Shelf Awareness for Thursday, January 30, 2020


Shambhala: Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair by Cuong Lu

Other Press: Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation by Claudio Lomnitz

Scholastic Press: Muted by Tami Charles

Berkley Books: The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

News

Flatiron Cancels American Dirt Tour, Plans Town Hall Meetings

In a striking turn of events, Flatiron Books has cancelled the rest of the 40-city tour that Jeanine Cummins had begun for American Dirt. The novel was published last week, at first to great fanfare. But as pub date arrived, the book evoked a strong backlash that included charges of cultural appropriation, stereotypical characterizations, inaccuracies, neglect of books by Latinx authors on the same subject, and not enough diversity in publishing. The furious groundswell of criticism online had led several bookstores in the past few days to cancel appearances by Cummins, and to calls for Oprah Winfrey, who last week made American Dirt her next book club pick, to rescind the selection. (The book is also Barnes & Noble's national book club pick for February and the top Indie Next List pick for February. It's also the #1 fiction title on national and many regional bestseller lists.)

In a statement yesterday, Flatiron president and publisher Bob Miller said that "based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety." Instead, he said, the publisher will "be organizing a series of town hall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book. We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community."

Saying that the company was surprised "by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities" about the book, Miller acknowledged "serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine's husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them."

He stated, too, that "the discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them. We are committed to finding new ways to address these issues and the specific publishing choices underlying this publication, and feel an obligation to our colleagues, readers, and authors alike."

Miller promised "to listen, learn and do better," but stressed that such a process "must include a two-way dialogue characterized by respect. Jeanine Cummins spent five years of her life writing this book with the intent to shine a spotlight on tragedies facing immigrants. For that reason, it's unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor. We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. While there are valid criticisms around our promotion of this book that is no excuse for the fact that in some cases there have been threats of physical violence. We join with those in the Latinx community and others who have spoken out against such violence."

Cummins at Winter Institute last week.

Several bookstores had already cancelled events featuring Cummins before Flatiron ended the tour, including Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., and Blue Willow Bookstore, Houston, Tex. In its announcement about the event cancellation, Blue Willow wrote that it made the decision "after much consideration and discussion" with Flatiron. "It was our hope to have a meaningful conversation about American Dirt and the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, which affects our city deeply. It has since become clear to us that we could not deliver the event we had envisioned."

At least one bookstore expressed disappointment about the tour cancellation. Eagle Eye Book Shop, Decatur, Ga., was going to use its event with Cummins as a fundraiser for Inspiritus, a regional organization that works with refugees in the Southeast to assist them in resettlement, job placement, and related needs. The bookstore planned to make a donation of $5 per event ticket, for a total likely to be more than $1,000, and Cummins planned to match those donations.

Co-owner and manager Charles Robinson expressed irritation both at the publisher and the people who issued threats. "I am shocked and frankly, incredibly frustrated by Flatiron's decision to cancel the entire tour," he said. "The fact that there are those who would threaten the author and my fellow booksellers with violence over a work of fiction is completely unacceptable. This decision is not only frustrating because it vaporized the six months of hard work my shop has done, but mostly because our event was in a large part a fundraising event for the wonderful organization, Inspiritus."

Flatiron Books' decision to cancel the rest of Jeanine Cummins's tour for American Dirt drew a strong response from #DignidadLiteraria, a campaign that was formed this past week and is headed by Myriam Gurba, Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, among the most prominent critics of American Dirt. In a statement posted on Latino Rebels, #DignidadLiteraria said, "As lovers of free speech, we view the cancellation of American Dirt events with great concern, for such closures deny us the opportunity to exercise our right to engage in powerful, spirited debate about the literary merits of the book and the racialized ways it is being marketed.

"As a community of almost 60 million whose stories and authors have been and largely continue to be censored by the publishing industry, we understand how angry, disappointed and disillusioned Jeanine Cummins must feel. We've been dealing with it for more than a century, since William Randolph Hearst and the U.S. publishing firms started their march to monopoly in the 19th century by trumpeting the colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, parts of Mexico, and other countries.

