This week we review Best of Vegan by Kim-Julie Hansen, named for Hansen's community-based online platform, and "happily,... contains veganized recipes as well as those developed without a thought for ersatz animal products"; The Half Known Life, in which Pico Iyer "deploy[s] his observant eye and elegant prose" in search of the answer to the question, "What kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict...."; and Caldecott Medalist Jason Chin's The Universe in You, "a brilliant companion to his Your Place in the Universe," here looking inward, where the other looked outward. Plus so many more!
In The Writer's Life, Julia Cameron--who launched a movement with The Artist's Way 30 years ago--discusses Write for Life and the strategies she recommends for daily work on a writing project.
by Blair Braverman
Dog musher, reality show alum and memoirist Blair Braverman (Dogs on the Trail; Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) takes readers on a heart-stopping adventure in Small Game, her intimate, chilling first novel. Mara, a survival expert, signs up for Civilization, a Survivor-style reality TV show, under the assumption that "everyone was in it for themselves, and if she wasn't in charge, or paying, then she was being used." Still, she believes she can win the competition and leave her old life behind. Her costars and rivals are Kyle, a naive former Eagle Scout; Bullfrog, a gruff anarchist; beautiful, fame-hungry Ashley; and James, a math teacher. They strive to eke out a living in the remote wilderness while cameras catch every moment. Then the television crew vanishes without explanation, and Mara and the rest of the cast find themselves marooned. The game of survival turns into a life-or-death struggle, and Mara must hold their little band together if they ever want to see civilization again.
The novel's opening depicts Mara providing packaged survival experiences to primarily wealthy patrons, a shrewd contrast to the sheer enormity of the odds she will face in the wild. The author's experience as a reality TV contestant is evident in her detailed depictions of confession cams and producer manipulations. Her visceral descriptions of hunger and exposure to the elements bring an immersive level of sensory detail to the narrative. Readers who crave high-adrenaline stories with well-developed characters should love camping out with flawed, competent Mara in the unspoiled but deadly wilds. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Into the Forest: Tales of the Baba Yaga
by Lindy Ryan, editor
The larger-than-life witch from Slavic folklore leaps from the page in Into the Forest: Tales of the Baba Yaga. Edited by Lindy Ryan (Throw Me to the Wolves, with Christopher Brooks), a champion of women's voices in horror, this is a sharply imaginative, diverse anthology of dark fantasy and horror stories. Iron-toothed Baba Yaga famously lives in a hut on fowl's legs "on the borders of places." She may be kind or vile--it depends on the needs of the storyteller--and this collection reflects her shifting nature. She calls to stifled women until they realize "all we ever really needed was to be wild" in "Last Tour into the Hungering Moonlight" by Gwendolyn Kiste. She lures a rejected princess into a terrible freedom in Sara Tantlinger's "Of Moonlight and Moss." "The Peddler's Promise" by Catherine McCarthy features a village troubled by the disappearance of little boys: they have accepted puzzle boxes from an old peddler woman promising them their heart's desire.
Baba Yaga is, by turns, malice, magic and mother in this lush assortment of smart, twisted folktales. The collection reflects upon different stages of motherhood, the conflict between self and society, and the transformations wrought by the need for justice. Many of the stories have grim themes, but threads of macabre humor also appear, including an appearance by Hansel and Gretel. It also includes an introduction for the uninitiated in which horror author Christina Henry (The Girl in Red) discusses the legendary witch's background. Readers who love to tread the dark and treacherous paths of the human heart will happily lose themselves here. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
by Inaam Kachachi, transl. by Inam Jaber
Baghdad-born novelist Inaam Kachachi's haunting The Dispersal is her third title to be shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Originally published in Beirut, it is dexterously translated by Iraqi poet and writer Inam Jaber.
Dr. Wardiyah Iskander, an Iraqi Christian refugee who arrived in Paris a month earlier, drinks champagne in the Élysée Palace as a special guest of President Nicolas Sarkozy to welcome Pope Benedictus. She wishes she might share the momentous visit with her scattered loved ones. Once upon a time, she was a doctor in a remote Iraqi village, saving countless lives of mothers and babies. She married a fellow doctor who has since died; their children are far-flung, in Canada, Haiti, Dubai. Physical proximity in Paris allows Wardiyah regular visits with her writer niece, a poet ready to publish her collection titled Tashari. Shared storytelling brings Wardiyah closest to her great-nephew Iskander, who becomes inspired to virtually connect the living and the dead.
Tashari, also the novel's original title, means "the birdshot that explodes in several directions" in colloquial Iraqi, Kachachi (The American Granddaughter) explained in a 2014 ArabLit magazine interview: "I could not find a word more expressive of the current Iraqi diaspora." Kachachi lyrically encapsulates such forced ejections through generations of a single Iraqi family.
During Wardiyah's 80 years, various prongs of her extended family have been able to survive--some thrive, and others do not--only by escaping a homeland sundered by religion, corruption, politics and war. Kachachi interweaves glimpses of those histories into Wardiyah's own journey out--presented in introspective and elliptical fragments that are ultimately satisfying for careful readers. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
by Anne Mette Hancock
The list of reliably good Danish crime novelists--Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katrine Engberg and Peter Høeg among them--just got longer. To that roster should be added Anne Mette Hancock, who follows The Corpse Flower with The Collector, a second steely and rewarding thriller featuring Erik Schäfer, a detective with the Copenhagen police, and investigative journalist Heloise Kaldan. This time they contend with the disappearance of a local child.
As the novel begins, the unmarried Kaldan is at a clinic confirming her unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. She's discussing next steps with her doctor when he receives a phone call: his 10-year-old son, Lukas, hasn't shown up at his after-school destination. The novel's roving perspective swings to Schäfer, who heads to Lukas's school--now a media circus--from which the boy seems to have disappeared. Schäfer is apprehensive when he spots Kaldan: "Could he trust Heloise in a life-or-death situation? Absolutely. When it came to work? That was another matter."
