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Week of Friday, June 16, 2017

Whatever else we've told ourselves, we are not yet out of nature and nature is not done with us.

My summer beach reads recommendation list this year is quite simple: any book by Australian author Tim Winton, beginning perhaps with the recently released Island Home: A Landscape Memoir.

There's so much I could say about this prolific, award-winning and underappreciated author, but since summer is nearly here (and winter there, down under), I'll just share, in the spirit of the season, a brief passage that places human awareness in the context of surfing, one of the author's lifelong passions:

"It's easy to imagine surfing as mere sensation, mindless vigour; narcotic, repetitive activity. It's certainly that. But for me it was never only that," he writes in Island Home, noting that in addition to the moments of breathtaking intensity while catching great waves or wiping out, "there are hours more spent bobbing on the surface. This is when a surfer does little more than watch and wait.... This is how I came to understand nature and landscape. By submitting. And by waiting. Waiting sharpens the senses.... Forefront and backdrop, wave and shore, tree and stone, it was all network and linkage."

In Island Home, Winton trains his acute and lucid gaze on Australia's landscape and people, on himself and on our wounded planet. The connections are at once personal and universal: "I persisted with place as a starting point for all my stories. For me a story proceeded from the logic of an ecosystem.... For someone brought up with a modernist outlook, it's hard to swallow the idea that we belong to nature, tougher still to be owned by time."

If I had to narrow my Winton summer reading list to five titles, the other choices--today at least--would be the novels Breath, Dirt Music, Eyrie and Cloudstreet. If you haven't read his work, I envy your journey of discovery. Island Home has prompted me to reread him, and that promises to be a fine summer adventure, too. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

The Best Books This Week

Fiction

The Scribe of Siena

by Melodie Winawer

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Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato has always been a deeply empathetic person. But when she begins having sudden, deeply emotional reactions while performing surgery, she worries that her new sensitivity will interfere with her job. As she plans a long-overdue vacation to visit her brother, Ben, in Italy, she receives news of his unexpected death. As the sole beneficiary of his estate, Beatrice boards her flight to Siena, saddened but eager to explore the city Ben loved. Her story unfolds in two widely separated time periods--and with rich detail--in Melodie Winawer's debut novel, The Scribe of Siena.

Grieving Ben's death but captivated by his city, Beatrice digs into his scholarly research on Siena during the Plague. In the process, she discovers the journal of a medieval artist, Gabriele Beltrano Accorsi, who painted several frescoes on the facade of Siena's Duomo. Slipping into the church one day, Beatrice is abruptly transported to 14th-century Siena--months away from the advent of the Plague, and soon is face to face with Accorsi himself.

She builds a few cherished friendships and even falls in love with Gabriele, the painter--but she misses her own century, and has no idea how to return there. Meanwhile, a vicious conspiracy by Florentine and Sienese noblemen threatens to wipe out Siena completely. Winawer renders her story in compelling detail, in Beatrice's whip-smart, observant, often sarcastic voice. The conspiracy is vital as a plot device, but the more resonant theme is Beatrice's deep love for both her centuries and her heartfelt struggle to decide where she belongs. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Touchstone, $26.99, hardcover, 464p., 9781501152252

Lilli de Jong

by Janet Benton

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In Janet Benton's debut, a woman's love for her baby battles a seemingly unstoppable foe: the prejudice and moral outrage against an unwed mother in the United States in the 1880s.

After the death of her mother, 22-year-old Lilli de Jong's father, Samuel, immediately marries his first cousin Patience, a woman of easy virtue who sees his daughter as an obstacle. His disregard for the Society of Friends' mandatory mourning period leads to the family's expulsion from their church and the loss of Lilli's teaching position. Johan, the man Lilli loves and her last source of comfort, proposes before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh. Trusting in his sincerity, Lilli surrenders to passion, and so her "time of shame began in glory." Her joy turns sour as she swells with pregnancy and hears no word from Johan.

Fleeing Patience's wrath, Lilli gives birth at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants, where young women give up their newborns for adoption and return to their lives after much sermonizing on their sins, "as if passion alone explained our predicaments." Against all advice, she rebels and keeps her daughter, Charlotte. However, their prospects are perilously bleak. Even when Lilli takes work as a wet nurse for a wealthy socialite, the family worries their baby will absorb loose morals through her milk. As the world continues to slam doors in her face, Lilli fights desperately to protect and keep the person she loves most.

