Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, October 1, 2021


Forge: Project Namahana by John Teschner

From My Shelf

The Truth Is Bad Enough

It's easy--and understandable--to look at the effects of climate change and slip into a dark, hopeless mood about the future of the planet. Books like The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books, $18) and Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich (Picador, $16) have sold well, warning about the near-apocalyptic consequences of climate change. But it's important to keep a sense of perspective. These two titles, for example, are written by journalists, and do not necessarily represent consensus views among climate scientists and activists. In fact, in influential climatologist Michael E. Mann's The New Climate War (PublicAffairs, $29), he strongly criticizes both books, arguing in his chapter titled "The Truth Is Bad Enough" that The Uninhabitable Earth in particular plays into a narrative of "doomism" that "arguably poses a greater threat to climate action than outright denial."

Mann's point is not that the problems facing us are simple to overcome, but rather that apocalyptic or misleading narratives might serve to foster hopelessness or point the arrow of blame at the wrong culprits. He argues that Losing Earth places the onus on human nature for failing to tackle climate change in the 1980s, rather than on Republican politicians or the fossil fuel industry, which plays into unhelpful narratives "deflecting responsibility from corporate polluters to individual behavior."

Readers trying to combat climate despair might be better served by The New Climate War or Paul Hawken's Drawdown (Penguin, $23), which make up for what they lack in writerly flair with their focus on effective ways to limit the impact of climate change. The worst scenarios envisioned by The Uninhabitable Earth aren't inevitable--some of them aren't very likely--and individual agency, particularly in pushing for political action, still exists. Still, books like Losing Earth and The Uninhabitable Earth can be instructive, as long as they are read with perspective. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine


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Book Candy

Autumn or Fall?

Merriam-Webster considered the big seasonal question: "Is it 'Autumn' or 'Fall'?" Why does this season have two vastly different names?"

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"A live Bridgerton experience is coming to cities around the world," Mashable noted.

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Gothamist shared Jack Kerouac's original cover design for On the Road.

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"Add this Winnie the Pooh-themed tree house to your travel bucket list," Mental Floss suggested.

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Bookshelf explored the stacks at Waseda International House of Literature (the Haruki Murakami Library) in Tokyo.


Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr's highly anticipated follow-up to All the Light We Cannot See, begins in what previous devotees might consider an unlikely time and place: a spaceship partway through a vast interstellar journey to colonize a new planet. In this ambitious, sprawling novel about the necessity of storytelling for people on the edge of catastrophe, Doerr introduces a dizzying array of characters and settings, from Konstance, a 14-year-old passenger on the aforementioned spaceship, the Argos, to young Anna and Omeir, who find themselves on opposing sides during the 1453 siege of Constantinople. Zeno and Seymour are at the center of a kind of modern-day siege in the present, though Doerr also captures their lives long before and after their pivotal confrontation. The characters are connected by the crises they face, which are both personal and civilization-wide, and by their shared appreciation for "Cloud Cuckoo Land," an ancient, fictional tragicomic Greek text about the persistent human drive to escape suffering and find somewhere better.

Except for Konstance, the characters are paired--Anna and Omeir in the 15th century, Seymour and Zeno in the present day--and meet at moments of violent disaster. Anna's already precarious, impoverished life in Constantinople is further threatened by the arrival of Muslim soldiers putting the city to siege, while Omeir and his pack animals are dragooned into service by the Sultan's forces. Cloud Cuckoo Land possesses a fable-like quality, sometimes skipping through characters' lives in a few pages, in a manner reminiscent of the briskly paced but sweeping scope of the titular Greek text. Thus, we are elegantly brought up to speed on Omeir's miraculous survival as a child maligned for his facial deformity and Anna's unlikely adventures smuggling books out of a crumbling building before the siege begins. Doerr's storytelling abilities--and the book's fable-like elements--come to the fore as the siege approaches and Anna and Omeir observe a conflict so large it is almost beyond their comprehension. Doerr describes the impact of an enormous cannon:

"It's as though the finger of God reaches down through the clouds and flicks the planet out of orbit. The thousand-pound stone ball moves too fast to see: there is only the roar of its passage lacerating the air as it screams over the field past Omeir--but before the sound has even begun to register in his consciousness, a tree at the opposite end of the field shatters. A second tree a quarter mile farther also vaporizes, seemingly simultaneously, and for a heartbeat he wonders if the ball will travel forever, beyond the horizon, smashing through tree after tree, wall after wall, until it flies off the edge of the world."

