Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

From My Shelf

Nobel Winner Alice Munro

A group of my writer friends meet every other Thursday for coffee and critiquing. This past Thursday, as each person showed up, there were high fives all around for Alice Munro and her Nobel Prize. My friends all write short stories, and Alice Munro is a star in their pantheon of authors.

What makes Munro so good? She writes about the quotidian, subtly, with wisdom and psychological intelligence. She has been called a master of the short story. In the Globe and Mail, Jared Bland deconstructed the opening section of her 1982 story "Bardon Bus" in an effort to explain her genius: "She makes indelible characters, yes, but she's just as remarkable for her inventive and crisp language, the remarkable rhythm and pacing of her prose, her wide-ranging and empathetic interest."

In Slate, Lowen Liu picked Munro's five best stories--"Lives of Girls and Women," "The Moons of Jupiter," "The Love of a Good Woman," "Family Furnishings" and "Dear Life"--while emphasizing that it's perfectly fine to start anyplace. Liu added: "The frequent, somewhat silly refrain is that Munro squeezes a novel into each story." True, but there is no apparent "squeezing"; her prose seems effortless. In a 2012 New Yorker interview with Deborah Treisman, Munro said, "For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation."

Alice Munro never gets stale with re-readings, so discover her or rediscover her. Buy her books at your local bookseller; a former bookseller, Munro would approve emphatically. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

The Writer's Life

Scott Turow: The Gun Hanging on the Wall

Photo: Jeremy Lawson Photography

The author of nine novels, including Presumed Innocent and its sequel, Innocent (and of the nonfiction classic One L, about his first year as a law student), Scott Turow is an attorney and president of the Authors Guild. He writes frequently about the law and authors' rights in essays and op-eds. His new novel is Identical (Grand Central, $28, October 15, 2013).

Set in Turow's iconic Kindle County, Identical begins with the fallout from the 1982 death of a young woman, Dita Kronon--a murder that sent her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, to jail and entangled her family and his. In early 2008, as Cass is about to be released, Dita's brother Hal claims before reporters that Cass's identical twin, Paul, had a role in the murder. Since Paul has been running a strong campaign for mayor, Hal, a powerful political rival, may have more than vengeance in mind. Paul's defamation suit against him sets this intricate, dazzling novel in motion and allows readers to encounter a number of indelible characters.

As the story vaults between 1982 and 2008, we follow the action through several characters, first through Paul. But we spend far more time with Hal's investigator, Evon Miller, and with Tim Brodie, an 81-year-old PI who, as a police detective, headed the original murder investigation. For the reader, there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in moving through the thoughts, suspicions and realizations of various characters. Does the number of viewpoints increase the level of difficulty for the writer? 

Looking back, it was many years before I wrote from multiple points of view--not until I published my fourth novel, The Laws of Our Fathers. I just wasn't sure before that how to balance a book when it reflected more than one intelligence. So, yes, multiple viewpoints do sometimes multiply the problems, since you need to know more than one character intimately, and also master more than one voice. Furthermore, there's the question of how each character is contributing to the larger whole. But as I've gotten older, I've welcomed the chance to get out of the hotbox of just one character's skin.

It's a pleasure being reacquainted with Evon, the FBI special agent we first met in Personal Injuries (1999). In that novel, she longed for the chance to be someone else, and one question Identical probes is whether that's ever really a possibility. Why did you bring back Evon?

Well, this question actually contains the answer. Identical--not surprisingly, given the title--is about identity and the elusive ways love plays into our own search to be ourselves. If we're okay on our own, why do we seem to need other people so desperately? Why is that process sometimes so frustrating, even when the other person is, literally, the same as you? In 1999, Evon was coming to terms with herself in a very basic way, accepting her sexual preferences and learning to be a little less strict and judgmental in the process. I loved her as a character and was attracted to the idea of exploring the themes I described from the viewpoint of somebody who had made an immense voyage of self-acceptance but still needed love.

Is there any difference or difficulty in writing from a woman's point of view? 

I've done that with some frequency in the last 15 years. I don't think I'd ever claim to thoroughly understand the way women experience their lives--my girlfriend gives me high points, but also reminds me from time to time of what I miss--but I hope I have some clue. The advantage in writing a novel is that you don't have to represent every minute of 24 hours, just do a good job of understanding and being able to portray the moments at hand.

Identical is very much a book about good and bad blood, both in terms of DNA evidence and familial and fellow feeling. As happens in your novels, much of the bloodletting that takes place is emotional. In your afterword, you write that you took a few of the details of Dita's murder from an unsolved 1966 Chicago case. Where did the long-enmeshed Gianis and Kronon families come from?