A gorgeous paean to the courage and ferocity of a mother's love, Lilli de Jong pays homage to the solace of writing through troubling times and will haunt readers long after its denouement. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Nan A. Talese, $26.95, hardcover, 352p., 9780385541459

And Then

by Donald Breckenridge

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Donald Breckenridge (This Young Girl Passing) weaves a short but extraordinary mosaic in his novel And Then.

Fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, Breckenridge is no stranger to experimental literary forms and employs a montage technique--juxtaposing several narratives and mise-en-scène details--not unlike that of William Burroughs. But where postmodernists wander into fabulist obscurity, Breckenridge grounds his novel in a convincing realism; his characters are fully realized human beings. There's the obsessive student trying to piece together the love life of his professor while housesitting, and the mysterious disappearance of a young, aspiring woman who gets involved with drugs. And then there's Breckenridge himself, blending the multiple stories into his own account of his father's death. The arcs occur in and around New York City, which, in its vicissitudes, becomes a character in itself.

Breckenridge's most inventive technique--likely to stick as his auteur signature--is his irregular splicing of dialogue and narrative detail: " 'Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious,' John turned to Suzanne, 'and freedom is the consciousness of necessity,' with an expectant look, 'Do you know who said that?' " By re-constituting the flow of speech and exposition, Breckenridge achieves an uncanny simultaneity of exterior and interior events that challenges standard portraiture. As interesting and stimulating as the technique is, however, it's not as powerful as the author's simple, declarative sentences that linger with subtle imagery: "Filmy water vibrated in the sink before being sucked down the drain." The cumulative effect of And Then is surprisingly potent, like waking from a sad and unshakable dream. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

Black Sparrow Press, $16.95, paperback, 9781574232295

Mystery & Thriller

Since We Fell

by Dennis Lehane

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After wrapping up his historical trilogy featuring Joe Coughlin, Dennis Lehane returns to modern times with a new protagonist in the engrossing psychological thriller Since We Fell.

TV news reporter Rachel Childs is striving to establish her identity in the shadow of her famous-author mother, while attempting to track down her absent father. The paucity of information about his identity makes her search difficult enough, but her quest becomes almost impossible when her mother dies.

After a disastrous on-air incident sets her career back, Rachel becomes a near shut-in, suffering from panic attacks. The one bright note is her incredibly supportive husband. She can't believe her luck, having such an understanding spouse. Until one day, she sees something that throws into question everything she knows about him, and her reporter's instincts start buzzing. But how can she start investigating her own husband without his knowledge--and without leaving the house?

The action kicks into high gear as Rachel gets caught up in life-threatening situations while she tries to find out who her husband really is and what dangerous game he's playing. There's also the possibility her fragile mind is playing tricks on her. Since We Fell (a riff on the title of the classic song "Since I Fell for You" originally recorded by Lenny Welch) is like having two books for the price of one: the first part is a lyrical character study, the second an amped-up action thriller.

While love does bring misery and pain, as the song says, Rachel also finds light in unexpected places. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Ecco Press, $27.99, hardcover, 432p., 9780062129383

Food & Wine

Give a Girl a Knife

by Amy Thielen

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James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Amy Thielen (The New Midwestern Table) turns her focus inward in Give a Girl a Knife. It is the recipe of her life in small-town Minnesota with a close-knit family whose foundation eventually cracked, and a romance that prompted her to move to a cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity, where she grew what she cooked.

Her burgeoning joy in cooking led her to attend culinary school in New York City, where she spent the next seven years in kitchens working under world-renowned chefs in restaurants that catered lunches for U.S. presidents and sold bottles of wine priced in the tens of thousands. At first, she loved it: "Time in the kitchen was like a loophole, a bubble, a cure. Once I found it, I crawled inside and told myself I never wanted to leave." Yet Thielen soon longed for farm food and pioneer cooking, for the place her roots felt deepest, with its legacy of potato salads, pickles and butter on everything.

