Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, September 13, 2016

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

From My Shelf

Found in Translation

As a college Comparative Literature major, I remember a beloved professor of modernism and French texts scoffing, "English literature runs only from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf." What marvels someone limited to a singular language might miss; what delights of which they would be deprived!

Literature in translation has seen a major resurgence in the past few years, valiantly championed by presses small and large based both in the U.S. and overseas. These publishers understand the menagerie of doors that open with other worldviews and other tongues--what would a bookshelf be without Marguerite Duras, Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino? How could one properly understand the world in which Virginia Woolf wrote without access to many of her modernist counterparts, like Luigi Pirandello, Franz Kafka and Alain Robbe-Grillet? Works in translation frame the world differently; they are wider windows through which to see a panorama in brighter, more saturated hues.

Recently, a spate of fantastic translations have found their way to American bookshelves. New York City's Other Press brings us Patrick Modiano and Michèle Halberstadt; New York Review Books Classics publishes Teffi and Jean-Paul Clébert; and San Francisco's Two Lines Press specializes in foreign works by the likes of Emmanuelle Pagano, Lidija Dimkovska and João Gilberto Noll. New Directions' collected stories of Clarice Lispector sits, monument-like, on my bedside table, a permanent, Portuguese fixture.

This is not to say that there aren't bad translations, which dissatisfy the reader like a mouthful of ill-prepared fare. Still, most presses strive to find someone who will encapsulate the poetry of the original, the musicality of languages different from our own. Like food, these foreign morsels sustain and nourish, reminding us that the canon need not be stodgy. It can, in fact, be delectable--the more you try, the hungrier you'll get. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

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

Book Candy

Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl!

One way to celebrate what would have been the author's 100th birthday today: Buzzfeed displayed "21 fantastically marvelous Roald Dahl-inspired tattoos."


Bustle proposed "16 pickup lines from classic literature, because it's not easy trying to woo a book-lover."


Flavorwire revisited "5 fascinating literary scandals."


"Fictional teachers who are not ready for back to school" were called out by Quirk Books.


Researchers at MIT "have developed a camera that uses terahertz radiation to peer at the text on pages of a book, without it having to be open," Gizmodo reported.


Bookish fashion: The Bookshelf Dress is a "multicolor A-line printed off shoulder evening dress by Xunruo for Stylewe."

When in French: Love in a Second Language

by Lauren Collins

Growing up in North Carolina, Lauren Collins never expected to fall in love with a French man, much less spend years adapting to an entirely new language and culture. But when she found herself married to Olivier and living in Geneva, she decided to get serious about learning French, so she could converse with her new husband and her new countrymen and -women in their own language. Collins muses on the challenges, frustrations and surprising delights of living and loving in le français in her memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language.

Collins, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has hit upon the perfect structure for her subject, naming her chapters after the grammatical tenses of French: the past perfect (le plus-que-parfait), the imperfect (l'imparfait), the subjunctive (le subjonctif), even the future (le futur). Collins takes readers along on her linguistic journey, exploring George Steiner's assertion that translation "occurs both across and inside languages." (emphasis Steiner's). While "love is both the cause and the continuance" of Collins's determination to learn French, she quickly realizes that her task is more complicated than swapping one set of words for another: to take on a new language is to try on a different way of seeing the world.

Although it is (as the subtitle suggests) a love story, Collins's narrative inverts the typical starry-eyed plot of an American abroad: she begins by admitting that a life in Geneva, where she lacked the language skills even to eavesdrop on her neighbors through their open windows, was not what she had envisioned. "I felt as though I were living behind the aural equivalent of a one-way mirror," she writes.

Frustrated at her sudden, almost total lack of voice, Collins signs up for a French-language class with a handful of other expats from assorted countries. All of them, she soon realizes, are there because they harbor ambitions similar to hers: to conduct the business of daily life in fluent French. In contrast to the tourist who parrots phrases from a guidebook or delights in the exotic buzz of an incomprehensible language, Collins points out, "The fantasy of the foreigner is a life more banal." As she conjugates unfamiliar verbs and struggles to decipher the daily newspaper (and to talk to her husband in French), Collins moves toward a new version of la vie quotidienne: complicated in some ways, perhaps, but infinitely richer than before.