The apocalyptic air created by the siege and the impending sack of Constantinople is echoed in the present by Seymour's growing obsession with ecological catastrophe. Raised in poverty by his mother, as a boy Seymour finds his unusual tendency toward sensory overload soothed by frequent trips into the forest behind his home. When the forest is leveled by developers, Seymour's grief morphs into rage at the toll humanity is taking on the planet. Doerr realistically portrays Seymour's gradual radicalization, eventually resulting in a violent stand-off at a library where Zeno is putting on a play adaptation of "Cloud Cuckoo Land." Doerr does not dismiss Seymour's apocalyptic concerns as overblown--ecological destruction and climate change are treated as very real concerns--but he does use Seymour to illustrate how personal suffering and despair at the state of things threaten to close us off from the parts of our world that are beautiful and precious.

Through it all runs "Cloud Cuckoo Land" itself, long passages of which are quoted in between chapters. On the surface, the story is a relatively light one, tracking one man's humorous search for utopia, during which he suffers multiple indignities, including being transformed into a donkey. The characters discover the story of Aethon's quest in a variety of ways, but it serves for each of them as both a necessary distraction from the suffering around them and an insight into their own search for a place free from pain. Aethon is treated as a fool by many, but his quest for greener pastures is one that recurs in different forms over millennia, from Konstance and the other passengers' search for an unspoiled exoplanet to Zeno's need for a way out of his circumscribed life. Doerr suggests that while this impulse is an understandable human response, it can also stand in the way of appreciating what we already have. There are no utopias over the next horizon, but we do have stories, the miracles of nature, and each other.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is ultimately an optimistic novel about humanity's tendency to teeter on the edge of nothingness. It suggests that the harm people do does not and will not overwhelm their capacity for kindness and bravery. And in Doerr's kaleidoscopic slides between characters and time periods, it argues that stories have the power to bind us together over millennia. For stories to do that necessary work, we must keep them alive with the same dedication as Doerr's characters preserving the fragments of "Cloud Cuckoo Land" against the ravages of time and forgetfulness. --Hank Stephenson

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 640p., 9781982168438

Anthony Doerr: A Technicolor Terminus with Its Own Rules

(photo: Ulf Andersen)

Anthony Doerr is the author of the novels About Grace and the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See; the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall; and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. All the Light We Cannot See, which spent over 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is being adapted as a limited series by Netflix. Doerr's new novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner) shifts among characters in vastly different historical settings, from the 15th-century siege of Constantinople to an interstellar voyage in the far future. The characters are united by their connections to the fictive ancient Greek text "Cloud Cuckoo Land."

When I spoke to Nan Graham [senior v-p and publisher at Scribner], she indicated that Cloud Cuckoo Land originally revolved around the siege of Constantinople. How did the other characters and time periods come to be a part of the novel?

Yep, Nan is right: at first, I got obsessed reading about the confluence of disruptive technologies in the 15th century, when the printing press, compass and gunpowder all showed up in Europe around roughly the same time. Gunpowder (and the mega-cannons it inspired) helped the Ottomans breach the massive defensive walls of Constantinople, which had turned back every invading army for over 1,000 years.

But I didn't locate that spark--that bright vein you tap into where you know you've found something that can sustain a long project--until I started learning about Byzantine book culture. Thousands of ancient Greek and Roman texts only survived the Middle Ages because they were protected in libraries inside Constantinople's walls.

Because writing, as the 11th-century Iranian scholar Al-Biruni put it, is "a being propagating itself in time and space," it wasn't until I started trying to dramatize how a single copy of an ancient text tumbles through time and space that the project of Cloud Cuckoo Land began to take on real momentum.

That's when the five protagonists--Anna, Omeir, Zeno, Seymour and Konstance--came in. I wanted to show the book ricocheting through time, like a ball tripping through the pegs of one of those Plinko boards on The Price Is Right. The book comes into each character's life at a point when he or she needs it most, and so, for a time, they become its guardian, until it's time to pass the story along again.