At the simplest level, their roots are mythological. The Greek creation myths begin with some rather extraordinary internecine struggles. But it's part of the novel's motifs to be exploring that familiar dichotomy of love and hate. I've seen lots of bad blood within families and between them.

Many early statements and casual descriptions have a deeper, different meaning in light of Identical's many final revelations. Rereading the novel, it becomes clear how brilliantly you seeded things. Did these subtle but crucial details require an enhanced level of vigilance on your and your editor's part?

That's always a delicate balance, especially in writing a mystery. It's very easy to surprise readers--if you give them no chance to guess the outcome. But if you want to play fair with readers and let them experience a novel's revelations as being much more life-like, in the sense that the barely noticed detail becomes monumental--then you have to put that detail there in the first place, but without overemphasizing it. I always remember Chekhov's admonition that if a gun is going to go off in the third act, it has to be hanging on the wall in the first.

Without giving away any of these twists, I'd like to ask how much you enjoyed coming up with them. There's a two-page stretch, for instance, of sheer shock and delight in which the revelations keep on coming.

I'd be dishonest if I didn't say I enjoy it a lot. As a reader or member of the audience, I've always loved plot and surprise in novels and other narrative forms, and I think the pleasure I take as an author is, in part, imagining how much I'd enjoy those moments as a reader. But there is also a little bit of god-like joy in being inscrutable to the mortals below.

Identical is also a wrenching exploration of inheritance and breaking free--and of the price of love and familial devotion. Would it be fair to say that this has long been a preoccupation of your fiction? 

I sometimes wonder if writers ever understand what they're writing about, since as you point out, book after book seems to have the same preoccupations. I've always been obsessed with the way family love and intimate love play themselves out, especially when they have to be expressed in the public forum of the law. "Family law" is a bit of an oxymoron--families obey no laws, except the most rudimentary ones. The law's attempt to set boundaries on family behavior is appropriate, but the law is always cautious never to try to intervene too much. 

You've written that "what happens in courtrooms--the struggle to faithfully recover the past, to understand how evil occurs, to sort out what conduct truly deserves the community's denunciation--is eternal, and eternally interesting." Nonetheless, in your fiction you allow even your most despicable characters some measure of goodness. Is creating such individuals one of the great pleasures of fiction writing?

Everybody has a point of view, and even the darkest-hearted villains feel trapped in a world of teeming emotion that they believe justifies their behavior. You learn that as a criminal-defense lawyer. Certainly trying to bring to the page the way people understand themselves is one of the deepest pleasures of the calling. That said, I've always been fascinated with the people who can say "I'm a bad person" and then feel absolved merely by that recognition, or that they're free to behave like jerks because they've acknowledged the norms.

At one point, Paul thinks that a good judge must have "patience, civility, a sense of boundaries and balance," skills that are "less important for practicing lawyers." Is the novelist closer to the judge or the lawyer?

At what age? Getting older, I feel more judicial as I look down on my created world. 

One L, your record of your first year at Harvard Law School, remains as tense and urgent as it must have been when it was first published in 1977. In view of it and of Tim's thoughts on practicing law--that most of it is just common sense--what do you think of President Obama's belief "that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years."

Well, if you go back to the new edition of One L that was published 10 years after I graduated law school, you'll find a proposal a little like that in the afterword. I suggested that everybody take a national bar exam after year two, and spend the third year as an apprentice in a chosen field, acquiring an expertise. The president is concerned about the massive debt that accumulates over three years of law school for many students, but the revelatory nature of legal education is pretty much over after the second year. There is plenty of substantive knowledge yet to be acquired, but I think law school could well conclude after two years. --Kerry Fried

Guests on Earth

by Lee Smith

When the reader first meets Evalina Toussaint, protagonist of Guests on Earth, it is on a note of self-deprecation: this is not her story, she tells the reader, but an account of her impressions of the famous Zelda Fitzgerald. Evalina and Zelda were both patients in Highland Hospital, site of the catastrophic 1948 fire that claimed the lives of Zelda and eight other women in the psychiatric facility. But as Evalina recounts the details of her life--from lush New Orleans to Highland Hospital in North Carolina and beyond--what becomes apparent is that while Zelda plays a central role in the novel, Guests on Earth is nonetheless Evalina's story. As Evalina struggles with conflicting desires--art on the one hand, and domestic security on the other--it becomes apparent that for her, Zelda Fitzgerald serves as a dark mirror, revealing the fate that awaits a talented, sensitive woman in a milieu where such desires may be perceived as madness.