How Kaldan's personal damage fuels her aversion to parenthood twines with the novel's theme of children's vulnerability. Hancock gives readers even more to consider, including the tension between the police and the press, the PTSD unique to veterans and counterpoints to Denmark's famous liberalism. The Collector's themes are filtered through Kaldan and Schäfer, their relationship symbiotic but refreshingly platonic. As Kaldan, thinking about the older, married Schäfer, admits to herself, she "always felt a bit tipsy in his company, safe and comfortable. You didn't need to be Freud to figure out how things stood." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Welcome to the Game
by Craig Henderson
Craig Henderson revs up an action-packed plot, one that goes from zero to 60 and barely pauses, in Welcome to the Game. His debut thriller stars a businessman who is driven to crime when stresses pile up. Spencer Burnham left a successful career as a rally car driver in England for Detroit, where his wife, Marielle, grew up. Spencer had long dreamed of owning a dealership specializing in foreign cars catering to people "who like to drive but don't feel the need to follow the herd." Spencer easily finds a banker who is "a staunch ally" of his business plan; the man is swayed by Spencer's "British charm, the racing stories, the pretty American wife with her genuine Detroit grit." But Motor City isn't ready for these cars that look and handle differently. Soon, his business verges on bankruptcy with no chance of his loans being extended; his wife dies in an automobile accident; his alcoholism spirals out of control; and he is on the verge of losing custody of his 11-year-old daughter, Abby. Spencer still has his unparalleled driving skills coupled with an uncanny feel for Detroit's streets. Those are the skills that volatile money launderer Dominic McGrath needs. Accepting a job driving for Dominic's operation plunges Spencer into a world of violence that he is unprepared for.
Henderson accelerates Welcome to the Game with finely tuned action that's gritty but never gratuitous. The flawed Spencer creates his own problems, but Henderson makes him an empathetic character readers will root for. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Ausma Zehanat Khan (A Deadly Divide; A Dangerous Crossing; Among the Ruins) presents a suburban thriller--in which she showcases a knack for blending Muslim culture with a fascinating crime--set in the fictional town of Blackwater Falls, just outside of Denver, Colo. Blackwater Falls features Inaya Rahman, an introspective police detective of Pakistani and Afghan descent. Inaya, new to the Community Response Unit of the Denver Police Department, is sent to liaise with local law enforcement after a young refugee from Syria is found murdered in the Blackwater Falls mosque. Razan Elkader was a star student: president of the physics club, interning at an aeronautics firm and employed at a local ice cream shop. She seemed to have adapted to life in the United States particularly well--yet someone has brutally killed her, and Inaya is determined to find out why. Working against Inaya are both the local sheriff, who seems uninterested in solving Razan's murder, and public sentiment at large, which has turned against the refugees. Inaya must deftly navigate a disgruntled boss, angry evangelicals who fear the growing Muslim population, the grieving immigrant community and her own family, who worshipped at the same mosque as the Elkaders.
Poignant and insightful, Blackwater Falls is another excellent detective novel from Khan and the first in a crime series starring Inaya Rahman. Khan, using her background in human rights law to explore immigrant issues with grace and candor, brings to life a twisty mystery that highlights political and religious tensions in the United States. Blackwater Falls is an irresistible read, sure to appeal to fans of Louise Penny or Ann Cleeves. --Jessica Howard, freelance book reviewer
The Stars Undying
by Emery Robin
Emery Robin weaves political intrigue, romance and betrayal in The Stars Undying, a dazzling debut that retells the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar--but in space. Since childhood, Princess Altagracia has prepared to succeed her father and become Queen of Szayet and the oracle of its god, the off-planet conqueror whose soul has been housed for centuries in the Pearl of the Dead, a computer earring. But her militaristic twin sister, Arcelia, has declared that Alekso Undying named her the heir in a dream. Gracia's only hope of claiming the crown is to win the help of the interstellar empire of Ceiao. When General Matheus Ceirran comes to Szayet to negotiate, Gracia has herself smuggled into Cerrian's quarters to plead her case. But ousting Arcelia is only the beginning. Gracia finds herself struggling to avoid appearing as if she had handed her planet over to the empire at home and wrestles with navigating in Ceiao as a foreign client queen. She offers Cerrian a plan to secure both their futures, but it may be disastrous if the other power brokers of Ceiao don't accept it.
The novel's invented universe allows for a wider range of genders to be represented in different types of social roles than would have been accepted in the late Roman Republic; however, the casual attitude toward queerness feels extremely appropriate to the classical world. The Stars Undying will attract fans of plots with scheming and double-dealing in centuries past--among the stars, no less, given that Robin brings classical history to an interstellar setting. Readers will be eager for the sequel. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library
The Wedding Ranch
by Nancy Naigle
Love, loss, second chances and small-town living are hallmarks of Nancy Naigle's fiction. Prolonged grief is added to the mix in The Wedding Ranch, resulting in a tenderly drawn romance about two strangers, both coping with heartbreak, who are leery about love. Just when it appears as though Lorri Walker and her husband have turned the corner after he'd gone astray in their marriage, he suddenly leaves her for another woman. Lorri uproots herself and her mastiff dog, which had been a present from her ex, from their home in Raleigh, N.C., and moves a few hours away to Mill Creek Highlands. It's a quaint, small town, and she believes she can make a fresh start and grow her graphic design business. She meets rancher Ryder Bolt, a grief-stricken widower who, after seven years, is still struggling with the tragic loss of his wife and son. He keeps busy tending to the demands of his family's sprawling property and proudly assisting his niece and nephew as they expand the reach of the Wedding Ranch, a popular venue for authentic farm weddings.