The novel feels especially concerned with imminent disaster, whether it be the destruction of Constantinople or the ravages posed by climate change. Why did that become a recurring theme?

Well, there's an argument to be made that nearly every generation in nearly every culture has believed at some point that they were living at the end of humanity. Certainly that was the case for the Byzantines around Anna inside Constantinople in 1453: many of them came to believe that the fall of the city meant the end of human civilization.

And if, like teenaged Seymour, you spend a lot of time reading about climate change--and witnessing the lack of urgency with which we're responding to its challenges--it's hard not to feel like you're living at the end of something now.

That doesn't mean this is a hopeless novel: I hope that it's the opposite! I hope that it's about the ability of so-called "ordinary" people to act with immense courage, to transcend their own predicaments and make a difference for the people who will follow them.

In some ways, the characters' apocalyptic concerns feel especially relevant to recent political turmoil and the ravages of Covid. Have any of these events--or the unsettling atmosphere--changed how you view the themes of your book?

I'm not sure my attitudes about the project changed over time as much as they became more urgent. The seven years since I published All the Light We Cannot See have been the warmest seven years on record, and writers like David Quammen have been warning us about diseases spilling over from animal populations for longer than that. I started this book right around the time then-candidate Donald Trump said, "I believe in clean air. Immaculate air.... But I don't believe in climate change," and I finished it during a worldwide pandemic when wildfire smoke was so thick outside our windows that it was unhealthy for my kids to play outside. So, if anything, some of the book's darker preoccupations felt more and more insistent with each passing day.

How did you go about constructing the text in a way that felt period-accurate?

In a novel that moves from 15th-century Byzantium to 1950s Korea to a spaceship in the future, each time period presents its own challenges, of course. But that's the stuff I love to do and am so lucky to get to do: chasing curiosities, clunking around in libraries, looking into chroniclers' accounts, reading futurists and pessimists, historians and novelists. I'm a miniaturist at heart, so collecting the details and masoning them into sentences is my favorite part.

The characters repeatedly return to "Cloud Cuckoo Land," which can serve as a balm for them in times of great distress. Is there a particular text that serves a similar purpose for you?

Any good book can in itself serve as a Cloud Cuckoo Land--a Technicolor terminus with its own rules that exists only in our minds. That those worlds sometimes feel more real and vivid than our real world--that's the true magic of reading, writing and storytelling. The texts of so many writers serve that purpose for me: Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle, Marguerite Yourcenar.... In terms of this novel, I found myself often going back to the Odyssey and the Iliad. Yes, they are books from an alien time, full of violence and strangeness, but then you come across a Homeric simile like this one, when a child soldier dies a pointless death:

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion's head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.
    (Book 8, lines 349-53)

You hear the voice of a bard 3,000 years gone reach through time, link life--a bright, blooming poppy--with death, and it moves you; you feel recognized; you feel less alone.

The book can be read as a paean to storytelling. Do you think there are ways in which even dedicated readers undervalue the importance of storytelling and what it can accomplish?

As far as we know, storytelling is the one thing our species can do that others can't. And look what we've done with it! We've constructed empires, built global religions, cut through continents, fished out oceans, performed symphonies over Zoom. Books are astonishing pieces of technology, able to transcend space, time, and death, and those of us who are lucky enough to read them are so privileged to get to spend some hours of our days entering other lives, other worlds, other histories.

Apparently, Machiavelli, before he'd begin an evening of reading the classics, would take off his dirty clothes from the day, put on his finest duds and, in his words, "for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world." Sometimes I feel that's how I should approach every hour that I'm lucky enough to spend with books: with that sort of reverence. --Hank Stephenson


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Great Reads

Rediscover: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (originally published in 1997 as Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years) by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton) won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The book examines why Eurasian and North African societies survived and expanded over so much of the world at the cost of other cultures. The first reason was a series of positive feedback loops caused by denser human populations and corresponding agriculture, which necessitated a complex division of labor. Eurasian proximity to a wider array of livestock also gradually exposed them to more diseases over time rather than the sudden affliction of smallpox and measles on indigenous American people. Highly organized states with greater interchanges of people and ideas fostered conditions for advanced technological development capable of producing guns and steel.