Evalina is 13 when tragedy upends her life. Her mother, a beautiful exotic dancer in New Orleans, seems to find happiness with a much older, wealthy married man, and Evalina lives a comfortable life. But soon calamity strikes, with the death of her mother. Paralyzed with grief, Evalina finds herself at the mercy of an elegant society that considers her outcast, and she's soon shipped off to Highland Hospital for treatment. It is there that she first encounters the charismatic Dr. Carroll and his wife, and meets Zelda Fitzgerald, who is destined to be a lifelong, if intermittent patient. The doctor, nicknamed "Dr. C" by his patients, prescribes shock treatments for many patients, but also has a philosophy that involves an active, creative life for the mentally ill as a form of rehabilitation. However, for women, creative aspirations are purposely limited. Dr. C believes the women in his care should not entertain "unrealistic ambitions," and must be "re-educated toward femininity, good mothering, and the revaluing of marriage and domesticity."

These ideas meet fierce if metaphorical opposition from Zelda, who one day shocks Evalina by viciously destroying a paper doll after Evalina proclaims it a princess in a tower. Zelda tells the distressed girl, "It is far better to be dead than to be a princess in a tower, for you can never get out once they put you up there, you'll see." Her words could be seen as literally prophetic--for Zelda herself will die confined to the upper floors of Highland Hospital--but are also meant as a warning to Evalina against less tangible dangers. Tragically, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Evalina is not equipped to recognize these dangers in her life, much less meet them effectively. For if even the passionate and strong-willed Zelda must continually capitulate, what chance can there be for Evalina?

Yet even at the heart of Dr. C's treatments, there is a paradox: his wife is teaching Evalina to play piano, and hopes to see Evalina take the stage as a professional pianist. As in real life, Guests on Earth declines to make villains or heroes of any character, instead presenting a nuanced picture of the challenges women faced in the 1940s South. Likewise, while the idea of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an oppressor of his wife's creativity does loom, he is depicted as much a prisoner of his time, in some ways, as Zelda. Perhaps for that reason Fitzgerald is permitted to contribute the title of the book--"guests on earth" being his own sobriquet for the insane, in a letter to his daughter, Scottie.

Evalina grapples with this complexity throughout the novel, with heroic if doomed determination. She desires all the things that her culture declares a woman should want--marriage, a home, motherhood. At the same time, there is a compulsion in Evalina for the shadow half: untamed sexuality, travel and art. She is not the only one, and nor is Zelda: Highland Hospital is populated with an array of compelling women who in one way or another are ravaged by this gender-specific dichotomy.

In particular, Evalina's friend Dixie is attracted to the glamour of embodying the quintessential Southern belle, but crumples from the societal pressure. Through the story of Dixie, Smith explores the extraordinary challenges that were unique to Southern women even as late as the mid-20th century, beyond what the received wisdom of 18-inch waists and womanly decorum would allow.

Above all, Smith lures the reader with lush prose, evocative settings and a voice that is distinct from the beginning. Through Evalina's eyes and the richness of her experience, Smith explores the unnamed border country that lies between sanity and madness, joy and heartbreak. --Ilana Teitelbaum

Watch the trailer for Guests on Earth here.

Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin, $25.95, hardcover, 9781616202538

Lee Smith: Women and Madness

Lee Smith (Oral History, The Last Girls) has published 12 novels and four collections of short stories. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Smith lives in Hillsborough, N.C.

Your depiction of Highland Hospital is so vivid and compelling. How much of this depiction came from research and how much from imagination?

I spent years researching this book. For details of daily life at the hospital, I am especially grateful to the special collections and archives at the University of North Carolina. Though actual patient records are not available, letters, clippings, memorabilia and the many various Highland Hospital publications over the years proved invaluable to me in gaining a sense of hospital life during the years covered in my novel, 1936 to 1948. Here I found catalogues, brochures, programs of events such as concerts, dances and celebrations of all kinds, the Highland Highlights magazine and the wonderful Highland Fling newspaper published by the patients. Zelda Fitzgerald's own letters, both published and unpublished, are remarkable. I interviewed everybody I could get my hands on with any firsthand, pertinent knowledge, such as Mary Caldwell, medical ethicist and lifelong Asheville resident with early work experience at Highland Hospital; older psychiatrists, nurses and townspeople; and others such as Mrs. Scott Hill of Durham, N.C., who was a piano student of Mrs. Carroll throughout her youth in Asheville. Once I had a real sense of life lived within this institution, I could let my imagination go, and release my own characters to walk the hospital halls, participate in the musical events and climb those lovely slopes up to the stately buildings on top of the mountain.