When Lorri and Ryder cross paths, a good-natured friendship begins to develop. But will their respective dark pasts drive a wedge between them? And are they willing to risk their troubled, wounded hearts for something more? Naigle (What Remains True; The Shell Collector; The Secret Ingredient) is a sensible, compassionate storyteller who once again demonstrates a keen understanding for--and deep sensitivity toward--the complexities of true romance and the healing power of forgiveness and love. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
The Reluctant Countess
by Eloisa James
Eloisa James (How to Be a Wallflower; Wilde Child; Three Weeks with Lady X) returns to Regency England with The Reluctant Countess, the deeply romantic and emotionally intense second entry in the Would-Be Wallflowers series. Giles Renwick, Earl of Lilford, can't deny his intense attraction to Lady Yasmin Régnier, granddaughter of a duke. Unfortunately, Giles requires a respectable wife, one without a hint of scandal. Yasmin is half-French, dampens her skirts to show her figure and is rumored to savor the occasional brandy--and her mother was once Bonaparte's mistress. Yes, Yasmin is a lady but completely unacceptable as Giles's countess. For her part, beneath her racy exterior, Yasmin is a woman with a strong moral compass, buttressed by a loyal and steadfast character. She, too, wants to marry but is looking for an older man with whom she can be comfortable and enjoy affection without passion.
Both Giles's and Yasmin's past experiences have taught them bitter life lessons. Following the adventures of these two unforgettable characters as they learn to trust and believe in love once again is an absolute delight. Yasmin's effervescent joy balances Giles's stern moodiness, and his unexpected stalwart support gives Yasmin the security she's never had but always craved. Glittering London ballrooms and the city's crowded streets provide a vivid background for a solid plot, which includes lush sex scenes and witty, amusingly bawdy dialogue. James deftly weaves intriguing historical details into the story at surprising junctures, and her well-drawn secondary characters will engage readers more deeply in this outstanding novel. --Lois Dyer, author and reviewer
The Many Dates of Indigo
by Amber D. Samuel
First-time author Amber D. Samuel draws on her upbringing in Houston, Tex., to inspire the witty and fabulous world of Indigo Clark in The Many Dates of Indigo. With a loving family, supportive best friends and her own successful business, Indigo put finding love on the back burner for years. However, with her sister's third baby on the way and her mother's constant fuss over her upcoming 30th birthday party, Indigo finds herself wanting someone to come home to--or just to accompany her to her own party.
Having no trouble finding prospects, she quickly fills up her calendar with dates through her birthday. Nathan quickly intrigues her and there are immediate sparks, but Diego convinces her to give him a chance, proving to be a pleasant surprise. Then there's Tate. After trying their hand at dating years ago, the two decided to put their past behind them to salvage their friendship. But with her determination to find true love also comes the resurfacing of the memories and challenges of the last time she let herself fall. She is left wondering who is right for her--"one she admired, one she adored, and one she loved deeply. But she knew she could have only one." Indigo's strong will and free spirit make her journey to find love captivating, exciting and heartwarming, highlighting the significance of self-worth and confidence. The fast-paced romance of one relationship contrasts with the slow burn of another, giving readers all they could want in this enthralling debut. --Clara Newton, freelance reviewer
Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story: The Graphic Novel
by Edmund White and Brian Alessandro and Michael Carroll, adaptors, illus. by Igor Karash
Edmund White (A Saint from Texas), arguably the godfather of gay literature, has published dozens of lauded titles over the last half-century. This adaptation transforms his autobiographical novel A Boy's Own Story (1982) into an impressive, dazzling graphic novel. The text, condensed by literary critic Brian Alessandro and White's longtime partner, Michael Carroll, is limited to speech-bubble conversations with few prose sentences on the page. The majority of the storytelling happens through gorgeously illustrated panels created by visual artist Igor Karash.
Karash immediately commands the adaptation with textless spreads. The opening double pages feature a brick building marked the Renaissance Inn, not far from sailboats and piers. Peeking out from a window below--perhaps unsure of all the life going on around him--is a young face, to be revealed in close-up two spreads later, opposite the title page, suggesting this is the titular boy. With period clothing and the vintage car, Karash affectingly dates the 1950s of White's teen years. The boy's story moves through pivotal relationships with a philandering father, his discarded mother, his savvy older sister, younger friends, older men. The color palette is predominantly moody and muted, suggesting memories have faded save for the most vibrant details (a red dress) and colorful scenes (the brightest skies). Karash inserts occasional images of White's older self, witnessing his teenage experiences--a brilliant literal visualization of remembrances of things past.
"Now that this beautiful graphic novel version of the original is available," White writes in his preface, "I'm hoping that it will reach yet another whole audience." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Men I Trust
by Tommi Parrish
Lambda award-winner Tommi Parrish (The Lie and How We Told It), a trans Australian cartoonist and painter living in Massachusetts, explores complex relationships in Men I Trust. Audiences--especially those in early adulthood struggling to tame uncertain lives--will undoubtedly find resonance with Parrish's narrative. Their vibrant watercolor art provides the distinctly memorable encounter here, stylized characters presented with comparatively smaller heads atop oversized bodies, as if literally lumbering, even stumbling, through various experiences, from the quotidian to the transformative.
Eliza, in her 30s, is a poet, deli worker and single mother enduring toxic exchanges with her son's father. Her only self-care is attending AA meetings. Sasha, in her 20s, has survived "a rough year" and recently moved back in with her parents. She wanders into a small venue where Eliza is in mid-performance and is enthralled enough to stay late to help Eliza and her son carry Eliza's equipment home. Finishing his last drink at his local bar, Andrew texts Sasha, who doesn't answer. After listening to a radio show on "earthing," he strips naked, lies down in his back yard and falls asleep. The inevitable collision of these three is painful to witness but, for at least for one of them, proves freeing.