"We call on our community to continue the call to action we made last week under the #DignidadLiteraria banner: actions that center *US*, our issues with Flatiron, Macmillan and other large publishers, not Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt. We caution publishers, journalists and others who've excluded us from the national dialogue NOT to resort to racist attempts to paint Latinos as a barbarian horde of censorship and 'canceling.' "

In a statement, PEN America said, in part, "The breadth of passionate perspectives unleashed by this controversy has sparked an overdue public conversation. We urge that this dialogue unfold in the realm of ideas and opinions, and avoid descending into either ad hominem attacks or caricature. As defenders of freedom of expression, we categorically reject rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories. We see no contradiction between that position and the need for the publishing industry to urgently address its own chronic shortcomings. If the fury over this book can catalyze concrete change in how books are sourced, edited, and promoted, it will have achieved something important."


Aftershock Comics: Kill a Man by Steve Orlando and Phillip Kennedy Johnson, illustrated by Alec Morgan


Michael L. Printz Award Winner: A.S. King, Dig

A.S. King
(Krista Schumow Photography)

Earlier this week, A.S. King won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for her novel Dig (Dutton).

Congratulations! You received a Michael L. Printz Honor in 2011 for Please Ignore Vera Dietz and now, nine years later, the Printz Award for Dig. Dig is a powerful, painful work that takes deep dives into subjects that are difficult but also need to be confronted and spoken about. How did Dig come to you?

Dig came to me while I was shoveling snow and thinking about whiteness. You know, the things we do. I started writing it and got a good third into the book before I went to Wichita for a conference. There, I met a woman who would inspire me to dig deeper. It was a simple scene. We sat at a table in a bar having a drink and behind us were people watching sports on TV. Some team must have scored because suddenly the crowd got obnoxiously loud. After a while, I turned and looked and then turned back to my new friend and said, "Ugh. White people." She looked me right in the eye and said, "Those are your people." I suddenly understood. And I wanted to write about them. About us. I wanted to dig until I found out why our country is like this--why we don't teach real history or a wider history of the people who live here. What I found was a polite, normalized racism that runs through every vein of this country. Then I personified it. 

How did Dig develop as you worked? Did paths or characters or focuses change as you delved deeper into the bonds that keep this family both together and apart?

It didn't change much as I wrote. It's pretty much still in the exact same order and has the basic structure of the first draft.

It was hard to keep all the balls in the air for this book--nine points of view and so many stories but, ultimately, I trusted my gut. I write by the seat of my pants, so I didn't even know the Freak's secret until about two years/350 pages into writing the project. She'd already written all the hints in; I was just slower than her. This happens with characters sometimes. They are so much smarter than I am. And yet, even though my characters know more than I do, there aren't as many changes as you'd think. If anything, I just kept trying to tighten it.

How do you feel about Dig? Where does it fit--if at all--with your other titles? How do Dig and Please Ignore Vera Dietz look next to each other?

I feel great about Dig. I'm very proud of the book because it did what it set out to do--it found what I was trying to say and it gave me the right characters to say it. Please Ignore Vera Dietz was the same, pretty much. How it compares? It's one step of a staircase. I love the work I do. I love doing the actual work. That's what's important to me. It's probably good to put this in perspective by saying that I wrote novels for 15 years before finding publication. So I had to develop a mindset that was work-focused, which keeps my feet firmly on the ground and my butt firmly in my desk chair.

Now for the most imprecise of questions: How do you feel about receiving the Printz Award? Of all your books, is Dig the one you personally would put in this place?

I feel very proud of Dig for winning the award. There is no way to answer this second question, though, because I go literal. This is my only YA book from 2019, so no other would fit in its place. But as a writer, I am proud that this book won this award. The subject matter is very important and time sensitive.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to Shelf Awareness readers?

I'd like to thank independent booksellers for championing my work for more than a decade. If it weren't for indies, I'm not sure I'd have a career anymore, and Dig would not be. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness


GLOW: Beacon Press: Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother by G'Ra Asim


CSK New Talent and Newbery Honor Winner: Alicia D. Williams, Genesis Begins Again

Alicia D. Williams
(Jasiatic Photography)

Alicia D. Williams received three awards and honors from ALA's Youth Media Awards: in December her debut, Genesis Begins Again (Atheneum), was named one of five William C. Morris Book Award finalists and, last week, she received both a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Author Award for New Talent.