Following her journalistic instincts, Collins also occasionally steps back from her personal story to explore the larger web of language, culture and history: the neuroscience of language acquisition in young children, the fraught history of monolingualism and multiculturalism in the U.S., the highly structured nature of both the French language and French society (with its piles of attendant paperwork). Gradually, Collins begins to view French grammar as "a secular catechism, its recitation both comforting and sublime."

Also comforting is Collins's warmhearted exploration of the differences, linguistic and otherwise, between her family and Olivier's. The cultural gaps are thrown into hilarious relief when their parents and siblings take a vacation together. While many romantic relationships prompt the blending of two families, intercultural marriages contain a particular set of challenges, and Collins expresses them in clear-eyed prose that is by turns entertaining and poignant. "I retreated to the linguistic version of a kids' table," she writes about an early encounter with Olivier's extended family. "I felt like a fool, but a sweet one--opened, in my wordlessness, to the possibility of an uncomplicated kind of love."

Despite her newfound and growing affection for French, Collins does not abandon her native language: if anything, she becomes protective of English, groaning inwardly at the mistranslations and missteps suffered by her mother tongue abroad. "French is a secret garden, but English, somehow, is everyone's property," she says. Although she is eager to explore each twisting pathway of le français, Collins also has a deep respect for English, and it shows in her precise, elegant sentences.

Love, like language, is rarely uncomplicated, but Collins makes the complexities of both seem akin to joys. The embarrassment of having told her mother-in-law she has given birth to a coffee machine (when she simply intended to write a thank-you note), the hilarity that ensues when her father tries to teach her brother-in-law swaggering lines from American mobster films, and other incidents combine to form "a complex polyphony, which sounded like none of us and all of us," and which will become the bilingual soundtrack of Collins's new life. When her mother-in-law writes her a letter saying, "Vous êtes faits I'un pour l'autre" ("You are made for one another"), Collins decides to take it in good faith--pledging herself to both the man she loves and his langue maternelle.

Witty, informative and studded with bon mots in both French and English, When in French is a thoughtful, ultimately joyous exploration of falling in love with, and through, words. --Katie Noah Gibson

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9781594206443

Lauren Collins: Negotiating Differences

photo: Philip Andelman

Lauren Collins began working at the New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Her subjects have included Michelle Obama, Donatella Versace, the graffiti artist Banksy, and the chef April Bloomfield. Since 2010, she has been based in Europe, covering stories from London, Paris, Copenhagen and beyond. Her memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language, was just  published by Penguin Press.

When in French is structured around grammatical tenses: past perfect, imperfect, conditional, subjunctive. How did you decide to structure it that way?

It was kind of a happy accident. For me, structure is always the hardest part of writing. It's at least half the battle.

I was thinking about the story I wanted to tell, and looking for an overarching way to organize everything. I would say to myself, "Today I'm going to work on my book." But there on the side of my desk were all my French textbooks. I was still in the thick of it, trying to acquire more of this new language. And I also knew that the fun and interesting part of writing for me usually begins once the structure is in place. I need a roadmap.

I wanted to tell the story of how I met Olivier, but also how our relationship was perhaps unlikely, given some of the circumstances of my upbringing. And certain parts of the story I wanted to tell had a distinct timestamp on them: my childhood, my move to London, my life in Geneva with Olivier. It was a relief in some ways to arrive at this structure: there's no argument, when you're describing an incident in French, about which tense it belongs in. So having this cut-and-dried structure in place freed me up to play and experiment a bit with the writing.

The story begins in Geneva, when you've just arrived and are feeling disoriented and depressed.

Geneva was the perfect laboratory for some of the questions I was asking about language and culture, about how those threads overlap and how you might try to separate them out. I met Olivier when I was living in London, and he moved to Geneva before I did. I was really miserable [after moving] there, and was convinced that Geneva itself was to blame. But Olivier had a longstanding hypothesis that it was about the language. He pointed out that Geneva was the first place I'd lived that was outside of my native language. Suddenly, I couldn't make myself understood, and I couldn't understand anything.

We've moved to France now, and my French-language skills are much better. I'm much happier in Paris, but it wasn't just the language difficulty. I wasn't cut out for Geneva and it wasn't cut out for me. But Geneva was where I was living when I wrote the book, so I started the story in medias res. The typical American-expat-abroad story begins with the starry-eyed arrival, and then disenchantment sets in. I wanted to write a different kind of story--a slightly more dystopian version.