Parrish deftly unfolds layers of misunderstandings between strangers, family, lovers--each desperate for connection--with affecting bluntness. Despite the title, neither men nor women seem particularly worthy of trust. Parrish's panels--mostly six to a page--are vivid enhancements, providing more nuanced details through street scenes, graffiti, refrigerator contents, knick-knacks on shelves. That the final panel is the ghostly beginnings of a sketch in progress signals potential for more--for both the characters and readers. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
Best of Vegan: 100 Recipes that Celebrate Comfort, Culture, and Community
by Kim-Julie Hansen
Good news for vegans who crave the taste of meat and dairy: Kim-Julie Hansen (Vegan Reset) doesn't consider this the mark of a flimsy commitment to the animal-rights cause. In her introduction to Best of Vegan: 100 Recipes that Celebrate Comfort, Culture, and Community, she admits: "To be honest, I don't think I would have stuck with veganism for as long as I have if it weren't for vegan cheese, meats, milk, and even eggs." Happily, Best of Vegan can satiate the appetites of both camps: it contains veganized recipes as well as those developed without a thought for ersatz animal products.
Best of Vegan, named for Hansen's community-based online platform, bundles its satisfying recipes into five chapters. Worth consulting first is the fifth chapter, "Best of Vegan Basics," which explains how to make the staples (nut milk, vegan cheese, etc.) that some of the book's recipes call for. "I Don't Want Salad" collects veganized recipes like silky Classic Vegan Mac 'n' Cheese and fiery Chipotle Curry "Chicken" Wraps. "Cultural Food" features international recipes such as Borani Banjan, a luscious Afghan tomato-eggplant dish. "Wholesome" prioritizes healthfulness, which seems to radiate from dishes like tangy Roasted Garlic & Butter Bean Soup with Basil & Thyme. Readers can reward themselves for their nutritive diets with treats from "Best of Vegan Baking," starting the day with crispy Gaufres de Bruxelles (Brussels waffles) and ending it with Mango Coconut Lime & Basil Sorbet, which tastes like a melted gourmet Creamsicle cross-pollinated with a piña colada. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Jack in the Box: Or, How to Goddamn Direct
by Jack O'Brien
Theater director Jack O'Brien (Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director) would rather spill more ink about his misses than his hits: he's of the opinion that "success just feels good, while failure is where we are forced to learn." Readers will learn a lot from Jack in the Box: Or, How to Goddamn Direct--not only about the art of directing for the theater but also about some of the greats who devoted their lives to the stage.
The now 80-something O'Brien, who has received Tony Awards for Hairspray, Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia, spent about a quarter of a century as artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe, which reliably sent shows to Broadway. Translation: O'Brien has seen a lot. While Jack in the Box fulfills the promise of its subtitle--there's even a section in chapter one that is all about blocking--much of the book focuses on the titans of the stage with whom O'Brien had the pleasure of working, most significantly Mike Nichols and Tom Stoppard. O'Brien also writes of three theater giants with whom he had less rewarding associations: Neil Simon (who fired him), Andrew Lloyd Webber (ditto) and George Abbott. Of the latter, O'Brien writes: "[H]e died two years later at 107, and I truly believe those extra two years were pretty much fueled by fury at me."
O'Brien's accounts of on-the-fly problem-solving help demystify a director's creative process, and his light touch and ready wit ensure that Jack in the Box is never guilty of a theatergoer's worst fear: dullness. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Drinking Games: A Memoir
by Sarah Levy
In her first book, Sarah Levy offers readers a candid account of her struggles with alcohol and her rocky path to sobriety. Drinking Games is a memoir-in-essays that peels back the layers of Levy's life--happy to all outward appearances--to reveal a much more difficult truth.
Despite a successful job with a hot new start-up, a vast network of friends and an active social life, Levy was drowning inside--sometimes literally, consuming copious amounts of alcohol at any and every occasion, with sloppy blackouts her norm. Because she hadn't hit her definition of bottom--drinking on the job, losing her housing, driving while intoxicated--she convinced herself for years that her drinking wasn't really a problem. But, as she notes, "hitting bottom doesn't have to be catastrophic; it can simply mean that we are ready to stop digging." For Levy, this came after waking up next to a stranger, another blackout one-night stand. After years of trying to drink in moderation with no success, she found a support group and built up a new sober life, one day at a time.
With raw honesty, Levy explores the years it took her to learn this truth for herself. Drinking Games is hard to read at times, yet never judgmental; in her vulnerability and willingness to share the highs and lows of her relationship with alcohol, Levy invites readers to consider what might not be serving them in this moment--and what might be possible on the other side of whatever habit is holding them back from true freedom. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer
Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon
by Kate Andersen Brower
With any authorized biography, there's always the niggling suspicion that the author is going easy (because there but for the grace of the subject's estate goes the book). But Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon, which had the cooperation of the Hollywood legend's family, is no hagiography: Kate Andersen Brower doesn't gloss over Taylor's infidelities and "complicated relationships" with her children. Nevertheless, it's a rare reader who won't leave the book besotted with its subject.
Two-time Oscar winner Taylor (1932-2011) was born in London to well-to-do American parents: an art dealer and an aspiring actress. When the threat of World War II grew, the Taylors moved to Los Angeles. Elizabeth's mother projected her artistic ambitions onto her daughter, who became a child star with 1944's National Velvet and then successfully transitioned to adult movie roles by dint of her talent, fortitude and traffic-stoppingly beautiful face. Brower (Team of Five; First Women; The Residence) devotes as much ink to Taylor's philanthropy and ahead-of-the-pack AIDS activism as to her eight marriages, which were manna for the tabloids. She convincingly portrays Taylor as a proto-feminist unashamed of her sexual appetite: "She would be punished for perceived moral failings, a standard no male star had to live by, and her refusal to apologize only further infuriated her critics."