Congratulations! And thank you so much for chatting with Shelf Awareness. This is a lot. How are you feeling?

That should be an easy question to answer. But every word seems generic: thrilled, excited, honored, grateful (well, honored and grateful are good ones). While all of these are true, they don't seem to capture what's swirling inside me right now. I had to fight myself from feeling guilty about winning and even hoping to win because so many brilliant stories and authors deserve it, too. Conversations with a few wonderful people who reminded me how hard and how long I've worked and all I've endured to finish this story confirmed that I'm worthy to embrace my feelings, generic and all.

When you first started growing Genesis Begins Again as a little baby idea, did you think it had the ability to be as impactful as it is turning out to be? Or was it never a baby idea? Did it appear fully formed in your mind?

It wasn't a baby idea. I wish I could say that I knew what I was writing and even spin a fantastic story about dreaming the plot, but it would be untrue. At one point, however, it was about a heavy-set girl who was bullied who happened to be dark-skinned. But through the years, the story grew, shortened, evolved to be about colorism--discrimination within the same ethnic group based on skin tone and facial features.

I didn't even think people would read my book. I know that sounds crazy, but it's true. I assumed some people would buy it and I would have a few photos to share on social media. But this?! No. Couldn't even imagine it if a psychic told me. That's probably why when people said, "I read your book," I'd cock my head to the side and parrot, "You read my book?" Even so, I did hope that it would be impactful.

Why did you want to tell this story? And why to this age group?

"Why" wasn't a question when I initially began Genesis. That wasn't revealed until much later, after the book deal. Then, I witnessed little kindergartners not choosing a crayon that matched their skin tone or little girls crying because their hair was big and bushy. How did they know to feel ashamed? At age five? The subject matter of colorism is one that certain communities would rather not discuss in mainstream platforms, so secretly I feared that the story wasn't going to be accepted. Yet, I continued to see children of color--every colonized country has a colorism issue--struggle with self-acceptance and self-love based on skin color and hair texture. The need to speak to them was the driving force of completing this story.

What actually came first was character and voice. You can say that my writing mind was kidnapped by a feisty flawed middle grader.

What is your hope for this book? Do you hope readers find it or appreciate it in certain ways?

Thankfully, the awards have added validation that this book should be recognized. It is my hope that it is used in classrooms and read across the globe to continue the conversation of colorism. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness


Berkley Books: Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q Sutanto


Author Is New Owner of Next Chapter Books & Art in New Bern, N.C.

Author Michelle Garren Flye has purchased independent bookstore The Next Chapter Books & Art in New Bern, N.C., from previous owner Mary Jo Bucki. Flye officially took over at the beginning of the year.

"It's sort of a leap of faith," said Flye. "I don't have any background in business, but I have a lot of support and resources. The downtown community has been very welcoming."

Flye is an author of both romance novels, which she writes under her own name, and the Jessica children's series, set in the New Bern area, which she writes under the name Shelley Gee. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's degree in library and information science from UNC Greensboro. For the past 20 years she's been a writer and stay-at-home mom, and she volunteers with local schools and is on the board of local theater company RiverTowne Repertory Players.

"Mary Jo and her husband did so much work here," added Flye. "There are so many improvements. They truly turned it into a very welcoming, beautiful shop. All I had to do was walk in and take over."

For the moment, Next Chapter is operating under temporary hours while Flye finishes three local theater productions and gets the hang of operating the bookstore. She plans to establish permanent hours in the spring.


Print in Portland, Maine, Buys Its Space

Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, now officially owns its storefront. On Friday, January 17, co-owners Josh Christie and Emily Russo purchased the commercial unit from their previous landlords.

In an announcement to customers, Christie and Russo explained that throughout their collective 25 years in the business, "every education session we've attended on store longevity, every conversation we've had with store owners who have been in the bookselling business longer than we have has come down to this: 'if you can own your own building, do it.' "

Purchasing the space, they continued, means that there is now no chance their landlords will ever ask them to leave, and their occupancy rate will remain more or less constant in the years to come, which in turn means they can give their employees greater compensation and benefits. At the same time, the investment shows their long-term commitment to the Portland community.