It is also true that I have my own personal knowledge of the landscape of this novel. Both my parents suffered from mental illness, and my father was a patient at Highland in the 1950s. My beloved son Josh spent several helpful years there in the late 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations, as he battled schizophrenia. During that time, I came to know the hospital like the back of my hand. And though I had always been interested in Zelda Fitzgerald, it was during those years that I became fascinated with her art and her life within that institution, and by the still-unsolved mystery of her awful death.

Do you think in the 1940s, creative and even extraordinary women were likely to be diagnosed as "mad?"

Absolutely! Creativity--especially genius--is always "outside the box." It can make people uncomfortable, even scare them. It was often easier to diagnose a brilliant woman as "crazy" than to actually listen to what she had to say. In the past, many female patients were committed simply because they did not conform to what was expected of a woman in her time and place. The truth of the time is chilling... if you had enough money and your wife insisted upon being way out of line, you could always "send her away" for a course of helpful shock treatments and "re-education" as to her correct role as a dutiful wife and mother. For more serious cases, such as overly promiscuous young women, especially those who were black or from a lower class, the court might send them to a facility for sterilization or even a lobotomy.

Do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald was guilty of suppressing his wife's creativity?

The easy answer is "yes," but the truth, I believe, was infinitely more complicated. For starters, Zelda was first and foremost a product and victim of the deep South's "belle" system, which decreed that she spend her teen years primping, dancing, flirting with and fascinating as many boys as possible--often simultaneously. Frequently she had as many as six dates in an evening. Wild, zany Zelda fit the belle role to a T, amplifying it with her own daring and sexual boldness. She met the ambitious young writer F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Beauty Ball in Montgomery when she was only 17 years old; he was a soldier stationed nearby. They married two years later, after his novel This Side of Paradise came out, then threw themselves (literally) into a wild lifestyle for which the untravelled and uneducated Zelda was woefully unprepared. They lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms in several countries, disregarding custom and manners, drinking all the time. The gilded life turned dark, then darker, as alcoholism, infidelity and mental illness set in. Throughout, Scott co-opted Zelda's personality and her life--and occasionally her actual writing--for his own fiction. At first she was flattered, even complicit, but finally declared: "Mr. Fitzgerald--I believe that is how he spells his name--seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home." Later she would claim that he kept her from becoming a ballerina, too, though she had begun her study of dance too late, when she was already ill.

How ill was Zelda? Very--her chaotic mind was unable to organize her brilliant ideas and images, or control her behavior. Also, she probably suffered from lupus, undiagnosed and untreated, as well as the disabling psychotic episodes which would probably be identified as bipolar illness today, rather than schizophrenia. Finally, the hundreds of shock treatments took their own terrible toll.

What single idea would you want readers to come away with after reading Guests on Earth?

First let me explain that the title Guests on Earth comes from a letter Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie, in 1940 about her mother, Zelda: "The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read." A decalogue is a stone tablet with instructions on it, like the Ten Commandments. So this is a very sad quotation, really--saying that people with serious mental illness are homeless in a symbolic sense, unable to find a secure place for themselves in a world they cannot understand. Anybody who has any real knowledge of major brain disorders knows the unfortunate truth of this. But we are all "guests on earth" in a way, aren't we? Here for only the brief span of our lives, and then forever gone... and most of us are a little bit crazy, one way or another. I hope we will all think about that, and examine that very thin line between sanity and insanity. In this novel I am especially interested in women and madness, and in the resonance between art and madness. I also want to show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses, and within these institutions. "Asylum" means a place of shelter, of refuge, after all.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of your award-winning career writing fiction. Are there any particular themes that have inspired you throughout that time?

I have always sought to tell the truth as I saw it. Paradoxically, I have found that I can do this better in fiction than nonfiction, because fiction can reveal truth in all its complexity. A novel is not a "power points" presentation. A novel is like a prism, or a kaleidoscope... when you hold it up to the light and turn it, the colors glow and deepen, the patterns change, and change again... because, let's face it: human nature is complicated, and so is life, and honest art must be also. In much of my writing I have tried to give a voice to those who don't have one--to speak for children, for instance, who are so often powerless in their own lives; to illumine and honor women's lives, especially the older women I knew as a child, women who spent their lives "doing for others" or working in jobs that are often ignored or even looked down upon. I have often written about mental illness and also about the environment. I have tried to preserve pockets of history, folklore and ways of life. It has been such a privilege to do this work. --Ilana Teitelbaum

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Candy

Novels for Social Occasions; Rare Photos of Famous Authors

Noting that "at their heart, novels are about how people get on with one another--or fail to," the Huffington Post recommended the "10 best novels for social occasions."

Quiklit highlighted "25 rare photos of famous authors."


Buzzfeed revealed "25 famous movies that you might not know were based on books."