Taylor is quoted in the biography as having said, "My life has lacked dignity, let's face it, for the most part." To this the happily enthralled readers of Elizabeth Taylor will reply: "Thank goodness." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower
by Frank Dikötter
From Frank Dikötter (The Tragedy of Liberation; Mao's Great Famine), Dutch author of numerous books on China and Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, comes China After Mao, a compelling and informative account and analysis of Chinese history from the early 1970s to 2022. The book--part historical narrative, part palace-intrigue drama and part academic study of China's economic development--is a barbed critique of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and much of recent American policy toward China. Dikötter begins with an engaging "inside baseball" type of narration about the politics of the CCP's internal succession as Chairman Mao Zedong's health was failing. The book then blossoms into a macroeconomic chronicle of China's development. Dikötter assembles a wide array of statistics to analyze and understand China's extraordinary growth from the 1980s through the 2010s, blending official government data--the veracity of which he consistently questions--with third-party information, perspectives from Chinese dissenters and candid observations from sources within Chinese society.
Dikötter acknowledges the country's incredible transformations, while also reiterating, in near-uniformly critical fashion, what does not change: the CCP's enduring one-party command of politics and economics; endemic corruption; economic growth as measured in aggregate wealth and big infrastructure without regard for distributed prosperity or environmental health; disdain for human rights; and a strict commitment to the stability of the revolutionary government founded on Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics--i.e., Maoist thought. Although many readers might find fault with some or all of Dikötter's theses, China After Mao is packed with intrigue and insight for the layperson and scholar alike. --Walker Minot, freelance writer and editor
by Paul Auster and Spencer Ostrander, photographer
So much has been written about gun violence in the U.S., a country that buries 40,000 of its own as a result of gunshot wounds each year, that it's fair to question whether there could be a new way to look at the problem. Taking a crack at it is Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy; Report from the Interior), whose Bloodbath Nation is deft and dogged and entirely too contemplative to be a screed, even at its febrile peak.
The book is a multipart essay chronicling the nation's fixation with guns. Accounts of Auster's personal experience with guns merge with sociological observations and a partial inventory of mass shootings in the U.S. He is sparing with his vitriol, largely reserving it for gun culture. And yet, throughout the book, Auster seems to be not so much in a state of rage as genuine perplexity. About the only-good-guys-with-guns-can-stop-bad-guys-with-guns argument, he writes in what seems like true puzzlement, "If the problem is too many bad men with guns, would it not be wiser to take those guns away from them rather than arm the so-called good men, who in many if not most instances are considerably less than good, and thereby eliminate the problem altogether, for if the bad men had no guns, why would the good men need them?"
Furthermore, Bloodbath Nation includes several dozen black-and-white photographs by previous Auster collaborator Spencer Ostrander, who has visited many of the sites of mass shootings in the U.S. since 2003. The buildings, shops and restaurants cluster moment-of-silence-like between chapters and embody a feeling that Auster notes is commonly shared by shooters: loneliness. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
No Limits: The Inside Story of China's War with the West
by Andrew Small
The consensus about China among Western governments today is that it cannot be trusted. And as Andrew Small, leading China expert, explains in No Limits: The Inside Story of China's War with the West, there is ample evidence to indicate a "curtain is descending" around China. A collective rethink on the country is underway, accelerated in recent years after such "catalytic episodes" as 5G network integration, the Covid-19 pandemic and the emerging Sino-Russian partnership. Small (The China-Pakistan Axis), a senior transatlantic fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, shows how Western liberal democracies are belatedly grappling with the fact that China is no longer on the periphery of global affairs; rather, it is "changing the balance in the battle of ideas." Small makes the key point that this reassessment of China is not driven by "hostile know-nothings" who want the country to fail, but by those many politicians, thinkers and business leaders "invested in its success." Alarmingly, China's new aggressive turn is not just about economics or mundane politics, matters that are mostly negotiable, but about ideas. Small claims that China's "belligerence" during the pandemic in 2020 mutated from an "initial prickliness at a moment of political vulnerability... into a profoundly ideological campaign, a pushback against the entire democratic order."
Well-documented and rich in insights, No Limits makes accessible the critical issues of China's policy, while urging that Western institutions must strengthen and recommit to standing firm. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver
The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise
by Pico Iyer
For some 40 years, Pico Iyer has traveled the globe, introducing readers to some of the world's most exotic locales. In The Half Known Life, he does so again, deploying his observant eye and elegant prose in search of the answer to the plaintive, provocative question, "What kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict--and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences."
Iyer (Autumn Light) begins his episodic journey through several countries in an unlikely place--Iran, "the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it," and a land he admits that had "dazzled me from afar since boyhood with its jeweled verses and the flat visions of paradise magicked into being on its carpets." Throughout his visit, he's dogged by the tension between the repressive regime and the efforts of ordinary Iranians to escape its restrictions and live in freedom and peace.
Other stops on Iyer's tour--one whose sequence and timing is not clearly defined and that encompasses some visits that occurred more than a decade ago--include a small town on the coast of Western Australia, Jerusalem (a city that contains a "riot of views of paradise," especially in and around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and the region of Ladakh in Kashmir.
Everywhere Pico Iyer travels his keen vision allows him to see both ravishing beauty and profound flaws. He never truly discovers his metaphorical paradise, but his wide-ranging quest is a useful reminder that the journey often is more absorbing than any destination. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer
Write for Life: Creative Tools for Every Writer
by Julia Cameron
With the 1992 publication of The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron began a movement to help people of all stripes tap into their creative vein. A writer since age 18, she generously shares more than 50 years of writing experience in Write for Life. She takes readers through a six-week writing project, with an abundance of accessible tools: "Consider it a companion on your journey from conception to completion."