According to Diamond, those weapons, plus various viruses, settled the course of human history. A documentary version of Guns, Germs, and Steel produced by the National Geographic Society was broadcast on PBS in 2005. In 2017, Norton published a 20th-anniversary edition of Guns, Germs, and Steel with a new afterword by the author ($18.95).


Tundra Books (NY): Professor Goose Debunks Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths


Book Review

Fiction

The Strange Scent of Saffron

by Miléna Babin, trans. by Oana Avasilichioaei


At a mere 160 pages, Miléna Babin's The Strange Scent of Saffron might seem spare, but its sizable cast and numerous crisscrossing narratives produce a dense, intricate, utterly satisfying read. In the town of Le Bic, Quebec, two strangers meet over an exquisite meal at the Gourmand restaurant: Nil, on the run from a violent uncle and vicious twin brother, and Jacob, the restaurant's owner, who feeds Nil's voracious appetite even as he realizes she will be hard-pressed to afford his toothsome fare.

Of course, Nil flees. Their paths overlap soon enough and, despite all warnings otherwise, Jacob provides Nil with shelter, employment and, unintentionally, a lover--his buddy Renaud with whom Jacob is plotting to commit quite the lucrative gastronomical crime. Jacob and Renaud's history is long, having shared even a soulmate once upon a time. Now fatally ill, Jacob's only chance of survival depends on the success of their plundering. Meanwhile, Nil, too, wants to stay alive, accompanied by her not-quite-pet fox Lavender. If Uncle John can track her down, though, can twin Yoav be far behind?

"This book contains a mix of stories I've been told, actual facts, and entirely invented elements," Babin, who lives in Quebec, writes in her ending note. The resulting mélange becomes a chilling commentary on the myriad ways family and friends disappoint and betray each other--and yet somehow, saving agency just might be possible. Shortlisted for the Prix France-Québec 2019, Saffron is Babin's second novel and first to be translated into English; prize-winning poet Oana Avasilichioaei proves especially adept in translating Babin's elliptical prose. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: French Canadian Miléna Babin makes an exceptional English-language debut with an elliptical novel populated by evasive strangers.

Guernica Editions, $17.95, paperback, 160p., 9781771836197

Tyndale House Publishers: Long Way Home by Lynn Austin


Mystery & Thriller

When Ghosts Come Home

by Wiley Cash


Sheriff Winston Barnes and his wife, Marie, both hear it: an airplane, coming in low, at 3:18 a.m. In When Ghosts Come Home, the tense fourth novel by Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind Than Home; The Last Ballad), the sheriff dutifully drives to the town's airport to investigate, setting in motion events that rock tiny Oak Island in 1984, and irreversibly impact the Barnes family.

After nearly 12 years as sheriff, Barnes has a challenger in the upcoming election. It's Bradley Frey, a "good ol' boy with a rich daddy who could afford to play nationalist." Marie is struggling with cancer, and their daughter has just lost her first baby. When Barnes finds an abandoned World War II plane, the body of a shooting victim and no clues, he knows the mystery will have a ripple effect in the isolated community off the North Carolina coast, and will burden his already fraught days. Complicating matters, the victim was one of the few Black men in town, a new father and the son of a respected teacher. No evidence connects him to the plane, but Frey and his cronies, "rebel flags flying," spread racist rumors that he's been dealing drugs. Tension grows as Barnes faces staff resistance and intrusion from FBI agents. Pursuing the case, he faces uncomfortable facts about Oak Island, "suddenly and acutely aware that he had run out of allies and that he was alone, both the arbiter of justice and the witness to justice gone awry."

The mystery of the plane and the murder is compelling, but it's the sense of foreboding surrounding Sheriff Barnes that drives When Ghosts Come Home to its shocking conclusion. --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: Tension mounts as a dedicated, well-meaning Southern sheriff confronts racism in his search for justice.

