless room without a clock. One of his students hasn't shown up, and there's a rumor going around that someone has jumped off the ship...

"Watching Mysteries with My Mother" is about a son waiting for his mother to die. They watch PBS mysteries together, and the son tells us that he has "chronically abandoned her, each time at the height of an ever-increasing danger." At the end, she survives. Grief is postponed, yet again.

Marcus's stories are not quite experimental, yet neither are they "traditional" (in the general sense of the term--beginning, middle, end). They straddle both. They are intense, opaque, elliptical and go on, Beckett-like. Each finds its own form on its own terms. Marcus is always looking for a new way to tell an old story. As he has written elsewhere, stories "seek personal residence within a reader." They should take over the reader's imagination, as these do. --Tom Lavoie

Discover: A Ben Marcus short story is vague and unsettling, where the language itself, perhaps, is the main character.

Knopf, $25.95, hardcover, 9780307379382

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: The Lake House by Kate Morton


Biography & Memoir

Little Failure: A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart


In 1979, seven-year-old Igor Shteyngart and his family left Leningrad in the U.S.S.R., their ultimate destination a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y. Nearly 35 years later, Gary Shteyngart is the author of three critically praised and popular novels and a star among his generation of writers. Little Failure is the story of that frequently improbable journey, told with honesty and generous helpings of off-kilter wit.

Shteyngart wrote his first "novel," Lenin and His Magical Goose, at age five, trading words for slices of cheese from his maternal grandmother. At age 10, he discovers "there is nothing as joyful as writing," a calling he pursued with passion through his college days at Oberlin, where ingesting copious quantities of alcohol and drugs never seemed to dull his creative energies, and from there to being a published writer in 2002.

As much as Little Failure is the story of Shteyngart's rocky road to assimilation, it's equally an account of his often fractious relations with his parents. His father, an engineer and passionate lover of Israel and fishing, provided the book's title, one of the epithets he dished out with relish. Shteyngart's mother specialized in administering the silent treatment, including what he calls "one especially long period of making me unexist." The book's final chapter is a moving description of his return with his parents to St. Petersburg in 2011, a trip that reveals some startling family secrets.

Acerbic and tender, at times brutally funny and at others painfully sincere, Little Failure is a fully satisfying companion to the novels of a writer who doubtless has many more captivating stories, invented and real, to share. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: In this immigrant's coming-of-age memoir, Gary Shteyngart displays his characteristic wit as he reveals the roots of his fiction.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 9780679643753

The Longest Date: Life as a Wife

by Cindy Chupack


Cindy Chupack understands that being wildly, deeply in love with your husband and having an insurmountable desire to punch him in the face are not mutually exclusive. And this Emmy winner's résumé--she's written for everything from Sex and the City to Coach--seems to give The Longest Date a dose of edginess that will resonate with wives and still not scare single gals away from tying the knot.

Chupack's exposé of her marriage is a study in paradox--humorous yet poignant, possessing elements of the bizarre yet undeniably real. One can forgive Chupack for having a smart, sensitive and smoking-hot husband because she admits he also smokes marijuana and infuriatingly turns into a couch potato. Readers won't be jealous of Chupack's husband cooking gourmet meals for their celebrity dinner guests because, she confesses, he once asked her to get a breast reduction. And you won't envy the couple's trips around the globe as much as you ache with them as Chupack recounts their devastating struggles with infertility. In short, Chupack presents her marriage as the story of two flawed humans making up one perfect union.

Chupack flips over the strong, shining rock that is marriage and shows us the wormy underside, writing from a place that rings true. Her candidness about the highs and lows of her own astounding partnership reinforces the reason why the world's oldest (and most intriguing) institution still has scores of guests checking in each day. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: Like most partnerships, Cindy Chupack's marriage memoir will bring an equal amount of joy and tears.

Viking, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670025534

Science

Letters to a Young Scientist

by Edward Osborne Wilson


Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning biologist Edward O. Wilson's wonderful Letters to a Young Scientist draws on 60 years of research and teaching for a warm, spirited defense of science.

Wilson (Consilience; The Ants) intersperses personal anecdotes with advice and hard science to address a range of subjects. His explanation of the scientific method is a triumph of elegance in one of the book's best chapters. He praises the genius of religion and the humanities, but adds that science builds on their understanding of humanity's place in the universe by formulating the laws that explain its working.

Bursting with insight and contagious awe for the natural world, Wilson compares the practice of science with both entrepreneurship and storytelling: it relies on quick, easy experiments to assess potential ventures alongside the creative ability to plot research towards an imagined conclusion. Value both skills, he advises; recalling his boyhood fascination with insects, he encourages his readers to follow their passion and never to stop learning.

The book takes its title and approach from Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke's famous responses to a young poet seeking his advice. Wilson's book is ostensibly addressed to his students, but it also seems meant for general readers. As a result, the use of letters as the organizing device seems somewhat manufactured--the only dissonant note in this otherwise perfect little book. Letters to a Young Scientist is a celebration of science and the important discoveries yet to be made, expressing a generous belief in the contribution any aspiring scientist can offer. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: One of the most distinguished biologists of our time offers a wonderful celebration of science, with an elegant introduction to its core concepts.