You encounter a chimneysweep in the first chapter and have no idea how to talk to him or what he's doing there.

Yes! It's a double layer of frustration, the inability to speak a language and also the disorientation of dealing with something you've never dealt with in your life. I'd never encountered a chimneysweep in London or North Carolina. And, though I didn't get into it in the book, there is an elaborate system of chimney-sweeping precincts in Geneva. I had no clue about any of it. So it was an unbelievably disorienting experience.

The first section of the book is the past perfect tense, though, and that's the beauty of it: you know something is coming after it. I hadn't wanted to live in Geneva, and I wasn't happy there. But you, as the reader, know that something comes next. I wanted to start out with a little disenchantment and move toward happiness and contentment.

You say in the book, when you're taking a French class and wrestling with everyday phrases, that "the fantasy of the foreigner is a life more banal." (Even if it doesn't necessarily involve chimneysweeps.)

Yes! It can be exhausting to have to gear yourself up for every single interaction or task in a totally unfamiliar language. In a sense, everyday life starts to seem like combat. You have to psych yourself up and put on your armor to deal with it. That's why these banalities take on outsized proportions in the life of a foreigner. They become much more difficult and also much more interesting. There's a great potential to learn something new with every interaction.

The cornerstone of this book is a line from George Steiner about how you translate between languages, but you can also translate inside them. Anyone who ventures outside the bosom of their childhood language or hometown is going through some of that work. I think of the idea of translation that way--trying to negotiate difference.

The impetus for learning French was not only navigating a new culture, but learning to communicate with your husband in his native tongue. 

A romantic relationship between people who speak two different languages is like an exaggerated case study. It takes what happens between two people in any relationship and magnifies it.

When you're in any kind of relationship, you often have to translate everything into the language of a different gender, religion, regional dialect, political mindset, or other category. When you meet someone and are getting to know them, you're feeling each other out. You're trying each other's sensibilities on for size. Eventually, especially in a romantic relationship, your private dictionaries start to overlap. When you're in a bilingual relationship, you know you're in for a certain amount of work, and that increases with every category of difference.

The great payoff of learning French is striking out one of those categories. Olivier and I still have our differences of opinion and perception, but at least now we can communicate them a little bit better. The simple fact of being different from one another--a man and a woman, or an atheist and a believer, or an artist and a scientist--creates these gaps that you're kind of yelling across. Being able to close one of them, or to make the distance shorter, has been huge progress. Basically, my recipe for long-lasting love is that everyone should think of their significant other as a French person!

At times, you step back from your personal story to talk about the history of monolingualism in the U.S., the neuroscience behind language acquisition, the relationship between the U.S. and France--all these fascinating asides. How did you decide to weave them in?

Maybe it's my journalistic instinct at play, but I wanted to give some context to this very personal story. My experience of a new language and culture was the thing that was lighting me up intellectually and emotionally. My synapses were firing and I was stumbling across all these different things about words in different languages, monolingualism in the U.S., how language and culture are intertwined. I thought they gave some ballast to my personal narrative.

When in French is coming out at a moment when there's widespread fear and distrust of "the other" in our world.

I see this very strange disconnect. On the one hand, there are more bilingual, biracial, bi-national, bicultural couples and families than there have ever been. Everyone seems happy about that increase of choices and freedom. And yet there's also rising xenophobia and nationalism in the world. I don't know what it all adds up to, but it definitely makes for a very interesting tension. So many people are "mixed" in some way, and we are having to reckon with that.

I think this mixture, this globalization of not only the world but our families, is a palpable phenomenon of our moment and our generation. It's something that's very different from our parents' generation, at least in my case. And I'm happy with the faraway trajectory my life has taken, but I'm not an evangelist at all for expatriation.

There's a moment near the end of the book where I run into a childhood acquaintance on a beach near my family's home, and I watch her giving her kids essentially the same kind of childhood that she had. And part of me wondered what I was missing, since I had left. I know the rewards of leaving, of exploring. But what do you get if you stay? That's also a way to build a worthwhile life. --Katie Noah Gibson

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories

by Matt Bell

A Tree or a Person or a Wall collects Matt Bell's previously published work, including short stories from the collection How They Were Found and the novella Cataclysm Baby, alongside new works of short fiction. Bell certainly deserves the attention--his writing, equal parts Cormac McCarthy and H.P. Lovecraft, is as startling fresh and unclassifiable here as in his novels In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper.

