21 March 2018

Book Review: Only Child

Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, broke my heart.  I read an advance reading copy of it in November 2017, but the book didn’t publish until February 6, 2018. It takes as its subject the wake of a school shooting, following one family through their grief, loss, anger, and inability to cope with the enormity of their feelings. While the author seemed to use circumstances from the Sandy Hook shooting as a jumping off point for exploring the emotional aftermath, this book immediately took on new immediacy when the Parkland, FL, school shooting took place less than one week after it was published. 

Zach Taylor is the young narrator of our book, and he’s in first grade when his teacher rounds up his class to hide in the cloakroom. POP POP POP. He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he’s scared every time he hears POP POP POP. Once the police arrive, things get really chaotic for young Zach and his classmates; they’re herded out of the school to a small church to wait for their families, but now the police officers are yelling at them, barking orders for them not to turn around and look at anything, and in general making the situation even scarier. 

When Zach learns that his older brother Andy died in the shooting, his first thought is one of relief.  You see, Andy was always loud and mean to Zach, so Zach thinks that finally he can be happy, that family meals will be peaceful, that mommy and daddy won’t yell at each other so much either, now that Andy’s uncontrollable mood swings won’t be disrupting the family. He’s still trying to process the happy potential of being an only child while his parents fall apart, clearly incapable of taking care of Zach in the face of their overwhelming grief. 

Once Zach finally does grasp what it will actually mean to be an only child, the reader’s heart breaks all over again for him.  He doesn’t have the language skills or emotional intelligence to understand the feelings of guilt to which his family abandons him; his mother has been hospitalized for hysteria and his father is so incapacitated that he barely notices that Zach is in desperate need of attention. Even Zach’s grandmother, who comes to stay with them, doesn’t know how to be there for Zach, so he tries to cope in his own limited way: he builds a hideout in Andy’s closet, draws pictures, and models his behavior on what he imagines his heroes Jack and Annie from The Magic Treehouse series would do. 

While there were times when reading this book last fall that I felt the author was verging on being emotionally manipulative, in retrospect I don’t see it that way at all.  Like the young narrator of Emma Donoghue’s amazing novel, Room, the author uses a childish perspective to great effect, casting light on the emotional horrors of a situation without ever being graphic. One could argue that the limited perspective is even more successful for building readerly empathy, as we are required to fill in more blanks on our own with what Zach leaves unsaid and unobserved. 

It’s difficult to imagine that a book depicting a school shooting and the effects it has on both family and community can end with hope or forgiveness; Navin doesn’t push the envelope that far, but she lays the groundwork for redemption and understanding, which is more realistic, and she lets a little child lead them. Navin’s accomplishment in creating Zach as narrator stands shoulder to shoulder with Room, as I mentioned before, and with the narrator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, creating an indelible voice poised perfectly to direct the story, allowing the reader to see life from a distinctly different perspective. I recommend this book highly.

14 March 2018

Book Review: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

Talk about provocative titles, right?  I picked this book up in January when attending Winter Institute, an independent booksellers convention, in Memphis, TN. There’s a magical place there called The Galley Room, where tables groan under the stacks of books piled thereon. All the booksellers have to do is wander around the room and help themselves to complimentary copies of anything that looks good. Like many readers and booksellers, I actively try to diversify my reading (which for me also means intentionally choosing some non-fiction sometimes amidst the literary fiction that comprises my main reading interest AND making sure that I read works from small publishers), so this book ticked all the boxes.

It turns out that Michael Bennett is an important player in the NFL, a fact that no doubt many readers would know, but which took me completely by surprise.  I have since asked myself whether I would have picked this up to read if I had known that, as I have zero interest in footfall, despite having grown up in Mississippi, where football is less a sport and more a religion. As of my reading of this book, he was a player for the Seattle Seahawks, but as of this writing, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

At any rate, I’m glad I picked this book up to read because first of all, Michael Bennett is talking about things that make white people uncomfortable, and second of all, he’s doing it in a very accessible and conversational tone.