Liveright/W.W. Norton, $21.95, hardcover, 9780871403773

Health & Medicine

A Short Guide to a Long Life

by David B. Agus, illus. by Chieun Ko-Bistrong


Described as the "most controversial doctor in America" on Dr. Oz for his proclamation that vitamins and supplements may encourage cancer, David Agus has responded to repeated requests to distill his 2012 bestseller The End of Illness into a simple, easy-to-follow cheat sheet to health. He summarizes his findings in the simple straightforward rules of A Short Guide to a Long Life.

Each rule is accompanied by a brief explanation using easily understood language--"Eat Real Food," for example, and "Don't Let the Apple Fall Far From the Tree." A fan of Michael Pollan, Agus recommends a diet of whole--not processed--foods in season, supplemented by flash-frozen foods not in season. He also emphasizes "automating" our lives as much as possible--finding a healthy, workable diet and fitness routine that we can follow on a daily and weekly basis in order to manage stress and maintain a healthy weight.

Agus believes we can prevent disease through our habits and provides 64 of them to incorporate (or avoid) to help us become "agents of change" in our health. The first 52 rules focus on what to do, the next 12 on what to avoid, ending with an aged-based "to do list." While most of his rules are neither surprising nor groundbreaking, this little book is full of great reminders. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: Since what we do now affects our future, A Short Guide to a Long Life tells us exactly what to do today.

Simon & Schuster, $17.95, hardcover, 9781476730950

Children's & Young Adult

The Impossible Knife of Memory

by Laurie Halse Anderson


In this psychologically suspenseful novel, Laurie Halse Anderson's (Speak) 17-year-old heroine bravely copes in a household where her father battles PTSD and addiction.

Homeschooled for the past five years, Hayley Kincain enters public high school as a senior. Her observations reflect the teen's finely honed skills at reading her surroundings. "[H]igh school is where the zombification process becomes deadly," she thinks, after 24 days at Belmont. Hayley is sent to detention after attempting to correct her history teacher, and winds up in the guidance counselor's office because they can't get hold of Hayley's father--who's jobless again. After his two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, Hayley watches the "superhero who made the world safe" slowly self-destruct.

Anderson reveals Hayley's father's fragile emotional state little by little. Brief italicized chapters intermittently interject his memories around Hayley's first-person narrative. These add substance to the teen's insights into her father and dimension to her experience of him. Hayley becomes attracted to smart, persistent classmate Finn and comes to understand how much effort it takes to make a relationship work. Anderson delicately balances the slow-building optimism that arises from Hayley and Finn's evolution through the course of the book with weightier themes of neglect and abandonment resulting from the addicts in their lives (Finn's sister also battles addiction). The author creates a parallel between a parent and child both attempting to shut out the past in order to move forward, and characters authentic enough to pull off the build-up to her climactic denouement. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A psychologically gripping novel from the author of Speak about a high school senior and her father, who battles PTSD and addiction.

Viking, $18.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 12-up, 9780670012091

Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems about Our Presidents

by Marilyn Singer, illus. by John Hendrix


Marilyn Singer's 44 poems introduce the 43 men who served as president (Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms) with humor and poignancy; Hendrix's lively portraits capture the spirit of each.

The poems, varying in mood and style, will be most appreciated with readers who toggle back and forth between the poems and the book's meaty endnotes. Each begins with the president's name, party and term, and the key characteristics of his presidency; many also include a quote. The collection acts as an ideal entry point for other books on presidents, such as Provensen's The Buck Stops Here and St. George's So You Want to Be President? The poem featuring both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would lead perfectly to a pairing with Kerley's Those Rebels John and Tom. Singer gives unsung heroes their due--such as James K. Polk (president from 1845 to 1849), who kept all four promises he'd made and added more than one million square miles of territory to the U.S.--and often adds a fresh perspective to well-known leaders, such as a haunting reverso poem (developed in her book Mirror Mirror) about Richard M. Nixon.

Hendrix (Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek) creates a stunning image of Lincoln from behind, with his signature stovepipe hat and the quote "I am a slow walker, but I never walk back." A pairing of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in cool blue tones on a grayed backdrop telegraph the nation's dark times. Readers will come away with an appreciation of the office of president. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A varied and inviting introduction, through poetry, to the men who have led the United States, from Washington to Obama.

Disney/Hyperion, $17.99, hardcover, 56p., ages 8-up, 9781423171003

Pets

Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones

by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists


Decoding Your Dog is a wonderful resource for owners of any size, breed or age of dog from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, veterinarians with board certification in canine behavior who work with pet owners and animal professionals to help manage behavior and well-being. Drawing upon the stories of various dog owners and their pets, it covers subjects such as interpreting canine body language (with illustrative photographs), choosing a dog to match the needs and limitations of a household and using the correct tools for training, as well as offering tips for resolving house training, aggression and separation anxiety issues.

Throughout, the guide debunks many misconceptions. "A wagging tail indicates a willingness to interact," the experts tell us, but not always in a friendly manner. Sometimes the wag "can be in a defensive or aggressive way. The speed of the wag, how high the dog holds the tail, and how stiff the tail is all convey subtle differences in meaning." Readers should look at the whole dog--not just one body part or one vocalization--then proceed based on overall body language. The section on teaching children how to interact with dogs--and on preparing a dog to accept a new baby--is especially helpful for new parents.

Despite its multiple authors, the book has a common emphasis on positive reinforcement. Its wisdom would be valuable for even the most experienced dog lover. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: Even the most experienced dog lovers will appreciate this extensive resource on "man's best friend."

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, hardcover, 9780547738918

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