Bell blithely ignores genre distinctions in pursuit of his apocalyptic vision, leaping nimbly from fable to science fiction to murder mystery and beyond. The first (and titular) story in the collection begins with the line: "Even before the man with rough hands brought the boy to the locked room, even then there was always already the albino ape sitting on the chair beside the nightstand, waiting for the man and the boy to come." And it gets only weirder from there. "Wolf Parts" retells the fable of Little Red Riding Hood over and over again in grotesque variations, from arguably perverse meditations on the wolf's anatomy to a bittersweet recasting of the tale as a love story.

Cataclysm Baby is the ne plus ultra of Bell's fiction, bringing his nightmarish lyricism to bear on the apprehensions associated with impending parenthood. Sometimes the imagined children are terrifying monsters with insectoid bodies; other times, it's the parents or the world that fails the children. One misshapen child asks: "In a world that's dying... isn't this all sort of beautiful?" and the reader will be forced to agree. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: A Tree or a Person or a Wall showcases short fiction from Matt Bell, one of his generation's most distinctive and perversely beautiful writers.

Soho Press, $16, paperback, 400p., 9781616955236

We Eat Our Own

by Kea Wilson

In 1979, an actor--referred to only by his character's name, Richard--gets his break: to play the lead in a schlocky horror film shot in Colombia. He is told little, has no script and can't communicate with the mostly Italian crew. The jungle is stifling. Prop body parts seem too real. The entire production begins a slow descent into chaos, piloted by an inscrutable director who, like Joseph Conrad's Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, is quite possibly mad.

This debut novel from Kea Wilson is an engrossing, atmospheric and at times morbidly funny story that reads as a horrifying thriller and plays with deeper themes of art and artifice. When does our fascination with blood, sex and gore trespass from the voyeuristic to the complicit? What is authenticity, and how much do we really want it? It's a rich vein for a novelist, and Wilson, who is a bookseller and self-described horror fan, is one of the few who mine it well (Steven Millhauser is another). Yet she avoids overreaching, and keeps the action taut.

Based loosely on events surrounding the filming and release of the exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust, the chapters are told from the perspectives of different characters who succumb in some way to violence--a leftist guerilla, the husband-and-wife prop team, and various cast and crew. Interjected throughout are snippets of stage dialogue from the director's court testimony. We Eat Our Own is a novel with a satisfying build and plenty to gnaw on for days afterward. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

Discover: A smart, sly debut novel set in the Amazon jungle that reads like a Tarantino remake of Heart of Darkness.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 320p., 9781501128318


by Ian McEwan

The clues are all there. The lovers are Trudy (Gertrude) and Claude (Claudius). Claude is the younger brother of John, Trudy's husband. Our narrator, the fetus upside-down in Trudy's womb, tells us that he is soon "to be," as opposed to "or not to be." Claude and Trudy talk of poisoning John, the narrator's father, albeit with antifreeze whipped into a fruit smoothie rather than with the juice of cursed hebenon. Once John's dead, they plan to sell the London home he inherited from his father and ditch the baby. For good measure, the novel mentions mortal coils and protesting too much, and includes such Shakespearean-sounding lines as, "But shush! The conspirators are talking."

Even readers who missed the epigraph will quickly figure out that Nutshell, Ian McEwan's (Atonement, The Children Act) ingenious novel, is a variation on Hamlet. The narrator is no ordinary unborn baby: his mother drinks so much wine that he can taste the difference between Sancerre and a grand cru. From the recorded lectures Trudy listens to, he knows about the ills of the world--the rise of "self-loving nationalism" and countries that torture their enemies, can't feed and clothe their children. And his mother and her lover are teaching him about murder and betrayal. This canny novel underscores facts that are as true today as they were in Shakespeare's time: everyone has to face his share of injustice, yet, if we are to believe Hamlet, each dog will have his day. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

Discover: The celebrated novelist Ian McEwan reimagines Hamlet with an unborn baby as the narrator.