If you know football, then you quite likely know some of the things that Bennett has been involved with, starting with the support of Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling during the national anthem, but moving beyond that to his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.  So far, so awesome.  But what I really loved about this book was Bennett’s passion for intersectionality and the many ways he’s become involved with his community and speaking out against (or in some cases, FOR) various things: the institutionalized racism of the NFL and the NCAA, the importance of providing affordable and wholesome foods in the poorest urban centers, the marginality of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in every aspect of our society -- really, the list goes on.

In one case, Bennett had been invited to Israel to play an All-Stars exhibition game, which he was really excited about because he loves to travel and meet new people. But not long before departure, he took a closer look at the itinerary and realized that it was a very sheltered trip, he would not be allowed to visit Palestine, and that the trip was not just a goodwill trip, but a political one. He canceled, voiced his reasons publicly, and spent months researching Israel and Palestine, and then booked his own trip there.

On the subject of becoming an activist: “It’s so much easier to talk shit than to do shit, because once you are out there representing what you believe, people see the real you. Most everybody in the world wears a mask, and very rarely do people unveil who they really are...So I’m going to be judged by strangers on the core of who I am, and yes, that makes me vulnerable and it can even feel terrifying. Nobody wants to lose his job like Kaepernick...but if the price of employment is silence, I just can’t do it anymore.”

On the subject of politics and personal activism: “As much as I was into Bernie, I also believe that just electing someone and expecting them to make real change happen for us is a dead end. I believe in intersectionality because Bernie Sanders -- or anyone else - isn’t going to end racism or bring resources into underserved communities. We are going to need to connect with each other to bring about the shifts we need. I hope we have more political candidates who express the values Bernie was talking about, but we still have to do the work.”

On becoming woke to gender discrimination: “Knowing that sexism and gender violence and employment discrimination are going to be real obstacles in their [his daughters’] lives makes me want to fight for girls and women with all my heart.  I wish it didn’t take having daughters for men [and me] to realize that this is their struggle, too. It should be enough that we are all human and we should want equality. But the reality is we live in a world where women -- especially Black women -- aren’t valued, and that often means that until we are looking at the world through our daughters’ eyes, we just don’t get it like we should.”

Amen to all of that.  Whatever Michael Bennett has next in store, I look forward to it.  It’s not every day that somebody can get me to consider football, really consider it, and I’ll be the first reader in line for his next book.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable will be published by Haymarket Books on April 3.  Go out and get yourself a copy to read, why don’t you? 

01 March 2018

Last Month in Review: February 2018

For being such a short month, I got a good bit of reading done, and I’m maybe 10-30 pages away from finishing two other books I started in February. Did I consider fudging on those and including them here? Absolutely. But I was able to refrain and they will show up for next month’s stats instead. 

In reverse chronological order, then, here’s what I finished:

1. Hamilton: The Revolution. Dayum. I was slow to come to this musical, but that just makes me a fool. It’s just utterly brilliant, and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack while reading the book.  I have basically zero background in hip-hop, but that doesn’t matter one bit when it comes to how much I love and appreciate what Lin-Manuel Miranda has accomplished here.  I’ve rarely been as convinced of someone’s genius as I am with this guy.  

2. The Wicked King by Holly Black.  This is the sequel to The Cruel Prince, which came out in January, but this book won’t pub until January 2019. Holly’s books regularly make my year end best-of lists, and this likely will keep in line with that. Here she’s accomplished the improbable: she has written a sequel that is even better than the first book of the series. I pick up Holly’s books to read when I want an escape, since her world building is utterly immersive, but then I remember how sharp an eye she has for the politics that transcend the human realm and therefore how much reading her books can inform my current world.

3. Black Panther: World of Wakanda. This was the first comic I’ve read in years, certainly in my adult life.  Review here

4. A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker.  This book won’t be out until May, but since our store will be doing his book launch, we had access to the complete F&Gs.  This book is, in a word, gorgeous.  Becker’s illustrations are lush and thoughtful, full of layers that the reader can unpeel a bit more with each encounter.  Like his Journey trilogy, this book is also wordless, but oh! What stories the imagination can weave in the face of images like these. 