Loyal followers will recognize some of Cameron's foundational centerpieces--Morning Pages and the Artist's Date--as well as a few others, such as "media deprivation" (updated from "reading deprivation" in The Artist's Way) and affirmations, tools to fill the well with words and ideas, and to get past the critic in one's head (she names hers Nigel). Here Cameron points out that, just as three pages a day clears the mind with Morning Pages, so do three daily pages on a writing project get the job done. "Easy does it," she coaxes. Steady writers will have 126 pages (3 pages x 7 days x 6 weeks) by book's end, and be well on their way. "Grabbing Time," another useful tool, acknowledges that ideas often come on the fly; it battles procrastination and perfectionism by saying just "find twenty minutes." Week six discusses editing and polishing the draft, dividing it into thirds, and addressing the book's structure--then trusting that you will sense when it's complete ("Knowing when your draft is done calls for intuition").
"It is my hope that you will look back to the essays in this handbook as you need them going forward, using this book as a support kit to write for life." Cameron offers plenty of tools for a lifelong writing practice. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
Just Passing Through: A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday: The Diaries and Photographs of Milton Gendel
by Milton Gendel and Cullen Murphy, editor
In Just Passing Through, photographer and art critic Milton Gendel chronicles his life in Italy, using insightful photographs and juicy bon mots culled from his diary entries that span nearly 70 years. Gendel, born in New York City in 1918, borrowed a Leica camera while in the army and discovered an affinity for taking pictures. He won a Fulbright scholarship and opted to study architecture in Rome, where he took up residence permanently in December 1949 and worked for ARTnews magazine. He remained in the Eternal City until his death in 2018.
As his diary entries recount, Gendel interacted socially with the likes of Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Gore Vidal, Sir Alec Guinness and J. Paul Getty. Because Gendel was more of an observer than a talker, his working relationships often evolved into long-lasting friendships. His daughter, Anna, describes her father as "his own cultural microclimate." Editor Cullen Murphy (Cartoon County) notes that he "knew when to leave the conversation, take his camera out, quietly snap some pictures, then rejoin the conversation." Such unobstructive behavior undoubtedly kept Gendel gainfully employed and deeply ensconced in friendships throughout his remarkable life.
Gendel's observations and photographs showcase both the stark (Roma children on the street) and the whimsical (Queen Elizabeth feeding hamburger to her corgis), and his words let readers glimpse the unspoken. Experiencing Just Passing Through is akin to having an artistic guide proffer his literal and visual understanding of 70 years as a Roman local--while cultural icons defining the decades swirl around you both. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer
The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey
by Jason Chin
Size matters in 2022 Caldecott Medalist Jason Chin's The Universe in You, a brilliant companion to his 2020 picture book, Your Place in the Universe. While the latter encouraged young readers to expand their perspectives outward, Chin turns inward here, drawing attention to the microscopic.
Welcome to the Museum of the Desert. A tour is in progress for a group of kids, including a pigtailed child in a red wheelchair who notices a Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the United States: "At just 8 centimeters long from beak tip to tail, these tiny birds are small enough to fit.../ ...in your hand." The shrinking adventure begins. As Chin's focus zooms in on the child, the objects of their attention become ever smaller as their wonder increases. The journey inward continues to contract through skin cells to nucleus pores, DNA, atoms, protons and, finally, elementary particles that "are the building blocks of all physical matter." Chin then reverses the journey, visualizing how these atoms and molecules combine to make "life itself."
Chin (Watercress) cleverly presents a tiered experience that targets at least three levels of audiences. The most elementary reader will follow along on the museum tour, moving from micro to macro and back again. For the next level, Chin provides more detailed notes printed in a smaller font on various page corners--about microns, mitochondria, nanometers, molecules. For the most engaged, Chin's extensive backmatter is an illuminating delight, showcasing four colorful, dense pages of charts, tables, facts and theories. In encouraging inquisitive minds, Chin transforms the impossible into the imaginable. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
We Are All So Good at Smiling
by Amber McBride
Amber McBride's debut, Me (Moth), won the 2022 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award, and was a finalist for the William C. Morris Award and the National Book Award in Young People's Literature. Her second title, We Are All So Good at Smiling, is as powerful as the first--raw and poignant and promising hope, even when it seems there is no way out.
"This is what I know:/ my name is Whimsy & magic is real." Whimsy, hospitalized for clinical depression, meets Faerry, a "mint-green hair, winged boy," at the facility. "Hoodoo is real," she knows, and so are the Fae. The teens connect through their magic and are surprised to discover when they leave the program that Faerry's family has moved to Whimsy's street. But at the end of the road is "a Forest holding a Garden.../ where memories unweave/ unravel & (sometimes)/ trap us in lies." Whimsy is terrified of the Forest and has not gone beyond its edge in 10 years; Faerry believes he might find answers within. When Faerry ventures into the Forest, Whimsy follows him and both teens learn that when you're going through Hell, you must keep going.
McBride skillfully paints Whimsy's world of sorrow, magic and fairy tales in lilting, passionate poetry. Each chapter begins with a definition--a plant or tea leaf arrangement or fairy tale character--that sets the scene and foreshadows the events. McBride's use of myth and folk and fairy tales is manifold: they are metaphor, comfort and a starting place for healing. Whimsy and Faerry's journey into the Forest unlocks hidden memories from their childhoods, allowing the teens to remember and recover. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
My Strange Shrinking Parents
by Zeno Sworder
Australian author/illustrator Zeno Sworder's dedication in My Strange Shrinking Parents immediately sets a poignant tone: "To my immigrant parents. And to all parents who burden and narrow their own lives in the hope that their children will be free to go further." What pours forth in his "picture story told in 38 pages" is a remarkable celebration of unconditional parental love, his first-person text and lush illustrations founded on the "milestones of my journey from child to parent."