Inspired by the thought that next spring we'll have a Broadway stage version of The Bridges of Madison County, Flavorwire imagined "5 odd book-to-musical adaptations we'd like to see."


Charles Graeber, author of The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder, chose his "top 10 true crime books" for the Guardian.

Book Review


Half the Kingdom

by Lore Segal

Half the Kingdom is a tour de force for Lore Segal, the 85-year-old novelist and Pulitzer finalist (for 2007's Shakespeare's Kitchen). It can be appreciated from several points of view: as a serious indictment of the American medical system, a scathing commentary on the marginalization of the elderly or a sendup of sociological and medical "studies." It is all of the above--and a wicked good story as well.

Doctors at a Manhattan hospital have noticed a strange increase in patients presenting with Alzheimer's or dementia. Is it coincidence or a terrorist plot? The phenomenon must be investigated, and none better than Joe Bernstine to lead the study.

Joe, who's returned to New York with his wife, Jenny, after retiring from a Connecticut think tank, is currently concerned about end-of-the-world scenarios--concerned to the point of paranoia. He enlists his daughter, Bethy, and Benedict, the son of an old friend, to work with him. Computer whiz Al Lesser is the next hire; Lucy, an emphysemic, "barely e-mail literate" 75-year-old, rounds out the team.

Each of these characters has a story--as do all the patients they are interviewing--and Segal combines laughter and tears, pathos, real tragedy and comic relief in everyone's scenario. She never trivializes or makes fun of the very real pain and confusion these people are feeling. As meetings are called and canceled, medication given and withheld, all these disparate lives converge in the hospital's ER.

Segal's novel is a beautiful, down-to-earth tragicomic meditation on age, failing powers and the loss that comes to all of us. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Lore Segal (Other People's Houses) tells a tragicomic story about a team of researchers interviewing an alarming number of aging people with signs of sudden dementia.

Melville House, $23.95, hardcover, 9781612193021

Dirty Love

by Andre Dubus III

There is no one better to write about life's disillusionments than Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. The four tales in Dirty Love are connected by geography and walk-ons by characters from one story to another. In "Listen Carefully, Our Options Have Changed," a husband is blindsided and heartbroken by his wife's adultery after 25 years of marriage. What follows is the slow revelation of his own controlling nature. "All you do is criticize me!" she says. "You made me do it!" He tells her to write a letter to her lover telling him that it's over. She says she will, but she doesn't.

In "Marla," a young, lonely, overweight bank teller meets a man, moves in with him and finds he is a neat freak addicted to computer games--and that she really doesn't love him. Still, Marla pretends to try. "The Bartender" is an aspiring poet--who hasn't written a word for quite a while. He has a pregnant wife he can't stop cheating on, even when she's in the hospital delivering their premature baby. "Dirty Love" is about a 17-year-old girl, Devon, whose life is forever changed when pictures of her servicing a boy make the rounds. Eventually she "meets" a damaged Iraq vet online, falls instantly in love and goes to live with him in a trailer in the woods.

The dead ends, loss of innocence and hope all of Dubus's characters incur and endure by looking for love in all the wrong places, or expecting lust to do the work of love, are heartbreaking in their truth and intimacy. Dirty Love illuminates all the secret hiding places within the heart and soul. --Valerie Ryan

Discover: A new quartet of stories from the National Book Award-nominated (and Oprah-endorsed) Dubus is filled with complex relationships, dashed hopes and heartrending situations.

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 9780393064650

Mystery & Thriller

The October List

by Jeffery Deaver

In the foreword to The October List (or is it the afterword, since it's at the back of the book?), Jeffery Deaver explains that he got the idea to tell his thriller story backward after hearing Stephen Sondheim discuss the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which unfolds in reverse order. (Other inspirations he cites include the movie Memento and a Seinfeld episode titled "Betrayal," both told in a "fractured time line.")

The novel begins with the last chapter, as a woman named Gabriela sits in a Manhattan apartment on a Sunday, awaiting news from people who have gone to negotiate with a kidnapper for her daughter's release. The kidnapper apparently wants something called the October List, plus half a million dollars, in exchange for Gabriela's child. Someone bursts through the apartment's front door, but it's not the person Gabriela is expecting, and the chapter ends with her seemingly in even worse trouble.

Each chapter that follows takes place a few minutes or hours before the preceding one, going back to the previous Friday morning. Even the pages are numbered in reverse order, with the title page at the end. The premise is clever, but Deaver's ability to execute it successfully makes this experimental novel even more impressive. Revealing the ending first, he still manages to surprise with a few twists, constantly challenging readers' understanding of the story. Read it backward, forward, once or twice, to see how all the pieces fit together--just be sure to chase down this List yourself. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, crime-fiction editor, The Edit Ninja

Discover: A deftly executed thriller told backward, Memento-style.