5. Florida by Lauren Groff.  This collection of short stories is just stunning.  I’ve read Groff’s novels before and have long considered her a master of language (you can see my review of Arcadia here), but this book also brings a powerful self-awareness to bear, particularly in the recurring character of The Mother.  The state of Florida is itself a sort of character here, too, its sights, sounds, and oppressive humidity lending flavor to the narrative. This book will pub in June, and I hope to get around to reviewing it. 

6. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is another story collection from a debut author.  The first story, from the which the book takes its title, is a real powerhouse. Subtitled "Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology," it plays with the fourth wall and and turns readerly expectations upside-down. While not all of the stories are as strong as the first one (frankly, I think that would be nigh-impossible, it's just SO DAMN GOOD), the collection taken as a whole is an important contribution to the narrative of race in America.

7. Last but not least, I finished the audio book of Code Girls by Liza Munday early in the month, and many of the stories she shares here have stuck with me since.  You can read my full review here.

How about y'all?  Was February a good reading month for you?  What did you love?  

20 February 2018

Book Review: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

This is the first book I’ve ever picked up by Maggie O’Farrell, but it was so incredible that I’ve ordered in her earlier books so that I can read those, too. This book is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death” which sounds grim, but actually turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Maggie O’Farrell tells her story as a series of essays, each concentrating on a near death experience. The first chapter, in which she encounters a murderer, is certainly one of the most gripping.  In it, the author is just turned eighteen and is out hiking in a remote area on her own. She meets a man on the trail whose presence absolutely chills her, but she walks on by. A few minutes later, he has somehow gotten in front of her and cuts her off, lassoing her with the leather strap of his binoculars to look at some birds.  Thinking quickly, she immediately ducks out of the strap and starts to babble loudly about how she’s expected at work, powerwalking down the hill toward the village. She reports the incident to the police, but they dismiss her as hysterical. Two weeks later, another young woman from the village is found strangled on the same trail – and all of this is recounted as a way to explain why the author is a bit spooked by the thought of  hiking with her young daughter alone, and why to this day she doesn’t like to wear scarves or have anybody touch her neck.

Not all of the chapters are as edge-of the seat as the opening one.  In one of them, she recounts some of the foolish decisions she has made in her life, like jumping off a high pier at night into the sea below, only to find herself stuck in an undertow, and utterly unable to detect whether she was swimming towards the surface or dragging herself farther under. Or when she was a child and ran into the street, straight into the path of a car.

She also juxtaposes the pernicious childhood disease that she survived against the life threatening allergies that her daughter has. Her writing is luminous and soul-searching, whether she’s recounting her childhood or reflecting on her adulthood. And I think the most amazing thing is how she turns each of her seventeen brushes with death into a jumping off point for an essay that examines life. 

Also, the cover is very pretty, with the feather done in a shiny, coppery gilt.

16 February 2018

Book Review: World of Wakanda comic

I’m not 100% sure, but I think that Black Panther: World of Wakanda is the first comic that I’ve read in my adult life.  It is, without a doubt, the first comic that I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked up this prequel to the Black Panther series when I was browsing at the delightful White Square Books in my new hometown. Despite working in another bookstore, I am incapable of leaving a good bookstore without a purchase, so I decided to give this a go. I chose World of Wakanda for various reasons, but mostly because I like to vote with my pocketbook: I wanted to support the efforts of Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I also figured that reading a comic prequel would put me in good stead for watching the forthcoming Black Panther movie when the film is released.

Alas, the book was not for me, but I rush to add that I think it’s more to do with my inexperience with the comic book world and my general lack of enthusiasm for super heroes in general*. Although in retrospect it should have been obvious, I should have expected that disjointed feel going into my reading, since it’s actually the bound copy of the first six issues printed together.  Naturally that would result in large jumps in time, locale, and character for each issue, but the lack of cohesion really threw me off.  Also, the entire thing is written in ALL CAPS. This was hard to read, and I’d love for someone to enlighten me: is this a typical thing in comics? It drove me batty. On an even pettier level, the grammatical errors distracted me out of the story every single time.