Authors Raise A$500,000 for Australia's Bushfire Crisis

The Authors for Fireys initiative, which was launched earlier this month by Australian writers Nova Weetman and Emily Gale for bushfire relief efforts, raised more than A$500,000 (about US$341,530) through an auction of signed books, illustrations, unusual experiences, one-off opportunities and writers' services, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The money has primarily been donated to emergency services and disaster relief funds, though participants have also donated to animal welfare agencies and Indigenous organizations.

"We've seen such generosity," Gale said. "The sheer scale of the thing is... a sign of how we're all feeling about Australia at the moment. A mixture of devastation and determination.... While we [as authors] don't earn big bucks, we recognize that what we do has great value to individual book lovers. We'll continue to show Australia that we're a crucial part of the restoration process--we'll give our time, our books, our thoughts and our money to those who need it."

Weetman told Quill & Quire: "We ended up with 1,250 separate items, with everything from platypus tours in nearby rivers, to cups of tea with a former Australian prime minister.... [T]his auction was never going to be just about money. It was about the community coming together at a time when we were all mourning our country.... I think it says a lot about our community that we value people's time and art. We can punch above our weight when we need to bring people together.... We couldn't help by fighting fires, but we could do this."


Notes

Image of the Day: 'Miss Peregrine' and Ransom Riggs

Author Ransom Riggs posed with a fan dressed as Miss Peregrine at Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., which hosted the launch event for The Conference of the Birds, the fifth book in the Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children series. (photo: Robert Bradley/Malaprop's)


Personnel Changes at Magination Press

Monet A. Stevens has joined Magination Press, the children's book imprint of the American Psychological Association, as assistant marketing manager. She was previously marketing campaign coordinator at Learning Without Tears (formerly Handwriting Without Tears).


Media and Movies

Media Heat: Kim Ghattas on Fresh Air

Today:
Fresh Air: Kim Ghattas, author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East (Holt, $30, 9781250131201).

Tomorrow:
Tamron Hall: Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons and Justine Simmons, authors of Old School Love: And Why It Works (Dey Street, $26.99, 9780062939722).

The View: Michael Symon, co-author of Fix It with Food: More Than 125 Recipes to Address Autoimmune Issues and Inflammation (Clarkson Potter, $30, 9781984825537).

This Weekend on Book TV: In-Depth with Deirdre McCloskey

Book TV airs on C-Span 2 this weekend from 8 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday and focuses on political and historical books as well as the book industry. The following are highlights for this coming weekend. For more information, go to Book TV's website.

Saturday, February 1
8 a.m. Mark Kenyon, author of That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America's Public Lands (Little A, $14.95, 9781542043069), at Schuler Books and Music in Grand Rapids, Mich.

7 p.m. James Mann, author of The Great Rift: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era (Holt, $32, 9781627797559), at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.

10 p.m. Andrea Bernstein, author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power (Norton, $30, 9781324001874). (Re-airs Sunday at 9 p.m. and Monday at 12 a.m. and 3 a.m.)

11 p.m. Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan, authors of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus (Norton, $27.95, 9781324001706).

Sunday, February 2
12 a.m. Max Eisen, author of By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz (HarperCollins, $18.99, 9781443448543).

1:40 a.m. Cassie Chambers, author of Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains (Ballantine, $27, 9781984818911), at Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Ky. (Re-airs Sunday at 7 p.m.)

12 p.m. Live In-Depth q&a with Deirdre McCloskey, author of Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All (Yale University Press, $28, 9780300235081). (Re-airs Sunday at 10 p.m.)

6:30 p.m. Christopher Knowlton, author of Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How It Brought on the Great Depression (Simon & Schuster, $30, 9781982128371).

8 p.m. Bob Garfield, author of American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves (Counterpoint, $26, 9781640092808), at Politics and Prose.