Thielen's writing is at once culinary and literary; she refers to her tone in the kitchen as "not-very-Minnesota-nice blunt," but on the page, her style is measured and sincere. She writes thoughtfully on being a woman in a mostly male profession, and with love for the women in her life who nurtured her cooking and didn't overprotect her. Their approach, Thielen sums up, was "You give a girl a knife; that's just what you do." --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Clarkson Potter, $26, hardcover, 320p., 9780307954909

Biography & Memoir

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir

by Sherman Alexie

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National Book Award-winner Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) is one of the most prominent literary voices of the Native American community. And You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, his powerful, if unconventional, memoir of life growing up on an Indian reservation, is another important work from the author. Seamlessly blending prose and poetry, Alexie captures with unsparing clarity how the harsh reality of his early life both scarred him and shaped his way through the world.

Alexie grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation in rural Eastern Washington. Born hydrocephalic, he underwent surgery at five months to relieve pressure on his brain, and experienced the symptoms of bipolar disorder (undiagnosed until 2010) for most of his 50 years. At the heart of Alexie's story is his relationship with his mother, Lillian, a "wildly intelligent, arrogant, opinionated, intimidating" woman who, alone, was an "entire tribe of contradictions." He describes her as an "undiagnosed bipolar grandiose fabulist," and it's fair to conclude that Alexie--who characterizes himself as an unreliable narrator with an excellent memory--inherited at least some of his prodigious storytelling talent from her.

That talent is vivid in a memoir that's blunt, profane at times, but never lacking in insight. It swings from pathos to humor, the episodic chapters of prose spiced by poems with titles like "How to Be an Atheist at a Spokane Indian Christian Funeral." Readers looking for a memoir that expertly entwines regret for the damage inflicted by one's heritage with pride in that same culture will find what they need in You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 464p., 9780316270755

History

Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans

by James Stavridis

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The world's interconnected seas come into sharp and illuminating focus in retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis's Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans.

Stavridis (The Accidental Admiral) spent more than 35 years in the Navy, including a stint as commander of NATO. In Sea Power, he combines personal recollections of sailing--lyrical in their treatment of ancient ports and the open ocean--with comprehensive analysis of the world's major bodies of water, their role in history, especially in trade and conflict, and present-day geopolitical challenges. Of note are excellent chapters on the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea. The former has the potential to host a new Cold War, Stavridis demonstrates, as northern nations vie for rich natural resources under thawing ice sheets; the latter has become a flashpoint for Chinese Navy aggression against its neighbors. Stavridis navigates these bodies of water, figuratively and literally, with an eye toward peace and stability.

Though he sometimes romanticizes U.S. military dominance--once referring to the 1950s as a simpler time--Stavridis grasps the limitations of military intervention. Among other things, he criticizes Donald Trump's anti-trade, xenophobic rhetoric; highlights the increasing importance of "soft power" (the military's humanitarian and disaster relief missions); and calls for greater cooperation among nations in protecting the world's oceans and fisheries from the devastating effects of climate change. The chapter on the Caribbean best exemplifies these globalist values. Stavridis makes a strong emotional case for greater alignment of the Americas, a holistic approach integrating trade, environmental stewardship and security.

Complex in its understanding of history, yet forward-looking in its approach, Sea Power is essential reading for history buffs and policymakers. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

Penguin Press, $28, hardcover, 384p., 9780735220591

Social Science

The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China's Hidden Mountains

by Choo Waihong

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On the shores of the picturesque Lugu Lake, bordering Yunnan and Sichuan in western China, is a village belonging to the Mosuo tribe, the last known group that follows a matrilineal hierarchy. Daughters and granddaughters share homes with the eldest matriarchs, who preside over the residences in a special grandmother room. When Choo Waihong set out on a tour across China to discover her roots, she visited this special community by chance after reading a travel article on the area. Intrigued by the concept that a society ruled by women still existed in the 21st century, particularly in male-dominant China, Waihong made the arduous journey over mountain trails to the remote village.