All of that being said, in no way do I regret my purchase, as I am happy to support this franchise and the much-needed diversity it brings to the world of Marvel comics. Moreover, I dug the story of the Dora Milaje, the fierce warrior women of Wakanda, sworn to protect the royal family, who evolve into something more, and I really dug the love story between Captain Aneka and Ayo.

If you read comics of the super hero variety, and particularly if you’re interested in supporting diversity in a field that has for too long been dominated by white cis-male characters and readers alike, you’d probably like this.

Full list of authors and illustrators: Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yona Harvey, Rembert Brown, Alitha Martinez, Roberto Poggi, Rachelle Rosenberg, Afua Richardson, Tamra Bonvilain, Joe Bennett, Rahzzah, and Joe Sabino

* I felt the same way about watching last year’s Wonder Woman film.  Super glad I voted with my pocketbook to show the powers that be that it’s important for super heroes to reflect more than the white boys who grow up to be heroes. And I loved the first half of the movie. But like with any super hero story, I quickly grew weary of the ever-increasing unbelievability of the exploits. 

10 February 2018

Book Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

In an effort to work a little more nonfiction into my reading this year, I picked up the audio book to Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II when my store was sent a box of complimentary items that included both the audio and regular hardcover versions of this book.  Thank you, Hachette!

The title is pretty self explanatory -- this book is an overview of women’s involvement as cryptographers and cryptanalysts during the war, and the author does a creditable job of bringing these women’s stories to light.  More than 10,000 young women worked as code breakers during the war, but because they took secrecy oaths under penalty of death and also because most of the women were forced out of work once the war was over, their stories are not part of our shared lore and history of that war. Until now, that is.

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government started sending letters to young women attending various colleges in November 1941, inviting them to secret meetings where they were judged on various aptitudes for numbers, patterns, and languages, as well as their character. Those deemed worthy enough then pursued further training before being invited to Washington, DC, after graduation.

This book ranges from the thrilling to the mundane, talking about the desperation for breaking both the Enigma machine on the European front and the various Japanese codes on the Pacific front, but also ranging into the daily lives of these women -- the hardships they faced, but also the simple joys of having escaped the dreary confines of the proper lives they had, up until recently, been expected to assume.

One thing I enjoyed was hearing more about the involvement of Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges for the war effort (since they’re both local to me) both in terms of the number of their young women who joined the ranks of codebreakers and the training grounds that they became for female officers, once the Army and Navy decided to admit women.

While the author did a terrific job describing the raging sexism and misogyny that these women were facing, I would have appreciated hearing a bit more about the rampant racism of the age since the reader only gets to know white women and their contribution to the war effort. It remains mostly unspoken that it was only white women who were college educated at the time, and of good enough pedigree for the US government.

Erin Bennett was the reader for this book and while I don’t recall anything that stood out about her performance, she was a solid reader. Mundy’s research seems solid, based on the footnotes in the physical book, but I do wish that the narrative had been a bit more streamlined. There were multiple times when the narrative diverted to epistolary excerpts between one of the women codebreakers and the young man who was in love with her -- they didn’t advance the storyline and they weren’t interesting enough, either from a romantic or a historical point of view, to include them. Overall, however, this is a book I could easily recommend to the general reader, but particularly to readers of historical nonfiction and those interested in knowing more about the stories of those people who have traditionally been marginalized. 

03 February 2018

Last Month in Review: January 2018

January was a very busy month for me.  My reading stats are really decent this month but that’s thanks in part to a couple of days of travel, ratcheting up my YA reading, and working on a good audio book. I  got to attend the fantastic indie bookseller Winter Institute in Memphis, which was exhausting and exhilarating in pretty equal measure, but which led to lots of great book acquisitions.  I’ve also been dealing with some existing and potential career stuff that has resulted in rather more sleepless nights than usual that have also contributed to rather more reading than usual. In chronological order, then, here is what I finished reading in January:

1. Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles. This was a rewarding novel with conflicted and complicated characters -- just the way I like my fiction.  Review here.  Qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge. This book will be published in March, and I’m keen to introduce readers to this one.

2. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  My first nonfiction of the year, and which I also happened to have reviewed already. This was an amazing, but non conventional, biography of the artist and scientist, and I happened to listen to the audio version of it.  Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

3. Love by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Loren Long.  Damn, but it is really possible that I’ve written three book reviews for the first three books I read this month?  IT IS.  Color me surprised.  This picture book still makes me cry when I go back to it, and it makes me very happy indeed.  Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

4. American Histories by John Edgar Wideman.  This is a short story collection, and as primed as I was to love it, it was more miss than hit.  I hasten to add that it’s simply because it doesn’t dovetail with my own reading preferences, not because it’s not a good collection. I think it’s simply because I prefer my stories a bit more concrete.  That being said, the first story, which is a sort of dialogue between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, is very interesting, but the one that resonated most for me is the one with an autobiographical narrator in conversation with his sister about the death of their father.

5. The Universe is Expanding and So Am I by Carolyn Mackler. This was a very quick airplane read for me, and while I found it engaging, I also found it problematic.  I hope to get around to reviewing this one soon.  It’s the sequel to the YA sensation, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

6. The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surveils. I picked this book up at Winter Institute and read it on the plane ride home.  This is another YA book that was a quick read, and while I warmed to it by the end, I also found a few problematic things about it.  I hope to review this one, too. Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

7. I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman. I’ve read and reviewed Gayle Forman here and here, but this was a bit different. Less emotionally hefty than If I Stay, but very engaging.  This book explores the way that having a friend who believes in us can help us discover, and be true to, the person that we are. It also qualifies for the Diversify Your Life challenge. Hope to review this one, too.

28 January 2018

Walking in Memphis, AKA Winter Institute

I have just gotten back from my favorite time of year for work: the annual Winter Institute conference for independent booksellers.  It’s a moveable feast, migrating from one urban location to another every year, and I was thrilled that this year we all convened in Memphis.  Not only do I love heading South in the winter, but my two oldest friends in the world live in Memphis, so it was a pretty special week, all in all.

Opening Reception

The conference always has a opening reception, and this year it was held downtown at the beautiful and historic Cadre building.  Even places with truly commodious proportions might seem crowded when you jam 600 or so booksellers, plus another few hundred people from the publishing industry into the space, and within 30 minutes or so, the room was so crowded that navigation was difficult.  Still, this year the food stations and bars were more strategically placed than last year’s venue in Minneapolis, so at least there was that.  I spent a couple of hours catching up with friends from the industry -- when we’re lucky, we might see each other 1-2 times each year, so there were lots of hugs and cheerful exclamations all around.

A gossip of Emilys. AKA All Emily, All the Time

When we’re very lucky, we might run into each other a few more times of year because we’re all part of the same regional conference. I’m told on good authority that the collective noun for a group of people named Emily is called a gossip, and every time the three Emilys of New England Bookselling find each other, we have to document it.  Above, you can see me, the New England rep for Chronicle Books (Emily Cervone) and one of the two owners of Print, a bookstore in Portland, ME (Emily Russo Murtagh).

Tommy Orange, debut author, at the evening reception

What outsiders to the conference probably don’t realize is how much work these things are.  Doors to the ballroom opened at 7:30 for breakfast each morning, and author dinners keep us out until 11:00, 11:30, or even later.  It’s a crazy pace, and it’s equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. In between, the schedule is jam-packed with educational sessions, roundtables, speed dating with books, and keynote speakers. There’s also a room where booksellers can graze all day long for free books, and one of the many highlights is the author reception, where around 100 authors line the perimeter of the room and booksellers bombard them for signed books.  Really, there’s no better gig out there.

Author reception
It can’t be Winter Institute if I’m not made to cry at least once, and thanks to Junot Diaz, I was able to cry over breakfast on our second morning. He gave a heartfelt thank you for the support of indie booksellers like us, who were early champions of his books (my own bookstore selected his first novel and second collection of short stories for our store’s signed First Editions Club, for example), but he also took us to task: looking out at the audience that morning, you’d have to look hard to see anything but a sea of white faces. We’re actively trying to embrace diversity in the books we carry so that all readers might see themselves reflected in the pages of our books, but he’s 100% right when he says we need to work from the top down, and the bottom up, to make sure that people from all backgrounds might see bookselling and publishing as a career for anybody, not just those with traditional cultural capital.

