Betsy Burton is the co-founder of The King's English Bookshop. In addition to her life as a bookseller, she is an activist for all things local, and is also past President of the American Booksellers Association. Her book, The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, continues to be a bestseller at our shop. In her spare time, Betsy is working on a book about her son, a young man with some disabilities and some extraordinary abilities as well. She still loves the book business as much as she did when she started over forty years ago.
A glory of a novel, this tale of children trying to figure out the world around them is, above all else, about books. About story. As its cast of characters moves us across continents and ages from ancient Greece to the present and beyond, we fall in love with the best of them—and the worst: Anna, a child trying unsuccessfully to behave in a convent in 5th century Constantinople; Omeir, the youth who waits outside its walls in the company of thousands of Ottomans; Seymour, a present-day eco-terrorist bent on saving the earth; Konstance, a girl encased in a spaceship who has never known our beloved earth; Zeno, a boy who grows up in the forests and years later returns home to help five children produce a play. And, of course, the narrator of that play, his voice, taken from the folios of Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient novel and the connective tissue of Doerr’s—which becomes, in an eerie sense, the history of all books. The tale of their fragility. And their strength. Both narratives fill the heart with terror and love and compassion, dread and humor; Doerr’s also manages to encompass our struggling planet and the continuum of our history. Impossible to put down and, once finished, life-changing, Cloud Cuckoo Land is the kind of book you hope will come your way but almost never does. An absolute masterpiece.
I’ve seldom cared so deeply for characters in a novel as I did for Theo, brilliant astrophysicist, confused father; his equally brilliant and erratically ungovernable nine-year-old son Robin—whom Theo is trying to stabilize while avoiding the psychotropic drugs the school is insisting the boy take—and, always offstage but haunting every page, Alyssa, Aly, wife of one, mother of the other, now deceased. This is a love story in the deepest sense of the word—between father and son, between husband and wife, and, in memory, between mother and son. When the novel opens Theo and Robin are camping, nature (however defiled) being the one place that seems to calm the boy, aside from the imaginary inter-planetary visits on which father takes son at night. But nature and imagination can only work if a parent doesn’t work—the triple bind of single parents whose children are emotionally or neurologically troubled. Although steeped in cutting-edge science, be it environmental, astrophysical, or psychological, Powers’ tale is so intensely personal that the implacable forces abroad in our out-of-joint world become intensely personal too, the truth of our increasingly disastrous imbalance moving through the reader’s heart and head alike. Yet I turned the final page of Bewilderment in my own state of bewilderment—not confused by the whys of what happens to Robin or Theo or Aly—but rather by the cosmic whys of humankind, of our country, our planet. The reality that the world as we know it is slipping off its axis has never been raised as cogently or with such urgent passion. Something the most sublime of novels—and Bewilderment is one of those, no question—have a way of doing.
Because Calvin and I have loved (and read) Louise Erdrich’s books with equal passion since coming across her astonishing Love Medicine many years ago (Calvin’s favorite is The Plague of Doves, Betsy’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse), we decided we’d review her new book together. A book by our favorite author, set in a bookstore? What’s not to love? But despite our ongoing passion for Erdrich, we’ve never been as smitten as this. Hilarious one moment, devastating the next, The Sentence tells the tale of Tookie, ex-con, present-day bookseller in an independent bookstore called Birch Bark Books, owned by, you guessed it, Louise Erdrich. Erdrich does have a bit part in her novel, but it is the booksellers who shine, their brains teeming with titles and authors, their hearts in thrall to their customers’ desires as they make endless lists, trying to come up with the perfect book for this one or that one (usually—but not always—succeeding). They live their store. They love their store… Trouble is, that store is haunted. By a customer, Flora. A woman so persistent in her annoying behavior that she’s already a legend among the booksellers before she dies and refuses to go away, shuffling invisibly from section to section as Tookie tries to ignore her. Tookie has more problems than a mere ghost, however. Her stepdaughter, no fan of Tookie’s, has come—not to visit but to stay. And she’s pregnant. And likely to make waves in what has been a very good marriage. Worse, COVID has come to town, at first closing the bookstore down and then turning it into a book warehouse with no customers but Flora—who’s becoming more problematic by the day. And if this sounds madcap and funny, it is, sublimely so. Full of characters we love, books we adore, a life we know and love. Until it isn’t funny at all. Until we’re witnessing on the page the impact of the global Pandemic we’ve all been living through, the systemic racism that has come to a boil in city after city, the blistering rage we’ve all felt, are all feeling—reflected in Flora’s rage. Not to mention the helplessness. The horrifying dailyness of the devastation is so painfully familiar that evocative doesn’t begin to describe it. Erdrich’s ability to illuminate the present we’re living—along with the dark past that haunts us all—to lace it with sly humor, yes, and with compassion and love, but to tell us the truth in stark terms, turns The Sentence into a profound and profoundly moving book, one neither of us will ever forget.