Morrow, $28.99, hardcover, 304p., 9780062312662

The Night and the Music: The Matthew Scudder Stories

by Lawrence Block


Award-winning crime novelist Lawrence Block (Dead Girl Blues; Sinner Man) is best known for writing 17 dark and gritty mysteries featuring Matthew Scudder, a former NYPD detective and recovering alcoholic now working as a private investigator. The Night and the Music collects all 11 Scudder short stories--ranging in length from the novella "Out the Window" to the vignette-sized title short story. Night and the Music was self-published by Block in 2011, and a decade later it is finally available for wide distribution by Subterranean Press.

Most of the tales are engaging mysteries, but equally entertaining are the shorter character studies that deepen readers' appreciation of Scudder and those in his universe. "Out the Window" (Scudder thinks a waitress's suicide was murder) and "The Merciful Angel of Death" (Scudder investigates a number of suspicious deaths at an AIDS hospice) are both outstanding and clever mysteries that are also full of haunting images and characters. Fans may recognize elements of "By the Dawn's Early Light." The short story won Block his first Edgar Award, and a year after it appeared in Playboy magazine, he decided to re-work and expand it from an 8,500-word short story into his critically acclaimed 1986 full-length mystery The Sacred Ginmill Closes. In the very moving final story, "One Last Night at Grogan's" (written specifically for this collection), Scudder, Scudder's wife, his best friend Mick Ballou and Ballou's new wife sit in Mick's saloon for one last time before new owners take over.

This sterling collection of Matt Scudder short stories is prime Lawrence Block and essential reading. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: This collection of all 11 Matt Scudder short stories in one volume is prime Lawrence Block--and irresistible.

Subterranean Press, $30, hardcover, 232p., 9781645240273

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Last Graduate

by Naomi Novik


Senior year brings challenges beyond the gauntlet of magical beasts out to eat the students in The Last Graduate, the second Scholomance book by Naomi Novik (A Deadly Education).

El survived her junior year and is closer to the Graduation Hall of the magic school. Because teenage wizards are irresistible to various monstrous creatures collectively known as maleficia, the school suspended in the void is the safest place for them to be while they develop their powers. Not that students working toward graduation are exactly safe, since the monsters sometimes breach the school's defenses. Surprisingly, El is one of the first seniors to form an alliance for graduation day despite a prickly personality and a prophecy that she'll bring destruction. But as she's targeted by the mals with unlikely frequency, she suspects the school is out to get her, and that the upcoming Graduation Day may call for a more drastic plan than any before.

The Scholomance series features characters from a diverse range of cultures and hints intriguingly at the larger magical world outside the school, although El has limited information about it, having not been outside in years. Her fellow students illustrate the privilege imbalances that can come with family resources, but they are also thoroughly endearing individuals, particularly Orion Lake, the relentlessly upbeat stereotypical hero; only El is not awestruck by him. Readers will be holding their breaths to see what awaits in the third volume. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: The stakes begin with monster attacks during homeroom and grow higher in the middle volume of this engrossing fantasy trilogy.

Del Rey, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9780593128862

Biography & Memoir

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn

by Robert Matzen


Robert Matzen's inspiring biography Warrior: Audrey Hepburn focuses on the last six years of the actress's life--the years she devoted to her work as a tireless advocate for children's rights as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF (United Nations Children's Emergency Fund). Warrior begins nearly a decade after Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) retired from filmmaking to raise her two sons in Switzerland. In 1987, she hosted a benefit for UNICEF in Macau and found a calling more satisfying: saving lives. "UNICEF expected that Audrey Hepburn would be a pretty princess for them at galas," said her younger son, Luca Dotti. "But what they really got was a badass soldier."

Matzen's previous book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, chronicled the Belgium-born actress's harrowing and heroic experiences during the five years of Nazi occupation. He backtracks briefly to show that her connection with UNICEF began decades earlier than her ambassadorship. "UNICEF saved me as a child," Hepburn said. "To save a child is a blessing. To save one million is a God-given opportunity." She testified before Congress, and spearheaded projects to provide drinking water in Guatemala and Honduras, literacy programs in El Salvador, schools in Bangladesh and camps for displaced Sudanese children.

Matzen's highly detailed and compelling chronicle of Hepburn's steely determination to awaken global awareness and save children around the world is a thrilling and motivating read. It's an important piece of Hepburn's legacy and, happily, it is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Warrior is a stirring tribute to a tireless humanitarian and an inspiration for future activists. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: An inspiring and important chronicle of the final six years of Hepburn's life, when she tirelessly circled the globe as a humanitarian advocate for UNICEF. 