Everybody got a copy of Islandborn, Diaz’s first picture book for children, as well as a coordinating tote bag, courtesy of Penguin Young Readers, and my boss, Joan, even got to pose for a picture with him.  He recognized her right away and was happy to oblige us with a photo:

I learned so much last week, and I’m so grateful to Bloomsbury, Grove, and Knopf, the three publishers whose dinners I attended, where I got to hobnob with some amazing authors, like Carol Anderson, Fatima Farheen Mirza, Tommy Orange, and Aminatta Forna, among many others. The food was good, the conversation was lively, and the drinks were bottomless, but mostly it’s the memories that are priceless.

Now I just need to catch up on my sleep so that I can implement some of the new things I learned!

15 January 2018

Book Review: Love by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Loren Long

Although this book is just published this week, I had the privilege a few months ago of listening to Newbery award-winning author Matt de la Peña and beloved illustrator of the Otis books Loren Long talk about their collaboration.  Their new book, Love, was a headliner for one of the breakfasts during the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA), and I think it’s safe to say there was nary a dry eye in the room by the time they concluded.

I don’t usually review picture books on this blog, but this is not your typical picture book. First, you’ve got the street cred (and literary cred) of this dynamic duo. Second, it’s a book that speaks directly to the fears and frustrations that have gripped our country since #45 was elected. Third, the subtext of this book is simply this: love is love is love.

Each full page spread speaks to a different demographic of America: the urban, the rural, the haves, the have-nots, the lonely, the contented, the single-parent and the multi-generational family. The thoughtful illustrations are lush with color and emotion, not shy about straying into darker interpretations of the text.

There’s been some chatter on the internet this week about an article in Time magazine by children’s book author extraordinaire, Kate DiCamillo called “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad,” and in in the context of both children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, she says, “In loving the world, he [E. B. White] told the truth about it -- its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.” Her words speak just as deeply to Love, a picture book that shows kids the different ways that love may manifest itself in their lives -- but also how it might leave their lives and break their hearts before they realize that it can also make them stronger.

My two favorite page spreads are these:

"And in time you learn to recognize
a love overlooked.
A love that wakes at dawn and
rides to work on the bus. 
A slice of burned toast tastes like love.

And the face staring back
in the bathroom mirror --
this, too, is love.

I think this lovely picture book will soon be taking its place among the pantheon of children’s picture book classics. It’s simple, but ultimately it’s revolutionary, too. Every library, be it school, public, or home library, should proudly cherish this addition. If ever a picture book could change a child’s life, I think this is the one.

13 January 2018

Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I first read Tayari Jones when she published Silver Sparrow a few years ago, where she grabbed me from the very first line (which you can read about here).  Thus it took very little persuading when the good folks at Algonquin emailed to ask me to take a gander at Tayari’s new novel, An American Marriage. While its opening line is compelling enough (“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.”), it’s the characters here who kept me reading feverishly into the night.

Meet Celestial and Roy, a young couple on the verge of having it all, who hail from very different backgrounds. Celestial is the beloved daughter of an upper middle class family outside of Atlanta, gifted with every privilege that love, money, and social capital can provide; Roy, on the other hand, is the adopted son of a hardscrabble father and mother piecing jobs together to keep enough food on the table and shoes on their feet in their Louisiana hamlet: “There was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.”

Their relationship is electrifying and intense, and they’re the vanguard of the New South, poised to set Atlanta on fire, driven by love and ambition in equal measure, when the unthinkable happens: a little over one year into their marriage, a white woman accuses Roy of breaking into her hotel room and raping her. Despite Celeste’s testimony that she was with her husband all night, the many character witnesses brought forth, and  the expensive attorney that Celeste’s family is able to pay for, the jury convicts Roy, sending him to prison for twelve years:

The judge paused and demanded that Roy bear this news on his feet. He stood again and cried, not like a baby, but in the way that only a grown man can cry, from the bottom of his feet up through his torso and finally through his mouth. When a man cries like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak, all the way to whatever injured his spirits just last year (p. 40).
The narrative chapters alternate mostly between Roy and Celestial’s points of view, and in the beginning they’re largely epistolary, told in letters back and forth after Roy is incarcerated. Eventually other characters take on the storytelling burden, including Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend and one of Roy’s former classmates at Spelman. While the book never loses its focus as an indictment of the system that imprisons black men at a terribly disproportionate rate compared to white men, the heart of this novel is the relationships that unfold: Roy’s and Celestial’s, of course, but also Celestial and her family, Roy and his family, Celestial and Andre, Andre and Roy, Celestial and her work, Roy and his cellmate...the various permutations go on.