Grand Central, $26, hardcover, 9781455576647

Graphic Books


by Jeff Smith, illus. by Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith's compelling RASL is a science fiction noir graphic novel that simultaneously pays homage to 19th-century novels and explores our discomfort with modern warfare.

Robert Johnson, aka RASL (pronounced "razzle"), is a scientist, art thief and serial lover--a composite of Prometheus, Dr. Frankenstein, James Bond, Clint Eastwood and, at least with his distinctive nose, Smith himself. Together with his colleague Miles, RASL works on a project to implement Nikola Tesla's theories on free energy to intercept ballistic missiles and track terrorist activities. When RASL reads Tesla's lost journals and discovers a fatal flaw in the plans, he shuts down the project to become a fugitive drifting between multiple universes while pursued by Sal, a lizard-faced assassin with the tenacity of Inspector Javert.

During his harrowing flight through the multiverse, RASL repeatedly loves and loses many versions of his beloved. His women have significant Hebrew and Hindu names: Maya (illusion); Anne (prayer/grace); Uma (goddess-brightness). His ephemeral yet literally transcendent relationships with these women explain his acronymic nickname: romance-at-the-speed-of-light. Smith interlaces scientific allusions with sly yet resonant dialogues on power, monotheism, colonialism and the effects of war on the environment. At the core of this rich and inventive work lies a very current dilemma: How do we balance our global needs with national interests or individual desires? --Thuy Dinh, editor, Da Mau magazine

Discover: A gripping exploration of freewill versus responsibility, at once classic and fraught with 21st-century implications.

Cartoon Books, $39.95, hardcover, 9781888963373

Food & Wine

The Vegucation of Robin: How Real Food Saved My Life

by Robin Quivers

Robin Quivers, best known as Howard Stern's sassy sidekick, has had a very public struggle with her weight and her body; for years, she assumed that her chronic aches were a genetic "birth right." However, once she gave up all animal products, processed foods, refined flours and sugar, the quality of her energy, sleep and mood improved so drastically she felt compelled to share the results of her "commitment to feeling good" in The Vegucation of Robin. "First I'm going to help you understand how food affects the way your body works, looks, and feels," she writes. "Then I'm going to show you which foods hurt and which foods heal. So by the time you get to the amazingly delicious, soul-quenching, lip-smacking, tummy-full-of-goodness recipes I've collected for you, you'll be ready to look at the meals you eat in a whole new light."

Quivers provides food for thought as well, with information on the junk food and pharmaceutical manufacturers who fund the medical establishment and nutrition boards--and how their money affects the advice these experts give us. Once she's made her case for embracing a life of vegetables and grains, Quivers provides nearly 100 recipes for homemade juice, soups, salads and vegetable dishes. She also includes appendices outlining how to prepare certain vegetables--as well as the best seasons in which to find them. Quivers's enthusiasm is infectious, and her Vegucation would be a great gift for any loved one looking to embrace a healthier lifestyle. --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: Engaging and down-to-earth advice from Howard Stern's on-air partner will persuade and excite even the most entrenched junk food-eater.

Avery, $35, hardcover, 9781583334737

The Adventurous Vegetarian: Around the World in 30 Meals

by Jane Hughes

The Adventurous Vegetarian showcases the global momentum of the vegetarianism movement. Jane Hughes, editor of the Vegetarian magazine and tutor at the Cordon Vert, hopes to "make it possible for vegetarians, wherever they may be, to sit down to a meal similar to that which might be on the table in a vegetarian household on the other side of the world." To accomplish this goal, she found contributors from 30 countries to offer appetizers, entrees and desserts that translate the shared principles of vegetarianism into an international cornucopia of recipes.

The use of "adventurous" in the title is apt--many ingredients are not found in a Western diet, and even experienced chefs will find challenges among these selections. While remaining true to the spirit of each recipe, Hughes occasionally replaces some techniques or ingredients. In Togo, for example, the making of fufu is traditionally a communal task, with the strongest members of the community taking turns pounding starchy vegetables with a large stick; for solitary Western cooks, Hughes substitutes polenta.

Beginners, however, will find success with many of the simpler offerings--the Chinese ABC soup contains just six ingredients and can be completed in 30 minutes. Hughes believes this cookbook is more about "letting the world come to you" and less about travel--but the brief history of each country's cuisine, links to helpful websites and advice for finding vegetarian fare would be beneficial to travelers as well. Even carnivorous foodies will enjoy this survey of vegetarianism. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: Delicious recipes paired with a fascinating history of vegetarianism around the globe.