Books & Authors

Awards: Branford Boase Finalists

A longlist has been announced for the 2020 Branford Boase Award, which "celebrates the most promising book for seven year-olds and upwards written by a first-time novelist and also highlights the importance of the editor in the development of new authors." The shortlist will be unveiled April 30 and a winner named July 1 in London. The prize was established in memory of author Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase, one of the founders of Walker Books, which sponsors the award.


Attainment: New Titles Out Next Week

Selected new titles appearing next Tuesday, February 4:

Crooked River by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Grand Central, $29, 9781538747254) is the 19th Agent Pendergast mystery.

The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman (Ballantine, $28.99, 9780525618522) is the 35th thriller with psychologist Alex Delaware.

Brother & Sister: A Memoir by Diane Keaton (Knopf, $25.95, 9780451494504) explores the actress's relationship with her younger brother.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson (Dey Street, $28.99, 9780062899965) is the memoir of the pop singer.

When My Time Comes: Conversations About Whether Those Who Are Dying Should Have the Right to Determine When Life Should End by Diane Rehm (Knopf, $25.95, 9780525654759) looks at the Right-to-Die movement and its opponents.

The Girl with the Louding Voice: A Novel by Abi Daré (Dutton, $26, 9781524746025) follows a young Nigerian girl who seeks an education to escape her repressive circumstances.

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 9780358120858) follows an English aristocrat who abandons her family and fortune.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau: A Novel by Michael Zapata (Hanover Square Press, $26.99, 9781335010124) centers on a supposedly lost science-fiction manuscript rediscovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy by Eilene Zimmerman (Random House, $27, 9780525511007) chronicles an ex-husband's secret descent into drug addiction.

All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace (Imprint, $17.99, 9781250307781) is a YA fantasy debut featuring mermaids, magic and vengeance.

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99, 9780062570635) is the sequel to the zombified YA alternate history Dread Nation.

Paperback:
Vera Violet: A Novel by Melissa Anne Peterson (Counterpoint, $16.95, 9781640092327).

IndieBound: Other Indie Favorites

From last week's Indie bestseller lists, available at IndieBound.org, here are the recommended titles, which are also Indie Next Great Reads:

Hardcover
Cleanness: A Novel by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 9780374124588). "Cleanness is a trance-inducing read. I started this book and was immediately swept up in it, and before I knew it, hours had passed. Greenwell describes human relationships in raw, beautiful detail while also exploring the power dynamics at play. If Cleanness is not one of my favorite books of 2020, it will have been a spectacular year for books." --Hunter Gillum, Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa

How Quickly She Disappears: A Novel by Raymond Fleischmann (Berkley, $26, 9781984805171). "How Quickly She Disappears is a Thriller with a capital T!! Set in Alaska with flashbacks to a childhood in Pennsylvania, the story follows Elisabeth, who is still haunted by and feeling partially responsible for the disappearance of her twin sister, Jacqueline, when they were 11. It's been 20 years, but when a stranger, Alfred, shows up claiming to have proof Jacqueline is still alive, Elisabeth sets out to assuage her guilty conscience. Alfred is demanding. Alfred demands frightening things of her. And as he teases her with more and more information, the stakes and demands escalate. How far will she go? Author Raymond Fleischmann will put you to the test. Your heart will race. Your breathing will become shallow. The pages will fly. This thriller is unlike any you've ever read!" --Nancy Simpson-Brice, Book Vault, Oskaloosa, Iowa

Paperback
Imaginary Museums: Stories by Nicolette Polek (Soft Skull Press, $15.95, 9781593765866). "It's no small feat to establish a spellbinding presence in the span of 26 micro-stories, but Nicolette Polek pulls it off masterfully with Imaginary Museums. Her formula is so subtle that I can't really figure out how she achieves these literary sleights of hand with such consistency: one part magical realism here, a dash of unadorned honesty there, stir in some gallows humor, and serve chilled." --Sam Faulkner, A Room of One's Own Bookstore, Madison, Wis.

For Ages 4 to 8
Just Like Me by Venessa Newton (Knopf, $17.99, 9780525582090). "In her ever-stunning style, Vanessa Newton playfully and vividly illustrates poems about subjects from parties to grandmothers to errant sundresses. Some silly and some serious, Newton's poems are perfect for reading together and reading aloud." --Angie Tally, The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, N.C.