This is a novel that examines love and loyalty and what it means to be family, scrutinizing the smallest details from multiple points of view. The writing is terrific, and I think that Tayari Jones makes particularly good use of metaphor throughout, and what’s more, she constantly shows generosity and sympathy to her entire cast of characters. It broke my heart more than once, and I think it will break yours, too. This book is not just going to loom large among books published this winter, it is going to be big.  BIG.

NB: This book will be published by Algonquin on February 6, 2018, but I recommend you put it in your reading queue now. 

09 January 2018

Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

It has been a long time since I’ve read a straight-up biography.  I read lots of narrative nonfiction in the forms of memoir, sure, and I even dabble in history and science.  But I’m trying to think of the last time I read a biography, and according to Goodreads, it was back in 2011 when I read Harriet Reisen’s book on Louisa May Alcott.  Reading Walter Isaacson’s incredible book on Leonardo da Vinci was a welcome reminder that good biographies on interesting subjects are well worth the time invested.

My Simon & Schuster rep gifted me with the audio book for my birthday late last fall, which was ideal now that I have a long enough commute to make listening to audio books worthwhile. It’s read by actor Alfred Molina, who does a great job, and the audio version comes with a separate CD full of PDFs of the art described in the book (presumably the digital audio also comes with downloadable images).  However, I was only two discs into the 17-disc set before I realized that I would also want the physical book, and I was fortunate that Simon & Schuster obliged by by sending me one of those, too. The book is beautiful, printed on heavy paper with full color plates.

I’ve never read Isaacson before, so I don’t know if this is a signature style or a one-off, but rather than employing a chronologically linear narrative, he employs a style that I’d call vignette-like.  This means that occasionally the narrative circles back to an earlier period of history, but with a subject who is as far removed from our time as Leonardo is, this makes sense to me.

Did I have much of an impression about Leonardo before tackling this book?  Not a big one. I took a survey of western heritage class in college that gave an overview of his art and I think it was a class in high school where I learned more about his bent for science and engineering, but other than a general impression that the term “Renaissance Man” might have been first used with him in mind, I couldn’t tell you a lot about the guy. My only personal experience was on a college choir trip to Milan, where we were able to view his fresco of The Last Supper in small groups.

Thus it was a total revelation to learn about this remarkable man with not just a towering intellect, but an insatiable curiosity about the world. Although he is probably best known today for his art (his Mona Lisa is quite possibly the most famous painting in the western world) Leonardo himself wished to be known as an engineer. Although not formally educated, he was a meticulous observer of nature and combining his curiosity with the scientific method means that he was decades, and in some cases centuries, ahead of his time.  There’s hardly a branch of science that didn’t interest him, and Isaacson explores Leonardo’s notebooks to share with the reader his groundbreaking research and theories for physics, optics, fluid mechanics, anatomy, geology, astronomy, even cosmology.

I also enjoyed the way Isaacson brings out the human side of Leonardo, quoting from his shopping lists, or describing his penchant for richly-colored tunics (fuchsia was a favorite) and for beautiful young men, or outlining why he opted for a vegetarian lifestyle.  And those times when Leonardo’s paths crossed with the Borgias, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi, or Michelangelo?  I actually said “whoa” out loud in my car when Molina was narrating those moments. Kind of a who’s who of Italian Renaissance history, eh?