Nan A. Talese, $24.95, hardcover, 208p., 9780385542074

Shelter in Place

by Alexander Maksik

The narrator of Alexander Maksik's third novel, Shelter in Place (after A Marker to Measure Drift), Joe March, is a brooding, bar-hopping, lackluster student at Santa Monica Community College. His self-disciplined, blue-collar father calls him home to Seattle after his mother is sentenced to life in prison for her fatal bludgeoning of a stranger, whom she saw beating his wife in a strip mall parking lot.

On the drive north, Joe stops for a few days at a cheap motel in Cannon Beach, Ore., where he meets the wild, fearless bartender Tess and falls ass over teakettle in love. Joe is in the early grip of a bipolar disorder, and Tess is the antidote. The lovers continue north to White Pine, the small prison town outside Seattle, where they visit Joe's mom, who instills in Tess a feminist righteousness. Joe and Tess happily work together tending bar at a local joint, between trips to the city to hear the Seattle sound--especially Nirvana, because "Cobain was our crown prince, our John Lennon, and he was everywhere."

Shelter in Place is both a love story and the sensitive portrayal of Joe's reconciliation with his calm and steady father. Underneath it all, however, is Maksik's portrait of Joe, his constant fear of his disorder's disabling side and his mistrust of its euphoric side: "I go along and then there is horror. I go along and then there is wonder." Maksik's Joe March is a man for today as much as Ishmael and Stephen were for Melville's and Joyce's days. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Alexander Maksik's third novel is a striking narrative told by a man haunted by love, family and the insistent presence of a bipolar disorder.

Europa Editions, $18, paperback, 400p., 9781609453640

Leave Me

by Gayle Forman

Grownup readers of Gayle Forman's young adult novels (If I Stay, Just One Day), rejoice! With Leave Me, we have one of our own. "Adult" situations dominate Maribeth Klein's stress-filled life: juggling a demanding job at a New York magazine, mothering four-year-old twins and deferring to an overworked husband. Who has time for a heart attack?

Feeling "off" at work sends Maribeth to the ER; she needs emergency bypass surgery. Returning home, she is convinced anew that she must keep up: her husband exhorts her to stop sweating the small stuff, her mother's "help" is counterproductive, her twins fuss for her attention, and her boss (and former best friend) seems to have no trouble reassigning her tasks.

When she walks out the door with no plan but to care for herself, Maribeth withdraws her savings en route to Penn Station, where she spontaneously buys a ticket to Pittsburgh. Slowly, she creates a new life there: as M.B. Goldman, she rents an apartment, meets the neighbors and finds a cardiologist. Soon, she acknowledges that she went to Pittsburgh because she was born there and adopted as an infant, and is now ready to search for her birth mother.

Readers shocked at Maribeth's apparent ease in leaving home will be mollified by her introspection and acknowledgment that she needs to find herself in order to be her best for her family. Poignant, thoughtful and often hilarious, Leave Me is a fast-paced and heartwarming read about a woman needing to give up everything in order to have it all. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: In this thoughtful and funny novel, after suffering a heart attack, a harried young mother leaves home to regain health and balance while seeking out her birth mother.

Algonquin, $26.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781616206178

The Penalty Area

by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot's The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed--until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being "too simplistic." It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent's awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent's voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent's exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they're both forced to grow, on and off the field.

Europa Editions, $16, paperback, 192p., 9781609453534

Mystery & Thriller

Blood Wedding

by Pierre Lemaitre, trans. by Frank Wynne

Pierre Lemaitre has one of the most wonderfully twisted minds of crime fiction and psychological thrillers. Following his Commandant Verhœven trilogy (Irène, Alex and Camille, the latter two of which won the CWA International Dagger Award), Lemaitre has written a tremendous standalone novel in Blood Wedding.

Sophie Duguet is losing her mind. She's forgetting where she parked her car, the date she and her husband have theater tickets, items she put in her purse while shopping. She is also becoming uncharacteristically unreliable, spiraling into depression and paranoia. Worse, the visions she has of hurting people start playing out in real life.

When the bodies connected to Sophie begin to add up, she goes on the run, changing her name and location repeatedly to stay ahead of the authorities. Safety is hard to come by when she doesn't understand what she's running from, but as Sophie looks back she begins to figure out she's up against more than her own mind. Unsettling and smart, Blood Wedding is intricately plotted along parallel timelines, and Lemaitre ratchets the tension skillfully as he winds through Sophie's nightmare and toward the ultimate reveal.