GoodKnight Books, $27.95, hardcover, 368p., 9781735273839

Psychology & Self-Help

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

by Steven Pinker


Psychologist Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now; The Sense of Style) takes an unflinching look at rationality--and the lack thereof in the modern world--in Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. With acerbic wit, Pinker points out that "humans are never so irrational as when protecting their pet ideas," which is inherently problematic, especially in a world divided on politics, vaccines and sundry other things. Far too many people are selfishly protecting their pet theories rather than thinking logically and rationally about best options.

Pinker explores numerous facets of rationality, including correlation and causation, game theory and the sorts of logic puzzles where people generally and instinctively make the wrong choice. He also argues for the importance of using tools for critical thinking: "as excellent as our cognitive systems are, in the modern world we must know when to discount them and turn our reasoning over to instruments--the tools of logic, probability, and critical thinking that extend our powers of reason beyond what nature gave us." The inclination to think on the fly--without using the incredible options available to modern thinkers--can lead to downward spirals of irrationality and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Witty, informative and deeply researched, Rationality is a book for today's society. As Pinker proves, rationality is desperately needed, and humanity must flex its rational muscles in order to make better choices for the future. But Pinker also offers hope: that humans can be empowered to make better choices for the greater good, and that rationality ultimately will win. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Discover: This insightful book from the author of Enlightenment Now explores the meaning of rationality and why it seems scarce in today's world.

Viking, $32, hardcover, 432p., 9780525561996

Science

Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse

by Dave Goulson


With insect populations down 75% since the early 1970s, Silent Earth author and University of Sussex biology professor Dave Goulson (A Sting in the Tale) issues a solemn warning: without insects, "our world will slowly grind to a halt." Essential to food chains, they also provide vital services such as pollination and decomposition. But in his hard-hitting, passionate exposé, Goulson doesn't campaign to save insects because of what they do for us; that might make an effective argument with politicians, but for him the matter is personal: "I do it because I think they are wonderful." One of his earliest memories is of finding caterpillars on his school playground and raising them into moths. Grateful to have made a living from his hobby, he writes with enthusiasm and, in one-page interludes, celebrates bizarre, breathtaking species like cicadas and fireflies.

The book painstakingly sets out the threats to insects, including pesticides, fertilizer, light pollution, invasive species and climate change. (Most of these factors directly damage human health as well. For instance, Roundup users who contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma have successfully sued Monsanto.) Statistics and graphs make the case devastatingly clear.

As Rachel Carson did in Silent Spring, Goulson conjures a dystopian future: in post-civilizational-collapse 2080, his son is reduced to a meager existence, with hand-pollination required to produce any food. But this vision doesn't have to come true. An invaluable final chapter gives tips for what individuals, as well as local and national governments, can do to start reversing the losses. Insect-friendly habits can start with our own backyards. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

Discover: This hard-hitting, passionate exposé of a lesser-known aspect of the environmental crisis offers hope for what everyone can do to turn the situation around.

Harper, $28.99, hardcover, 336p., 9780063088207

Travel Literature

The Kindness of Strangers

by Tom Lutz


The Kindness of Strangers is the third volume of Tom Lutz's travel narrative (after And the Monkey Learned Nothing and Drinking Mare's Milk on the Roof of the World) and features more engaging stories from his last four to five years of being "at home in the world."

The Kindness of Strangers brims with hilarious anecdotes, warm conversations with locals and observations of cultural and culinary practices. Lutz has the gift of being able to observe himself as locals might see him and readily laughs at his own foibles. Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Madagascar, Mongolia, Bhutan and Nepal are just a few of the places he introduces to readers through his seasoned lens.

Kazakhstan, where the author experiences the spring equinox festival of Nauruz, is a fascinating blend of cosmopolitan modernity and traditional provincialism. Hong Kong's gleaming urban center feels surreal, especially the central station where thousands of people wait for trains in a calm and orderly fashion on platforms that seem to stretch toward infinity. In Macao, the Las Vegas of Asia, everything exists on an oversized, antihuman scale.

