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.
The best books make our own lives recede, vanish completely, as we fall into the lives of others—until, in the end, our lives are illuminated in vivid and unforgettable flashes. The Covenant of Water does exactly that, immersing us in Southern India—in its history, its religions and castes and culture, as well as the lives of one family (and the parallel life of a Scottish doctor) through time and endless complications; the book’s characters fall in and out of love, parent children, harbor secrets, encounter obstacles, and endure pain physical and psychic. The reader is in thrall, page by riveting page, from the time a 12-year-old bride-to-be alights fearfully in Parambil, the new home in which her life will unspool—as wife, as mother, as matriarch—in ways she could never have foretold. Yet if family is the substance of this miracle of a novel so grounded in character, medicine is its spine, the backbone around which the tale is wrapped. Not just the science of medicine, the miracles that it can perform, the mysteries it can solve, but the DUTY of it. The care. This duty of care thrums through every one of the ten parts of this beyond-brilliant book, as does the balm of compassion. The result is a novel that grabs not just our interest, as we race spellbound through the story; not just our minds, each page a revelation into the sweep of history and the fascinating particularity of science; but most of all our hearts. We are so utterly captivated by the whole of it—by its narrative and its characters and the history and landscape it portrays, by the world view it imparts and the empathy that is at its core—that it becomes one with us. This is the best of novels. Perhaps the best ever. Miraculous doesn’t begin to describe it.
Like his previous Deacon King Kong, McBride’s latest is a great read peopled by unforgettable characters and a plot that twists and turns its way through love and skullduggery, greed and hatred, not to mention, thank God, kindness in unexpected places. But unlike McBride’s last book, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is, despite its early 20th century rural Pennsylvania setting, purely and wholly American. Which is to say divisive in terms of religion, race, wealth or the lack thereof. Pottstown PA in the ‘20s featured not one but two Jewish groups, one at the top of ‘Chicken Hill’, one at the bottom; two sets of blacks, one in town, one outside, two classes of whites, white Christians who had everything, ran everything and the countless immigrants from pretty much everywhere else who made the shoes, baked the bread, sold the groceries, nursed the sick, ran the railroads, fixed the cars, fought the fires and, through their complex network of relationships with all the town’s denizens, kept its heart beating, its roads clear, its water running. And speaking of water, one memorable tangle in the plot involves (shades of the Wild West) water, who owns it on paper, who benefits from it in fact.
There are two improbably moving love stories, a funny, fractious and totally entertaining skein of friendships and, at the novel’s heart two people—a dark-haired and lovely, kind-hearted but tough-minded Jewish woman named Chona and a bright, hyperactive but well-intentioned black kid known as Dodo, deaf and an orphan—who, along with Dodo’s friend Monkey Face, will haunt your dreams forever.
Then as now, the most endowed and entitled are convinced that all who are unlike themselves are out to replace them (sound familiar?). The great mythology that was already crystalizing into the America we know now is, as I write this, coming to pass. So read The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store as a cautionary tale or read it as sheer unadulterated entertainment, but read it you must. Given the state of our world today (the phrase, in our end is our beginning, comes tragically to mind) you can’t afford not to.
I love little books that seem to meander but ultimately get straight to some final earth-shaking point (or reveal that there isn’t one). McCracken’s latest, a novel on the face of it but one that might or might not double as a memoir, is such a book. As the narrator saunters along the streets of London during a single day, fondly recalling similar trips with her supposedly fictional mother, we begin to visualize that diminutive and extraordinary woman (obviously the ‘hero’ of the book) who walked with canes but was stopped by nothing; was indomitable, funny, and brilliant; was a beloved boss not only to her editors but to her daughter as well—and likewise to picture that daughter, a supposedly fictional narrator who is, as is McCracken herself, a noted novelist and teacher of writing. Autofiction, according to the narrator, going on to say that she hates autofiction. Real or imagined, I loved mother and daughter alike. Both simultaneously moved me and made me laugh. Together they taught me things I didn’t know or perhaps hadn’t recognized about love and about families, about self-determination and its opposite. And about the art (not craft, our narrator would insist) of writing. As in Elizabeth Strout’s work, the brief but pregnant musings of Elizabeth McCracken are worth far more than the ponderous paragraphs of our “weightier” contemporary writers.
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.
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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.