New Internationalist, $25, paperback, 9781780261249

Biography & Memoir

Yokohama Threeway: and Other Small Shames

by Beth Lisick

Writer and performer Beth Lisick is both significantly stranger and more self-aware than the average person. She is also very funny, and in Yokohoma Threeway, she combines these characteristics to create a detailed catalogue of her transgressions, from hip exploits in alternative Berkeley to the most quotidian of human dilemmas. It's as though there are two Lisicks: one who throws napkins at obnoxious strangers and spars with children, and another who is forever floating above the scene, judging, recording, smirking and smiling. 

While Yokohama Threeway maintains the levity of Lisick's prior work, including the comic memoir Everybody into the Pool, it stirs up legitimate questions about the nature of remorse. Some of her shames are accidental and public, such as a skirt caught in her underwear at a work party. Some are intentional and private, as in the tacky sexual exploit that gives this book its title. It raises the question: Do intent or secrecy affect shame's impact? Does one sting more, or last longer? In one story, Lisick blows off a condescending mother who's attempting to hire her to lead a children's book club. Here, the embarrassment of behaving rudely is mingled with the pride of standing one's ground.

Reading through Lisick's shames, it's easy to reminisce on our own. It's not nearly as easy, however, to spin each story with the uplifting wit that she brings to her writing. --Annie Atherton

Discover: Beth Lisick recalls a litany of minor transgressions with humility, hilarity and incisive wit.

City Lights Books, $14.95, paperback, 9780872866256

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

by Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez's Darling is everything his fans have learned to love: an urbane, witty, sensual meditation on race, religion, sexuality and mortality at the beginning of the 21st century.

Rodriguez tackles many themes, and visits many places, in these personal and provocative essays. (The title essay is a long love song to the women in his life and their spiritual influence, including a profound friendship with one in particular.) As a gay Catholic, he is particularly discerning and touching about his relations with the church he will not leave, even as its hierarchy marginalizes people like him. He captures perfectly how he finds succor and sustenance in Catholic ritual and his fellow faithful--but also how blatantly wounding the church's teachings on sexuality and gender can be. Rodriguez's defense of the right to love those whomever his heart calls him to love is brave, compassionate and inspired.

In addition to the ample breadth of subject matter, Rodriguez's writing style is particularly noteworthy. He is, quite simply, one of the finest prose stylists now writing in English. These essays are discursive gems; there is a subtle musicality to each sentence that adds to his sophisticated and compassionate vision. These are essays pregnant with grief and longing and no less uplifting for that, wonderful and articulate 'good byes' to friends now gone--and a sad but beautiful look into Rodriguez's own encroaching mortality. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A wonderful memoir from one of country's greatest living essayists tackles race, religion, sexuality and mortality.

Viking, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670025305

House & Home

The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting

by Clara Parkes

Knitters and non-knitters alike can find something to like about Clara Parkes's memoir, The Yarn Whisperer. In 22 essays, she blends personal anecdotes with insight about the bigger picture of life in a way that will make readers laugh out loud. Even those who don't know anything about knitting can appreciate her assertion that all knitting stitches should be named after pastries or her observation that many knitter's yarn baskets are as colorful and overflowing as an English garden.

Parkes's stories range from childhood to the present, and show how knitting has shaped her life. We hear about her aunts and college roommates, her life in France and her parents' divorce, her love of mystery novels and how she fixed up a falling-apart farmhouse and made it a home.

Most of her stories relate to a particular knitting stitch, and Parkes shows how that stitch is an example of life, from the introverted purling to how each stitch has to work together to create a cohesive whole. Buying yarn can be as out-of-hand as buying plants in the spring, and a bad stitch can be as disastrous as a bad driver. On the other hand, knitting can bring people together and create an instant bond between strangers.

Parkes's memoir is a humorous look at how yarn can create community and how something you love can apply to everyday life. Her stories have something that everyone can relate to, not matter how much or little one knows about knitting. --Kalee Youngquist, intern, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A delightful memoir skillfully woven of a life bound by yarn.

Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, $19.95, hardcover, 9781617690020


The Hotel Oneira

by August Kleinzahler

Unlike many poets of his generation, August Kleinzahler has managed to shun the permanent ivory teaching tower for a quieter existence in California and New Jersey, where he was born in 1949. Influenced by the Beats and jazz, his poetry has always been rough around the edges, off-color, loose stylistically but direct and honest. The Hotel Oneira shows Kleinzahler's age: it's more reflective, more conscious of time.