Lemaitre's work is inspired and disturbing and can't be trusted. Although his novels are not normally for the faint of heart, Blood Wedding is more about psychology than violence and is thus relatively safe for the squeamish. With precise, elegant prose, he manipulates and unnerves. Like Sophie, the reader can be sure only that things aren't what they seem. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A young woman goes on the run to try to escape her descent into madness.

MacLehose Press/Quercus, $26.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781681445311

Social Science

Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Obstfeld

In this collection of essays, the basketball legend, journalist, novelist, children's book author, philanthropist and cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar considers some of the most pressing issues facing the United States.

Divided into chapters on politics, race, religion, gender, class, sports, media, seniors and culminating with a letter to "Generation Z," the book is designed as a conversation starter, and offers common-sense, practical solutions to tricky problems. Abdul-Jabbar lays out his description of each big issue: in the race chapter, for example, he defines his terms and provides context and explanations of the rhetoric surrounding the problems, before diving into specifics. He then lists sets of troubling facts and statistics about how race has negatively impacted economics, education, healthcare and so on, and concludes with a set of possible solutions, most of them aimed directly at the reader ("apply social pressure" is one; "press for more minorities in TV and movies" is another).

Abdul-Jabbar is widely recognized as a team player--whether for the Lakers or Hillary Clinton--but he eschews party-line thinking and examines each issue on the strength of available evidence. He even includes thoughtful discussions on issues that don't often make the spotlight, including the rising costs of youth sports and an incisive call for better teaching of logic and critical thinking in schools.

Opinionated but nonpartisan, detailed yet approachable, Abdul-Jabbar's Writings on the Wall incorporates history, statistics and popular culture into an entertaining and thought-provoking handbook for any American seeking ways to make a difference. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

Discover: One of the U.S.'s greatest athletes and polymaths suggests ways to address some of the biggest issues facing the country.

Time Home Entertainment, $27.95, hardcover, 256p., 9781618931719

Reference & Writing

Words on the Move: Why English Won't--and Can't--Sit Still (Like, Literally)

by John McWhorter

Columbia University professor and linguist John McWhorter (The Language Hoax and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue) has crafted an entertaining spin on the history of the English language as living, breathing and organic in Words on the Move: Why English Won't--and Can't--Sit Still (Like, Literally). Providing insight through surprising examples, he describes changes in both the language and its speakers, such as how speakers interpret and personalize language, how social forces shape semantics and how evolution in pronunciation affects word meaning. Back in Shakespeare's time, the word awful had the complimentary meaning of "full of awe"; over the centuries, this word took on a negative quality, and awful was eventually replaced with today's positive awesome. Similarly, the word reduce, which had the meaning of "go back" in the 17th century, acquired the meaning of "minimization" or "destruction" in the very next century.

McWhorter demonstrates how people have put their own stamp on languages through vowel shifts (Detroiters' jabs for jobs). He also shows how emphasis on a particular syllable can change the function of a word, a process called backshift (the noun blackboard versus black board--a board that is black in color). To those who claim that change deteriorates pure language, McWhorter argues that such sentiments are "fostered by a combination of bourgeois sensibility and the dominance of unchanging documents." In other words, language change will always happen. It's simply a matter of when.

"Words are not handed down on tablets and locked into place," writes McWhorter. "They are squirted out of a tube to float around." --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: Linguist John McWhorter explains how changes in the English language have enriched rather than detracted from it.

Holt, $28, hardcover, 272p., 9781627794718

Art & Photography

Juxtapositions: Images from the Newseum Ted Polumbaum Photo Collection

by Judy Polumbaum, editor

This mesmerizing collection of freelance photojournalist Ted Polumbaum's photographs spans the world in the second half of the 20th century. India to Chile, the United States to Hong Kong, the human experience shines through the famous and the unknown, the mundane and the exceptional. Pairs of beautifully rendered images, printed on glossy, 8x12 pages, share visual or emotional connections, inviting readers to contemplate the commonalities and differences, as well as the distinctively insightful style Polumbaum uses to capture his subjects.