Lutz is chair of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Astounded by the benevolence of the strangers he meets on the road, the author celebrates the micro-kindnesses that lift one's spirits, an antidote to the micro-aggressions of our modern world. As Lutz, a humanist and social historian, puts it: "What a wonderful species we are when we're not killing each other."

Armchair travelers restless to experience the post-pandemic world will be inspired to grab an atlas and start plotting their next adventure. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: A veteran globetrotter shares entertaining stories of his travel adventures in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Micronesia, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Peru and beyond.

University of Iowa Press, $17, paperback, 226p., 9781609387884

Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams

by Katie Ives


Katie Ives, editor-in-chief at Alpinist magazine, has created a wondrous escape into mountainous realms--both real and imaginary--in Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams. Taking as her starting point a fictional mountain, the Riesenstein, which appeared in the June 1962 issue of Summit magazine, Ives explores the history of mountaineering over the centuries.

Going as far back as Sir John Mandeville and other fictitious travelers of the Middle Ages, all the way up to Austin Post, Ed LaChappelle and Harving Manning, the three prankster Washington State mountaineers who submitted photos of "the Riesenstein" to Summit, Ives explores the gamut of imaginary travel. She also discusses what causes people to obsess about being "first" to climb a peak, and the allure the mountains hold for many famous climbers, as well as her own childhood obsessions with mountains. Ives doesn't forget to pay homage to the Native peoples whose contributions to mountaineering have been overlooked for centuries, and shares how the mountains often had a mystical and religious significance for indigenous dwellers.

Meticulously researched and full of gripping stories involving the glaciers and peaks of the Cascades, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams is a perfect blend of history and adventure, and a lovely meditation on why humans are called to explore. Fans of mountaineering and natural history are sure to enjoy Ives's writing, as will anyone who has ever wistfully wished for a mountainous journey of their own. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Discover: This fascinating history discusses mountain exploration--both real and imagined.

Mountaineers Books, $26.95, hardcover, 304p., 9781680515411

Now in Paperback

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know

by Malcolm Gladwell


"Prejudice and incompetence go a long way toward explaining social dysfunction in America. But what do you do with either of those diagnoses aside from vowing, in full earnestness, to try harder next time?"

This is the question that author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) strives to answer in Talking to Strangers, named a 2020 Best Book of the Year by the Financial Times, Bloomberg, the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. Gladwell's focus isn't on the act of conversation with someone perceived as different, but on the common psychological stumbling blocks that could lead to--and indeed, have resulted in--misunderstandings and misperceptions on a grand scale. Gladwell demonstrates that having this awareness is imperative to dealing with a world that is increasingly full of encounters with people who may not share one's perspectives, beliefs or values.

Most of the stories in Talking to Strangers involve familiar, high-profile cases, and Gladwell ties these seemingly disparate incidents together to demonstrate that the human brain tends to "default to truth"--an instinctual, intrinsic belief that our interactions with people are genuine and honest. It's counter-intuitive to the mistaken perception that people are automatically distrusting and cynical.

Like much of Gladwell's work, Talking to Strangers carries relevance for the contemporary moment. American discourse is full of anger, distrust and hostility. While people's preferred interactions are with those we perceive as sharing similar viewpoints, that is an unrealistic expectation today. By enlightening readers about the inner workings of the mind when encountering someone who appears to be different, Gladwell offers a roadmap for more positive conversations, engagement and interaction. --Melissa Firman

Discover: Malcolm Gladwell's enlightening examination of the dynamics behind several memorable news stories and personalities sheds light on how we communicate with strangers.

Back Bay Books, $18.99, paperback, 416p., 9780316299220

Children's & Young Adult

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

by Traci N. Todd, illus. by Christian Robinson


If ever there was a worthy subject for a picture book biography, it's African American musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003). Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by debut author Traci N. Todd and veteran illustrator Christian Robinson makes a compelling and eloquent case that it was only by becoming an activist that the singer found her true voice.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina, Simone learned the jazz basics from her musician father on the family's upright piano. She eventually attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where she later triumphed at Carnegie Hall. Todd includes examples of Simone's personal experience with racism beginning when she was a child, when a white woman suddenly stopped letting her son play with young Nina. But the author makes clear that the singer didn't join the chorus of voices for racial justice until 1963, following the murder of Black civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham that killed four girls. Simone's newfound outspokenness earned her some opprobrium--"The white backlash... was swift and fierce"--so "Nina sang louder...[and] sang the whole story of Black America for everyone to hear."