The day-by-day responses of Terry Tempest Williams to the miraculous photographs of Fazal Sheikh, became a dialogue and an exploration in 2020 as COVID overtook both their lives. As each went deeper into art, exchanging visions, broadening perspectives, both artists achieved startling clarity, and also vulnerability, honesty. Worldwide and as deep as the human soul, the photographs of Fazal Sheikh and the often surprising but always extraordinary reactions to them by Terry Tempest Williams are a miracle to behold and an unforgettable collaboration.
Oh, my! Has there ever been a writer whose characters work their way into the inner chambers of our hearts so effortlessly? Or who allows us to see one another quite so plainly? Sometimes in stark and merciless relief, but with compassion, always? Lucy Barton’s second husband has died and she’s still grieving when her first husband, William, asks a favor of her. Well, not exactly then, there are plenty of asides and explanations, forays backward and forward as we wend our way toward what he wants (how Strout achieves this wondrous and often very funny layering is a mystery and a miracle). But in the end it turns out that William wishes Lucy to accompany him on a trip. One that involves a past he hadn’t known existed. And if that sounds mysterious, it is—the way all family secrets are until they encounter the light of day. And the light of day is what Strout sheds on the human condition (and on marriage, on families) more than almost any writer alive—in Oh, William even more than in her previous fabulous novels. I loved every page, I loved every character, and I understood them (and myself) in new ways by the time I had turned the last page. Revelatory is one word for her work. Illuminating another. But the end result, at least for this reader, was pure joy.
The theater in which The Magician is set is global, its historical backdrop that of two world wars and the Cold War that followed, but it is the moving currents of culture, swirling and eddying their way through the forward flow of that (chillingly timely) history which provide such fascinating context for the world-famous German novelist Thomas Mann. His family, moths to the light of his bright-burning flame, illuminate the man and his time—not to mention his work—with haunting clarity, as do the characters who inhabit his novels, from those of the brilliant multigenerational Buddenbrooks to The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus to Death in Venice to The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Like Felix Krull, Tóibín’s Mann is a trickster of sorts, brave enough to buck authority but not public currents, ever in hiding, never able to live freely—sexually, personally or professionally. Not many people (except perhaps Felix Krull) would have the sheer guts, the ruthless knowledge or intuitive understanding to not only imagine the interior world of one of the world’s great novelists, conjure his milieu, but also to (selectively) birth his novels, one after another. It’s an endeavor even more breathtaking than was The Master, brilliant on so many levels that it creates from the clay of a great author’s life a kaleidoscopic, riveting tale of any artist’s riven nature, torn as so many are by the desire to fit in and the inability to do so, the ability to at once see and be blind, love and use that love cold-bloodedly. In short, the ambiguity and anguish inherent in any creative soul.
Although I’ve long loved Freeman’s work, whether novel, memoir or biography, I’ve never been this head-over-heels before. Two women, best friends as children in northern Utah, take utterly dissimilar paths as they enter adulthood, their lives conjoining briefly years later in L.A. before they again part company. Reconnecting as they enter old age, they are as different from one another as they ever were—Jolene having lived life in Paris as a flamboyant feminist known worldwide for her outré performance art, Vera, the voice of the novel, living quietly near MacArthur Park. A successful writer, she’s married the man Jolene had left behind and is only beginning to wonder about the inner workings of that marriage. The childhood friendship is a rolling current beneath the reality of their wildly divergent lives, providing counterpoint to the different paths they’ve taken, the seemingly mismatched characters they possess. All of which is beautifully structured, culminating in the journey they embark on near the novel’s end. Traveling from L.A. across the desert and into the Great Basin on a journey in some ways reminiscent of Jack Burden’s interior journey during his car trip in All the King’s Men, their pasts unfold with the miles—the difference being that Jack was young, his self-revelation false, while the conversations of the two women and Vera’s attendant musing as they draw ever closer to home reveal the past with terrifying clarity. Fascinating in terms of art, literature, music, fulsome in its Jamesian examination of women’s friendships, their relationships with men, with work, with one another, MacArthur Park is constantly surprising, endlessly fascinating, compulsively readable. But be prepared for revelations concerning your own life, illuminated in the reflected light of theirs. An exquisite novel by an author at the pinnacle of her brilliant career.