For Ages 9 to 12
Diana: Princess of the Amazons by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by Victoria Ying (DC Zoom, $9.99, 9781401291112). "Diana lives on the island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons. She is the only child among these grown-up, powerful, incredible women, so to ward off loneliness, she makes a duplicate of herself out of sand and clay. When her 'twin' comes to life, Diana is extremely happy to finally have someone her own age to do things with. But all is not as it seems. Her double is actually the evil nemesis of the Amazons and their friendship puts her and all the Amazons in great peril. This book enforces how easy it is to let ourselves be deceived by what looks good." --Pat Trotter, Bookends on Main, Menomonie, Wis.

For Teen Readers
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim (Disney-Hyperion, $18.99, 9781368051415). "Scavenge the Stars is a bold, gender-bent retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. Told from dual points of view, the story follows one woman's quest for vengeance against an entire world that has wronged her. Moray is a gilded city, with deep-rooted depravity lurking just underneath the glittering surface. Revenge and a romance built on lies make this tempest of a novel one you will never want to put down!" --Laura Graveline, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

[Many thanks to IndieBound and the ABA!]

Book Review

Review: Garden by the Sea

Garden by the Sea by Mercè Rodoreda, trans. by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño (Open Letter, $15.95 paperback, 230p., 9781948830089, February 18, 2020)

Along the northeastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, just a short drive from bustling Barcelona, a large villa faces the Mediterranean Sea. Here a gardener spends his days tending magnolias, lilacs, red geraniums and a promenade lined with linden and mulberry trees. He collects seeds in homemade envelopes and stashes them underneath his bed. On quiet nights, he sits outside his small house with a transistor radio--an extravagance for which he feels slightly ashamed, so he usually keeps it hidden. This gardener, the unnamed and unassuming narrator of Spanish author Mercè Rodoreda's (1908-1983) Garden by the Sea, flatly relates the dramatic lives of the villa's wealthy summer residents. A widower who has lived and worked on the property for decades, the gardener has become a fixture of the villa, and in this novel is the aperture through which readers come to understand the lives of its young residents.

As Margaret Powell demonstrated in memoirs, as P.G. Wodehouse showed with gentle humor in dozens of novels and as Kazuo Ishiguro made strikingly clear in The Remains of the Day, the literature of domestic service wields particular power when it comes to shedding light upon the interior lives of the upper class. The position that live-in servants occupy is distinct: in film and literature they often act as ciphers, as all-seeing eyes that allow the audience to understand the eccentricities, entitlements, indulgences and insularity of their wealthy employers. And at other key moments, these service workers cease being invisible, and their perspectives become fertile points of contrast. The style of Garden by the Sea is slow, observational and oblique, never strident.

Over a period of six summers in the 1920s, the gardener observes the lives of Senyoret Francesc, his wife, Senyoreta Rosamaria, and their friends Senyoreta Eulàlia and Feliu Roca, perpetual vacationers with family money. The first half of the novel focuses on the various leisure activities of this wealthy young group, including painting, horseback riding, throwing lavish parties and even collecting exotic animals. Several cooks and maids, most of whom are young women, travel alongside the young couple and their friends, purveying gossip around the household, often sharing it with the gardener. The novel begins to take on a darker tone when an extremely rich businessman, Senyor Bellom, builds an even grander villa on an adjacent plot of land at the request of his son-in-law. Rodoreda reveals a complicated history between the families, and the small dramas gradually become more serious each summer.

Although the changing relationships of the vacationers is what moves this book's plot along, they become almost ancillary to the way that early 20th-century Catalonian class-politics are subtly articulated through the gardener's observations. The patient, eloquent and often digressive prose of Rodoreda, who wrote in Catalan, provides an aesthetic experience on each page that assembles itself bit-by-bit into an unforgettable novel. --Emma Levy, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Shelf Talker: Dark, comedic and written in lush detail, Garden by the Sea is a compelling portrait of the affluent vacationers of the beautiful Catalonian coast of the 1920s.


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