Amplifying Nina's humanity is Robinson's signature acrylic paint and collage art (Last Stop on Market Street; Milo Imagines the World), which always hums and thrums with life. In one spread, an open yellow umbrella conjures an outsize flower; in another spread, yellow, orange and red shapes on gray paint create a thunderous backdrop against which Simone and her band play "a raging storm of song." --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: Artist Christian Robinson creates stunning visual music for Traci N. Todd's vibrant picture book biography of the great musician Nina Simone.

Putnam Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 56p., ages 4-8, 9781524737283

The Samosa Rebellion

by Shanthi Sekaran


On the fictional South American island of Mariposa, the government has suddenly begun drawing strict lines between Butterflies, the "true" citizens of Mariposa, and Moths, immigrants. Division leads to oppression and eventual uprising in Shanthi Sekaran's inspirational middle-grade debut, The Samosa Rebellion.

Sixth-grader Muki lives with his parents and his recently arrived Paati (grandmother) on Mingus Avenue, a poor neighborhood in the otherwise prosperous Mariposa. His dad was a scientist in India, but now works with his wife running a bodega-style store that specializes in homemade samosas. As Paati settles into life in Mariposa, Muki notices a disturbing trend that has come along with increased immigration: the government, which had once considered everyone a Butterfly, now strictly states that anyone whose family hasn't lived in Mariposa for three generations is a Moth. "Butterflies are from here.... And moths aren't. But they compete for the same... nectar." When Muki and his friends discover a hidden site--a detention camp being set up outside of town to house Moths--they wonder if anyone will listen to an alarm sounded by a bunch of kids. Can anyone stop the Butterflies?

In The Samosa Rebellion, Sekaran (Lucky Boy) creates an accessible and thought-provoking look at xenophobia and systemic racism. While teens and pre-teens fighting against a corrupt government may not be new territory, Sekaran's imagined Mariposa provides new ground and gives solid reasoning behind children being involved: "Kids make the best revolutionaries, because rebellion runs in our veins. We have crazy ideas that sometimes actually work, and nobody cares about stuff more than we do." The Samosa Rebellion soars with powerful, intentional, timely messages of acceptance and tolerance spliced with playful humor. --Kyla Paterno, freelance reviewer

Discover: Sixth-grader Muki fights back against xenophobia and oppression on the island of Mariposa in this riveting story of revolution.

Katherine Tegen Books, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 8-12, 9780063051539

The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege

by Brendan Kiely


In 2015's All American Boys, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds wrote about a fictional act of police brutality. One of the affecting aspects of that YA novel is the necessity of the Black teen's father to give him "the talk": a conversation many Black parents have with their children about how to act around police. Now Kiely (Tradition) turns to nonfiction to address race, specifically privilege, in his version of the talk for white people. Kiely pulls no punches and exposes his own flaws in this extraordinarily powerful, straightforward discussion aimed at white teenagers.

Kiely wants his audience to know that "talking about being white, talking about white privilege, isn't anti-white. It's just being honest." He goes on to say, "If I'm honest with myself--about being white--I can learn; I can grow. I can do better." He speaks freely, pointing out where privilege hides in plain sight. Then he helps readers understand both how they can use their advantages to make a difference and to be an ally, and why doing so is their responsibility. "You and I inherited stupidly unfair amounts of privilege... and if we don't help eradicate racial injustice, we're actually helping maintain it--in fact we could even be helping it get worse." Kiely knows from personal experience that people won't always get it right. He encourages them to be "strong enough to listen when it counts, even if it hurts a little," in order to self-correct and try again.

Identifying racism, acknowledging it and trying to do something about it are encompassed in Kiely's clear, heartfelt, honest talk. There is no doubt this conversation is long overdue. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: This work of nonfiction aimed at white teens candidly and brilliantly discusses whiteness and the responsibilities that come along with white privilege.

Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, $18.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 12-up, 9781534494046

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