Webster’s first and second definitions of comedy include happy endings, while its third defines it as “a ludicrous or farcical event or series of events.” According to Webster then, Awad’s sizzling novel is indeed a comedy—albeit a dark one. I howled with laughter as I read All’s Well. But with remembered pain, too, as I followed untenured Shakespeare professor Miranda Fitch through not only a student production of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” the rebellion of said students and their ultimate determination to put on “Macbeth” instead, but also the throes of disabling back and leg pain. Throes that involve not just the pain itself but its treatment—the surgeries and the drugs, the physical and psychiatric therapies which too often blame, shame and otherwise disable the mind and body of the patient (or, more properly, the victim) in the current world of medicine. Anyone with a condition not highly visible or immediately amenable to treatment knows this world all too well. But the cocktail Awad’s genius makes of it (add Shakespeare, a sexy set designer, three mysterious strangers, and stir) is at once ironic enough to elicit serial paroxysms of laughter and lethal enough to create empathetic spasms of horror. Like the play itself, which is, as our professor reminds us, both a comedy and a tragedy, All’s Well plumbs the depths of illness and pain, their impact on the human spirit, as well as stirring our sense of irony. But Awad throws in elements of “Macbeth” as well, not to mention mind-altering psychotropic elements that turn the tale into a witches’ brew of diabolical payback as Miranda, helpless no more, meets head on the threat of a student revolt, a satanic therapist or two and the response of “friends” to chronic illness. Anyone paying attention to this blistering novel will think twice before labeling a colleague’s or loved one’s pain dismissively. And no one who’s read it will forget its long-suffering yet, in the end, formidable hero.
Old-growth redwoods and heartwood, clear cuts and the clearing of roads, the timber industry in Klamath, California, in 1977 and those involved in it: the stuff of this big and big-hearted wonder of a novel. One voice is that of Rich Gunderson, a ‘top cutter’ who works up high like his father before him, a tall man who, also like his father, yearns to fell gigantic ‘24-7,’ the biggest redwood around, and to own the ridge in Damnation Grove where it grows. A second voice is that of his wife Colleen, who yearns just as ardently for another baby, a sibling for their son Chub. Colleen is a midwife, not trained, but consumingly interested in babies she can no longer carry to term and as expert in her accidental profession as is her husband with trees, as is her former lover in watershed biology. But it is the third of the novel’s narrators, Chub, “Grahamcracker,” possessed of an innocent, sometimes unknowing voice, who lies at the beating heart of Damnation Spring. And it is the Gunderson family, kind and well-intentioned despite their differences, along with a close-knit community of friends, neighbors and those with whom they work, whose relationships absorb the reader so thoroughly that the pages seem to turn themselves. Eloquent, sometimes pain-filled, always involving, this saga of big trees and vividly imagined people is quintessentially American—at once tragic and shot through with love—for one another and for the land they inhabit, however flawed their ability to understand it.
Kranes’ stories each address, as the title indicates, the world of performance art—from standup comedy to the fine art of eating glass and fire, from acting in Hollywood to knife throwing in carnivals, sleight-of-hand artistry to derring-do à la Evel Knievel or the escape escapades of a Houdini. Each tale is imbued with a dose of realism—and humanity—in its depiction of what drives such performances (to impose order on the—so often insane—world it explores); what drives people to such a world in the first place; the fears that lurk in the hearts of the performers or of those who observe, admire, or detest them; how such extremes can open life up but also become an end in themselves, distorting, and in the end denying, life. The themes? Performance insecurity, expectation insecurity, performance to defeat insecurity, performance to control insecurity, control period, performance as art, performance as vanity, performance to meet expectations, insecurity in art; art versus performance (painting versus acting), and, in one of my favorite stories, how even the least performative of arts (photojournalism) can become a kind of vivid, shaming striptease. Kranes’ writing is beyond imaginative, his rich descriptive powers everywhere apparent in these tales illuminating new angles on the West we think we know but which ever surprises us.