Throughout his career, Polumbaum (1924-2001) worked for various Time Life magazines, so Juxtapositions includes glimpses of monumental junctures like the U.S. civil rights movement and the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. It also presents daily activities, like those of a Mexican street musician, and playful scenes, such as winter sunbathers at Coney Island. In a mix of black-and-white and full-color prints, these snapshots evoke compassion, empathy, joy and anguish. The heartbreaking irony of four black women standing under the sign for Easy St. as they watch the Poor People's March in Mississippi grips the viewer as profoundly as the joy of a Canadian fisherman's reunion with his infant child after a catastrophe at sea.

Polumbaum's daughter Judy, a journalist, organized the photographs and wrote the introduction and afterword. Her perspective on her father's work enhances the experience of delving into this slice of his life's work. Juxtapositions is a study in the power of still images captured with a discerning eye, and readers don't have to be photography experts to take away a greater understanding of the world. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Examples of renowned photojournalist Ted Polumbaum's work are paired to illustrate the common threads weaving together the human experience.

Gao House Press, $24.95, paperback, 96p., 9780997021608

Children's & Young Adult

The Journey

by Francesca Sanna

"I live with my family in a city close to the sea. Every summer we used to spend many weekends at the beach. But we never go there anymore, because last year our lives changed forever...." A child tells the story in The Journey, Italian author-illustrator Francesca Sanna's gorgeously stylized, spare and powerful picture-book debut about a family forced to leave their country in wartime. Their home isn't named, nor the war, but the heartbreaking, frightening narrative is one shared by refugee families around the world.

In the opening spread, that "city close to the sea" is depicted as an elaborate sandcastle empire the peaceful family is building. Gentle black waves lap at the shore, but soon transform into menacing black hands that smash the sandcastle city to smithereens, sending the family on the run. All is war and chaos. The father disappears. A burka-clad woman describes an escape route to a "country far away with high mountains," so the mother decides to go, promising her little girl and boy "a great adventure." Via car, fruit truck and bicycle-pulled cart, they finally arrive at the border... and an enormous wall. An angry, red-bearded giant shouts "Go back!" They persevere.

The narrator says her mother is never scared, but she is shown as a protective, encircling pod, beautiful, eyes wide open, tears flowing, while her children sleep in her arms. Stories are important in The Journey--the mother's reassuring ones and those the children tell each other about a possible land of "kind fairies that dance." No promise of happy endings, just hope. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A family is forced to flee their homeland in Italian author-artist Francesca Sanna's unforgettable picture-book debut.

Flying Eye Books, $17.95, hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9781909263994

The Evil Wizard Smallbone

by Delia Sherman

In her entertaining modern-day fantasy set in Maine, Delia Sherman (Changeling; The Freedom Maze) examines whether an evil wizard can also be good; the qualities necessary for success; and the importance of writing one's own story.

Ever since 12-year-old Nick Reynaud's mother died three years ago, Uncle Gabe had gone "from crabby to mean." After his uncle locks him in the cellar, the boy runs away to avoid the rest of the "larruping" he was promised. Cold, tired, hungry and blinded by snow, Nick stumbles upon an enormous, sprawling house whose front door opens into the magically sentient shop, Evil Wizard Books. Three-hundred-year-old Evil Wizard Smallbone takes the boy into his strangely cozy lair, deems him "scrawny as a plucked chicken and numb as a haddock," renames him "Foxkin" and forces him into service as his new apprentice (more like minion). As the months pass, Nick studies hard and winds up learning as much about himself as he does about "fummydiddling with enchanted doo-dads." Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in quaint Smallbone Cove, the nearby coastal town of fishing nets and seagulls, a "practically perfect place" of eerily similar townspeople controlled and supposedly protected by the Evil Wizard Smallbone. A second evil wizard, vile werewolf Fidelou with his gang of shape-shifting were-coyotes on motorcycles, wants in, and Nick will have to use all of his wits and newly honed magic when the two evil wizards go head to head.

The Evil Wizard Smallbone is a terrific middle-grade fantasy from a skillful, witty, always-inventive storyteller. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: Delia Sherman populates her excellent middle-grade fantasy with evil wizards, bloodthirsty were-beasts and a 12-year-old apprentice whose magical pursuits help him find himself.

Candlewick, $17.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 10-12, 9780763688059


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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