Sworder's "strange" parents came from "far-off lands" with "old shoes and empty pockets." But as "good parents, they did their best to hold me safely above the daily troubles they faced." In attempting to "give [him] the same as the other children," his parents pay with their very bodies. Two inches of height equal a birthday cake. School costs three inches per year. The boy grows taller while his parents shrink and work ever harder to provide. The son, bearing witness from babyhood to fatherhood, "learned from their example to wear my differences with my back straight and head high." Courage is his priceless inheritance.
Sworder (This Small Blue Dot) cites Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige as inspiration for his detailed, atmospheric and sometimes whimsical spreads. He also mentions Shel Silverstein, but Sworder has surely surpassed The Giving Tree in both illustrations and narrative, as his protagonist realizes that unconditional love must be mutual. Sworder gifts lucky readers of all ages a perfectly harmonized achievement in words and art. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
The Wrong Kind of Weird
by James Ramos
This diverting, witty young adult novel from James Ramos (That Girl, Darcy) features a high school senior who falls in love with two young women.
Cameron, a member of Geeks and Nerds United (G.A.N.U.) is in a secret relationship with Karla, Hilltop High's student body president, cheerleader and "premier golden girl." As they sneakily hook up, Cameron works to infiltrate Karla's friend group in hopes they'll accept him as potential boyfriend material. As Karla repeatedly rebuffs Cameron in public, he begins to develop feelings for fellow nerd and regular antagonist, the "I'm-so-over-it" Mackenzie. The complicated situation leads to complex emotions for the young man, forcing him to consider not simply which partner he might want, but what will make him happy.
The Wrong Kind of Weird touches on issues of divorce, misogyny and sex positivity while also delving into the uncomfortable and often upsetting experience of being socially awkward and outcast. Cameron, Karla and Mackenzie are all complex and thoroughly lovable characters. Cameron's vulnerability is on display as he stumbles through understanding his feelings; Karla, though an overachiever, has a soft side; Mackenzie's sarcasm breaks away to unveil her easygoing, friendly demeanor. Ramos skillfully appeals to nerds of every age with their knowledge of popular anime shows and in-group references. This helps build and animate Cameron and his friends, as when Jocelyn and D'Anthony argue about "dubbed anime instead of subbed anime" (the latter being preferable). Other characters, such as Karla's ex-boyfriend and her clique, bring a touch of skepticism, uncertainty and revelation to Cameron's perplexing dilemma. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
Who Owns the Clouds?
by Mario Brassard, illus. by Gérard DuBois
Those who survive relocation from war-torn regions are, as the narrator of Who Owns the Clouds? puts it, "different from other people." In this fictional YA graphic memoir by Mario Brassard, with illustrations by Gérard DuBois and translation by Yvette Ghione, the degree of that difference is etched with matchless precision and grace.
In an unnamed city at an unspecified time (the book's art conjures Europe in the mid-1900s), nine-year-old Mila and her family must leave their bombed-out village. This requires waiting with her neighbors in a line that "went on for days, and the days went on for weeks." Mila has decided not to tell readers "everything": knowing "that one person went through this pain is enough, I think." Taking the edge off the pain are imagination-driven aspects, as when Mila wonders this about that seemingly endless line: "Where exactly did it lead? Would things be better there?" Things do get better for Mila, who, readers eventually learn, is telling her story at age 34 from the safety of her home in a new land.
Who Owns the Clouds? is the first illustrated book from kids' novelist Brassard and another standout from DuBois (On the Other Side of the Forest). Working digitally, DuBois signals the book's era with predominantly black and gray images that could pass for woodcuts set against newsprint-colored backdrops. Speaking for themselves are occasional wordless illustrations, as of young Mila reclining outdoors post-bombing with some neighborhood cats, in a cross-species display of mutual consolation. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
|(photo: Robert Stivers)|
Julia Cameron started a movement with the 1992 publication of The Artist's Way. A generation of writers, singers, painters as well as CEOs found the tools to become unblocked and begin creating. Shelf Awareness spoke to Cameron by phone from her home in the mountains of Santa Fe, N.Mex., about her new book, Write for Life (St. Martin's Essentials), a six-week course aimed at writers--to get them going, keep them going and coax them to completion.
How did you come to develop "Morning Pages," the three pages a day that you introduced in The Artist's Way and that also play a key role in Write for Life? Did you call them "Morning Pages" from the beginning?
My daughter was two years old, and I was writing quickly, before she got out of bed [and that came to about three pages]. The name "Morning Pages" developed as I was writing The Artist's Way.
What was the origin of the "Artist's Date"--a tool you also suggest in Write for Life? I must confess I've written Morning Pages consistently since receiving The Artist's Way as a gift in 1993. The Artist's Date... not so much. Is that kind of resistance to the Artist's Date true for many of the people you've worked with over the years?
The "Artist's Date" was part and parcel of when I started teaching. We need an adventure. When I'm teaching, I say, "I have a tool." You'd think it's a nightmare to get up 45 minutes early to work on creativity [with the "Morning Pages"], but the first week I tell them to "go play" [on an "Artist's Date"], they fold their arms skeptically: "What does play have to do with working on creativity?" Resistance is common and painful.
At what point did you start sharing these two cornerstones of The Artist's Way with others?
I shared each quickly, upon discovering it. I came from a big family. We'd learn to lace up our ice skates, then we'd turn and teach a sibling. When I started Morning Pages, I had friends who were blocked, and I said, "Try writing three pages a day," and they got unblocked.