What she discovered on that first trip so changed her life that she had a house built near the lake, and over the course of several years, became a welcome addition to the society and godmother to several Mosuo children. In The Kingdom of Women, Waihong incorporates information about the Mosuo's nonconformist society into her personal experiences of living with them: the building and blessing of her home, the festivals she attended, the difficulty adjusting to the concept of common property, and the non-marriage, lover arrangements that allow the women to live together while the men return to their mother's homes--to name a few. She also explores how the Mosuo relate to the modern world, with its technology and rules encroaching on this tiny oasis. Ultimately, readers are left to ponder what it means to be an enduring society--regardless of whether men or women rule. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

I.B. Tauris, $25, hardcover, 240p., 9781784537241

Nature & Environment

Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table

by Langdon Cook

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Wild food authority Langdon Cook (Fat of the Land; The Mushroom Hunters) has something to teach people who think of salmon as an easy-to-find, easy-to-cook red meat alternative. A captivating history of the ways of wild salmon, Upstream reveals the distinctions between sockeye, chinook, king, steelhead, pink, coho, rainbow, etc.--and their habitats--for those who might one day stand in line at Seattle's Pike Place Market, waiting on the first catch of Alaska's Copper River kings ("along with Bluefin tuna, it's the most in-demand fish on the planet").

Cook travels the Pacific Northwest to interview the anglers, fishmongers, environmental activists and bureaucrats involved in the major salmon river systems like British Columbia's Fraser, Washington's Columbia, California's San Joaquin and Idaho's Snake. He dons his Carhartts to work on the boats with commercial crews pursuing their catch with gill nets, reef nets and purse seines. He slips on waders to roll-cast for steelheads with a professional sport-fishing guide. Near the Cascade River's Bridge of the Gods, he listens to a Native American leader celebrate the salmon's role "as sacred to our religion, to our language, to our tradition and custom." Recognizing the myriad demands on the fragile wild salmon ecosystem, Cook tells a balanced and entertaining story of the challenges to preserving this millennia-old source of human sustenance and inspiration with its "strength, beauty, resilience... [and] a willingness to fight upstream." Happily, he also clearly enjoys a good day fly-fishing, followed by a perfectly cooked wild salmon fillet. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Ballantine Books, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9781101882887

Humor

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life

by Samantha Irby

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Chicago humorist and Bitches Gotta Eat blogger Samantha Irby (Meaty) isn't interested in hiding her faults. In We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, her second collection of essays, she uses what might be referred to as "blinding transparency" for comic effect, but also for real pathos.

The book follows Irby's life in loose chronological order, tracking her from singledom in Chicago, where she worked at a veterinary hospital, to married not-quite-bliss in rural Michigan. But We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is less about one narrative and more how various pieces of life fit together, usually in strange and off-putting ways. A story about diarrhea comes right beside a piece about the death of Irby's father. What could be tonal whiplash between two distinct topics actually feels like a natural progression, with Irby showing how her short stint in college gave her clarity on the tough childhood she'd lived through. It's a testament to Irby's deft touch that she can pull the pathos out of irregular bowels and find humor in the horror of her father's abuse.

Aside from one jarring moment late in the collection--when she unsuccessfully tries to connect her cat's death with her stepchildren's "screen time" on their phones and computers--Irby is brilliant at pulling disparate threads together. Those looking for more than just a collection of funny essays will find it here. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Vintage, $15.95, paperback, 288p., 9781101912195

Children's & Young Adult

Can an Aardvark Bark?

by Melissa Stewart, illus. by Steve Jenkins

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From board books to scientific tomes, animal expressions have fascinated readers of all ages. In an ingenious twist on a familiar topic, Melissa Stewart--with more than 180 titles to her credit--cleverly disrupts the predictable cow/moo paradigm with the noises animals do not make.

Let's start with the titular "Can an aardvark bark?" The answer? "No, but it can grunt," with additional information about the long-nosed insect-eater, which "grunts softly as it zigzags across African grasslands at night." Turn the page to reveal how "[l]ots of other animals grunt too," including river otters, hamadryas baboons and even an oyster toadfish, complete with added tidbits about these fellow grunters.

The pattern quickly emerges: seals don't squeal and wild boars don't roar. But just in case readers become complacent, Stewart again surprises with the aural habits of a porcupine: Can it whine? "Why, yes, it can!" followed by a spread of whiners, including American martens. The original pattern returns, featuring dingos that don't bellow, giraffes that don't laugh, and kangaroos that don't mew. With so much excitement happening on the page, the final spread invites loud participation.