This is a marvelous study of a man who, arguably, possessed the greatest mind of his time -- possibly the greatest mind of any time -- whose drive to always ask “why” should be an inspiration to every single reader. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

06 January 2018

Book (P)Review: Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles

Happy New Year, everybody! I’m not much into setting resolutions for myself these days.  Or rather, the whole “New Year, New You” mentality doesn’t hold much appeal for me, but I like the idea of being open to change and growth. The year 2017 brought a lot of changes into my life, including putting myself on the job market, and one of the most difficult personal challenges for me this year was bouncing back after each interview that culminated in some variation of, “You’re pretty nifty, Runner Up Candidate.” It’s been quite a while since I failed at something so important to me, but lately I’ve been ruminating on failure and what it can mean. While it’s true that I failed to secure an offer for the three positions I interviewed for last year, I learned something about myself with each one.  I got better with each interview, and I was lucky enough to get substantive feedback from two of the hiring managers to better place myself when the next opportunity comes along -- one of whom has even offered to help me look out for other, better suited positions. So with that in mind, what I’d like for 2018 is this: to remember that while failure is an important part of growth, it does not define me, or my worth. I also want to practice more kindness, both to myself and to others. And since I remember a time in the not-too-distant past where I actually enjoyed writing about my twin passions of books and travel, I thought it might be interesting getting back to that in 2018, too.

It turns out that it’s been quite some time since my last book review, which I posted in June 2016 about Homegoing, the best novel I read that year. Eighteen months almost to the day. Please forgive my rustiness here as I ease back into the world of book reviews.

The first book I completed this year is Jonathan Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle.  His work wasn’t new to me, as I had started both of his previous novels, Dear American Airlines and Want Not, but hadn’t finished either one (less a criticism of them than simply being an occupational hazard).  This one I picked up at the urging of my sales rep, but I hadn’t read very far before I was hooked: this guy nailed -- I mean, absolutely nailed -- the south Mississippi setting.

Call it homesickness or nostalgia on my part, but I was extremely happy to revisit the Mississippi gulf coast of my youth in these pages, seeing through the eyes of Cameron Harris, a complicated young man whose life has been marked by tragedy: abandoned by his father, losing his best friend, the death of his mother, Hurricane Katrina and subsequently losing his home. As if that weren’t bad enough, he enlists in the army, gets sent to Afghanistan, and has the misfortune of getting a little too close to an old Soviet landmine. When Cameron returns to the US, it’s in a wheelchair.  His sister Tanya, as much parent to him as sibling, gives up everything to care for her paraplegic brother.

Four years later, strange things are afoot at their neighborhood convenience store, when Cameron’s nausea doubles him over in his chair and he leans forward to relieve it. The thing is, there is only so far he can lean forward without falling, and he somehow manages to get his feet underneath himself and stands up in the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee. Nobody can explain it -- not Cameron or Tanya, not the medical community.

As you can imagine, the Harris home quickly becomes the epicenter of a multi-ring circus. In this most religious of red states, everybody wants to claim a piece of Cameron’s miracle, whether it’s the Republican party wanting Cameron (and by extension, God, of course) on their ticket or a pre-Vatican-II Catholic priest who uses Cameron for his own multi-layered agenda. TV interviews, social media prayer circles, pilgrims to the Biz-E-Bee, and a reality tv/mockumentary crew all descend on the scene, and the whole time Cameron and Tanya are just trying to get on with their lives, wanting to know the whys and wherefores of Cameron’s miracle.

While Anatomy is told in a journalistic fashion that strongly reminded me of the brilliant nonfiction book Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, in both style and scope, what interested me most was the characters, both major and minor: Cameron and Tanya, absolutely; but I also loved the Vietnamese couple who own the convenience store, the devil’s advocate attorney working for the Vatican (literally the advocatus diaboli) , the sergeant under whom Cameron served in the army, and the VA doctor handling Cameron’s case. Mostly, I loved the subtle indictment of people who choose the superficial over substance and the way Miles calls attention to bigotry of all stripes, but above all, I loved the way the author limns each character with the myriad contradictions that comprise this human experience. Beyond that, the writing is just terrific -- it’s not lush, but it’s precise and incredibly evocative in a way that perfectly serves the wide-lens, third person, journalistic POV.

Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House, will publish this book in March, and I predict that this is the book that will make Jonathan Miles a household name, at least among those households with avid readers of literary fiction. I read an advance review copy provided by the publisher.