In Write for Life, some of the tools you mention also appear in The Artist's Way. But in Write for Life, in the context of "coaching" people who are actually attempting to write a book, they take on deeper meaning--they become remedies for specific problems.
I wanted to record all the tips and tricks I'd learned in 55 years as a writer--not just for blocked writers but for those who want to write more swiftly. A book appropriate for seasoned writers as well as novices.
You call "punctuality and perfectionism" the "twin demons," when referring to a friend who is a journalist. You yourself wrote for magazines for many years. Was it difficult to shrug off that kind of deadline-oriented mentality for the "gentleness" you advocate when writing a project at a three-pages-a-day pace?
I hope that I'm gentle but firm. The training of journalism was very important for me; it taught me that deadlines could be friendly as well as harsh.
And let's be clear: the three pages daily that you advocate for the writing project are in addition to the three stream-of-consciousness Morning Pages.
For the Morning Pages, it's as if you have ADD--you skip from topic to topic.
For the project, you have a focus, a goal in mind. As you lay track, it's to a purpose. Morning Pages are more frivolous. They set you up for guidance. It's very common to have a focused thought after your three Morning Pages; something will come to you. These can be a launching pad for further work on your project.
You note that people often struggle at the 1½-page point with the Morning Pages, and also that people might be struggling when they hit week four or five, as they approach the finish line of this six-week course to complete a project. Do people often give up at the halfway point?
At the halfway point, I need to give strength to writers; if they've done the tools of the first three weeks, I want to coax them along. Media deprivation--like the Artist's Date--meets with resistance. If they do it, they're rewarded by a flow of words.
You've named your inner critic Nigel, as a way to rein him in. In your experience, do you observe people struggling more with their inner critic or outer critics? Or does the outside critic become that internal critic?
I think people have an inner critic that bedevils them throughout their writing careers. An outer critic comes along as you finish a project. The two can say the same thing, and then it's worth listening to. I recently had a reviewer say, "Julia's tools are simple and repetitive." I think I was supposed to be insulted. But I was delighted.
One of the things I thought about while writing this book is that writing is a spiritual path. I hope I'm giving them enough that they'll let their resistance drop.
You talk about setting a reasonable daily quantity for one's project--roughly three pages. When you, Julia, have come to the end of your quantity for the day, do you, as Hemingway did, give yourself the kindness of leaving yourself a place to begin the next day? Or do you stop where you've told yourself to stop.
I stop where I told myself to stop. Then I practice "Grabbing Time" [another tool in Write for Life] and look for first thoughts when I can that day. If you notice, there are many short essays in Write for Life.
In The Artist's Way, you talk about the importance of circling back around and seeing things from a different vantage point. Your Check Ins often repeat the same questions. Is this to encourage readers to develop a practice?
Check Ins I developed with my friends. When I got sober, I found myself surrounded by people who were blocked. I'd ask them, "Did you do your Morning Pages?" I'm a coach for people. I hope to be tenderhearted. Gentle reminders, simple tools do pay off. The stories I share about people who've had success attest to that.
In Week 6, you address a project's overall structure, thinking of it in thirds. Is this something you do yourself after you've done a draft? Or is it so ingrained that you do this structuring almost without thinking?
When you write something, it has a notion for the right shape for itself that you can depend on. It doesn't do much good to be too intellectual. Finding the inner pattern of a piece is something that writers discover with some surprise. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
Mental Floss examined "12 widely repeated phrase origins, debunked."
"How to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs: a British Museum curator explains." (via Open Culture)
"This rare Robert Burns book was discovered in a barber shop, where it was used to clean razors," Smithsonian magazine reported.
"The newly renovated Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a bookworm's dream," the Spaces wrote.
Russell Banks, "whose vivid portrayals of working-class Americans grappling with issues of poverty, race and class placed him among the first ranks of contemporary novelists," died January 7 at age 82, the New York Times reported. The author of 21 works of fiction and nonfiction, Banks "brought his own blue-collar background to bear in his writing, delving into the psychological pressure of life in economically depressed towns in the Northeast, their stark reality often shadowed by the majestic Adirondacks of northern New York State."
In 1963, at the age of 23, Banks went to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he met his first mentor, the novelist Nelson Algren. He then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he co-founded a small literary press and magazine, Lillabulero, "and entered into the social ferment of the civil rights era, becoming involved with Students for a Democratic Society and participating in protests," the Times wrote. During this time he published two volumes of poetry; a first novel, Family Life (1975); and his first short-story collection, Searching for Survivors (1975), which won an O. Henry Award.
Next came Hamilton Stark (1978) and The Book of Jamaica (1980), novels that "were ambitious works that sought to dismantle the unfulfilled promises of America through the gimlet eye of the white working class," the Times noted. "Continental Drift had its roots in The Book of Jamaica. Beginning in 1976, Mr. Banks spent a year and a half in Jamaica on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation; while there he became obsessed with the history of that island nation as well as the entire Caribbean basin."
Banks spent the 1980s and '90s "solidifying his craft" in works like Affliction (1989) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991). Film adaptations of both works also brought him recognition beyond the literary world. The Sweet Hereafter (1997), adapted and directed by Atom Egoyan, received two Academy Award nominations, and Affliction (1997), adapted and directed by Paul Schrader, garnered two Oscar nominations, with James Coburn winning for best supporting actor.
His novels Continental Drift (1985) and Cloudsplitter (1998) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Times book critic Michiko Kakutani praised Continental Drift as a "visionary epic about innocence and evil and a shattering dissection of contemporary American life." The book also received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1985. His most recent novel, The Magic Kingdom, was published last year and is available from Knopf.
The Times said that Banks's own intentions as a writer are summed up in his narrator's closing lines in Continental Drift: "Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives--no, especially wholly invented lives--deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is."