Can an Aardvark Bark? marks Stewart's first-time collaboration with Steve Jenkins, who has created some three dozen titles, including Apex Predators. Dazzlingly set against a pristine white background, each of the diverse animals is represented with both accuracy and charm. Engaging the attention of the youngest readers is more important than ever; enriching books like Aardvark are ideal for encouraging future generations of advocates and protectors. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Beach Lane, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 2-8, 9781481458528

Saints and Misfits

by S.K. Ali

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High school sophomore Janna Yusuf began experimenting with wearing hijab when she was nine. Her Indian father disapproved but her Egyptian mother (who wears bright gem-toned hijabs herself) and her imam uncle saw it as a way to express herself. Now wearing hijab is both a part of her style and a part of her identity: "Four layers of diverse fabrics: denim, Lycra, cotton, sweatshirt, and a slick (and thick) pashmina to knit the whole ensemble together. All in black, my feel-good color." Unlike many of her friends from the mosque, Janna goes to the local public school--where she has recently discovered that her non-Muslim crush, Jeremy, actually likes her back.

Amidst the crushing, she's studying for the Islamic Quiz Bowl, taking honors classes, bringing an elderly neighbor to the community center, fighting with her mom about giving up her bedroom and trying to avoid her Muslim best friend's cousin who attempted to attack her sexually at a party. To make matters worse, the attacker is adored by the other members of the mosque--her uncle, the imam, even asked him to lead Taraweeh prayers for Ramadan (he "finished memorizing the Qur'an two years ago, you know.").

S.K. Ali skillfully depicts Janna's struggles, portraying her emotional response to the attack with sensitivity and gravity while also showing that life doesn't necessarily stop to give you a break when bad things happen. Saints and Misfits is an engaging portrayal of a young woman and the abundance of differing, loving people who make up her extended family. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, $18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781481499248

The Circus

by Olivia Levez

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Sixteen-year-old Willow Stephens has everything a young girl could want: money, friends, a prestigious education, even a horse. However, none of it makes up for a lack of affection from her father or for the absence of her mother.

Willow, who's been running away since she was nine, knows the stakes are higher now. Her father is about to marry his much-younger girlfriend--the woman Willow refers to as "The Handbag"--and if that isn't bad enough, The Handbag is pregnant. Willow is certain she'll be relegated to second-class citizen in the family with a new baby.

On the day of the wedding, Willow snips all the buttons off The Handbag's gown and escapes out a window. She's intent on following in her mysterious mother's footsteps by making a name for herself in the circus. Along her journey, Willow befriends a homeless street performer named Suz who agrees to train Willow so she can audition. More importantly than learning to walk a high wire and eat fire, though, Willow learns who she really is.

Much like the circus performances her protagonist longs to join, Olivia Levez's (The Island) tale of life, love and family is thrilling and brilliantly alluring. Willow describes the circus by saying, "Some giant has dipped a brush in watercolour and splashed in the yellow amongst all the gray. A little patch of magic." Her words can just as easily describe this enchanting sophomore novel. With equal parts coming of age, adventure and love story, under the big top of Levez's Circus, readers will find grace and wonder. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Oneworld, $11.99, paperback, 288p., ages 14-up, 9781786070944
navigating new sibling conversations

Discover the enchanting world of anticipation and love in this beautifully illustrated book that captures the journey of a mother-to-be and her daughter as they prepare for the arrival of a new sibling. In a serene canoe ride through nature, the story unfolds with heartfelt conversations addressing the daughter's concerns and excitement about becoming a big sister.

This touching narrative, brimming with warmth and thoughtful dialogue, beautifully portrays the evolving mother-daughter relationship. It’s a perfect read for families expecting a new addition, helping children navigate their feelings with empathy and understanding. The mother's active and engaging presence is a refreshing depiction of pregnancy, offering a relatable and inspiring role model.

The vibrant and colorful illustrations bring the story to life, captivating readers of all ages with their beauty and detail. Each page is a visual delight, making this book not just a story but an experience to be cherished.

Ideal for children welcoming a new sibling, this book is also a universal tale of family love and growth, resonating with any young reader. It’s a timeless addition to any child's library, encouraging curiosity and warmth through its heartfelt message and stunning artwork. Embrace the joy and excitement of new beginnings with this delightful book!

Familius: The Blue Canoe: A Picture Book by Sheryl McFarlane, Illustrated by Laurel Aylesworth

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