There's a wistfulness here, a trace of the bittersweet, placidity. Life now is "ardent but fitful." In "Sports Wrap," he writes about a failing baseball team as a "distressing tale" unfolding, "inning by inning, game by game." In "Epistle XXXIX," he envisions his funeral:

"I really was a decent chap, underneath:
kind to dogs, shop clerks--and something of a wit, to boot."

It's no surprise to find a fine, longish poem entitled "The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay," who, like Kleinzahler, was a singing poet. Addressing Lindsay as a "poor little calf," Kleinzahler muses: "You know, don't you, what America will do to you, what truly befalls you."

The final poem, "Traveler's Tales: Chapter 12," might be a serenade:

"The cruise ship heads out of the harbor before dark...
It has all turned out better than we probably dared hope.
It frightens me, just this moment, to say so."

Give this strong, American poetic voice a try. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: The winner of the 2008 NBCC award for poetry, described by Allen Ginsberg as a "loner" and a "genius," August Kleinzahler tells it like it is, good and bad.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, hardcover, 9780374172930

Children's & Young Adult

Mr. Wuffles

by David Wiesner

Luckily, curiosity does not kill the cat in David Wiesner's (Tuesday; Flotsam) latest, nearly wordless masterpiece.

The only human presence involves a couple of cameo appearances of the presumed owner, dangling a fish from a thread ("Look, Mr. Wuffles, a new toy!") and later inquiring of the pet, "What's so interesting, Mr. Wuffles?" When the human disturbs the cat from his nap, Mr. Wuffles stalks off, past a trail of unused toys. But wait--one of these is not like the others. From inside a ball-shaped gray structure on three legs, some tiny green beings peer out of a horizontal opening. Wiesner cuts to the interior, where the creatures make sounds of an alien kind, represented by symbols and geometric shapes. Next, the aliens see the green eyes of the cat staring through their window and... topsy-turvy they go. Wiesner cuts back and forth between the two views as the five alien passengers assess the damage, then make a mad dash to safety under a heat register.

In a time-honored tradition of stories that stretch from Gulliver's Travels to The Twilight Zone's "The Invaders," Wiesner's tale juxtaposes a collision of two worlds. Young readers will identify with both Mr. Wuffles, who's aware of a fascinating world undetected by adults, and also with the aliens who face seemingly insurmountable odds laid out by beings much larger than they. The author-artist's ability to toggle between these two viewpoints adds up to a larger whole and a wider perspective, and both sides may win readers' sympathies. A great conversation starter. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A Caldecott Medalist nods to science-fiction and fantasy in a nearly wordless tale of "cat and mouse."

Clarion, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780618756612

When Lions Roar

by Robie H. Harris, illus. by Chris Raschka

Robie Harris tackles hot-button topics for preschoolers in ways that show them they can get through anything--topics such as the death of a pet (Goodbye Mousie) and the arrival of a new sibling (Mail Harry to the Moon!). This book speaks to those times when little ones are scared, yet her young hero also finds a way to work through the fear independently.

What might upset a young one? Well, loud noises particularly. "Lions roar," and sometimes "daddies yell" and "mommies holler," too. The child models how he or she chases away "the scary." Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka (A Ball for Daisy) shows the youngster sitting right down, shutting his or her eyes, going within, and coming back out when "the quiet is back." The child can return to the world and see its beauty: "A flower blooms. An ant crawls by." Harris reminds readers that the scary can and usually will pass.

Raschka’s broad, bold and blurred watercolor brushstrokes evoke the power of fear as it invades a young child's world. As the child shakes off the anxiety, vibrant patterns of red, blue, brown and green add a playfulness to the illustrations. The images jump off the page, like the child's energy, victorious over his or her worries. The effectiveness of the author and artist's teamwork comes through in the spare page layout, the simple, declarative sentences, and bold uncomplicated watercolors that keep the focus on the child's transformation. Harris and Raschka speak to young ones simply and directly. The message is: it will be okay. --Mollie Welsh Kruger, graduate faculty, Bank Street College of Education

Discover: A gentle text and bold watercolor brushstrokes tell readers about a child who learns to cope with loud, scary noises.

Scholastic/Orchard, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 3-5, 9780545112833


Author Buzz

Dragon Kiss
(A Dragon Kings Novella)

by Donna Grant

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to the Dragon Kings! I'm thrilled to bring you DRAGON KISS. The world of the Dragon Kings keeps expanding, and this story brings us Alasdair and Lotti, a powerful couple who have overcome all odds to find love. But a deadly enemy intends to rip them apart.

I can't wait for you to fall in love with Alasdair and Lotti as I have.


Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Dragon Kiss (A Dragon Kings Novella) by Donna Grant

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 9, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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