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.
Only the best storytellers can take you to another life in 20 pages or less. Following on the heels of her novel, Writers and Lovers, Lily King’s new short story collection is about family life, the secrets young girls hold (whether they want to or not), and young love in its various iterations. Capturing with acuity and humor the darker impulses of us all, whether children, teenagers, or adults, this is vintage King slipping seamlessly from irony to honesty, rage to humor to heartfelt compassion. The perfect stocking stuffer for the person in your life who doesn’t have enough time to read for pleasure and needs something great when they do.
After quoting paragraphs from great writers of the last century from Faulkner to Morrison, Nabokov to Woolf, National Book Award-winning novelist McDermott says, flatly, “I expect the fiction I read to be memorable.” Her take on fiction certainly is. From the particular to the overarching, the pithy to the plainspoken, McDermott’s ideas on the craft of writing are often amusing, as often piercingly analytical, always informative, even revelatory, whether she writes about writers, about words, about sentences, about grammar, about the arc of a novelist’s life. What about the baby? Why not consider what your reader needs to hear (in this case the baby’s fate) rather than the fruition of some clever notion of the author’s? McDermott speaks with passion on this and so much else that’s fascinating about the art of writing and the lives of writers, gleaning insight and crystalizing craft from a chorus of the world’s best writers, some of whom you may never have heard, that the reader is engaged, enthralled from page to fascinating page. A book for writers, certainly, but also for everyone who loves books.
Woven from the tattered cloth of childhood memory, meticulously amplified by research (although with the attendant limitations of paper trails into the past) and by imagination based on family knowledge, The Mike File is carefully leavened by the soul-searching honesty that lies at the heart of this chronicle of a lost brother. In a scene remembered vividly by 6-year-old Stephen, his big brother Mike was 14 when his rage became uncontainable. He was institutionalized, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Oh, the process was longer and far more complicated, of course, but that searing memory is the springboard for Trimble’s attempts to investigate what he had for years failed to even try to understand. Ironic, since Trimble, an award-winning nonfiction writer and photographer, is known not just for his research skills but also for his ability to “see,” as his trademark skill with camera and pen bring both past and present to life. This piece of the author’s past, however, had been carefully boxed and stored for years as pluperfect, over in another lifetime, the easy explanations of psychiatry (the year was 1957 and mental illness was, to say the least, misunderstood) the perfect tool for avoidance. Now, finally, when Trimble is ready to examine that past and face head-on whatever reality he finds, the investigative skills honed over the course of his adult life make that examination not only possible but far-reaching. The process he undergoes, externally as an investigator and internally as a brother and feeling human being, is often fascinating and always absorbing. As I followed in his path, I found myself yearning for greater honesty in my family, doubting my own empathy for lost siblings even as he found his. This is a remarkable little book, meticulously detailed and yet expansive, drilling implacably toward reality yet compassionate, forgiving. Not every family buries the same secrets, but all bury truth in one way or another. The Mike File offers a compelling and empathetic argument for finding that truth.
On the one hand a lovely reminiscence of the Trappist Monastery in Huntsville, on the other hand this is a moving coming-of-age story in which the monks at the Holy Trinity Abbey played a significant role in a young boy’s life and ultimately gave him a lens through which to view the world. O’Brien’s father deserted his family when he was young, his mother had little money and their existence in Clearfield, Utah, was hardscrabble. She was an inveterate reader of Catholic literature and found both books and peace upon their first visit to the monastery. As did her son, who before long had a job in the bookstore. His visits turned daily, and for some years he spent his (early!) mornings there in the dairy, the chicken coops, the cemetery (which was forbidden), working, praying, learning alongside some in a group of astonishing men—men who were patient when he shadowed them and there when he needed them. The story of that need, and of the peace O’Brien found with the monks—not to mention the belief that sustains him despite all—the tale of his doubts when the Catholic Church was accused, rightfully, of abuse again and again—are all here, mixed with childhood angst and exuberance, teenage self-obsession, self-doubt, “foolishness,” leavened with a gentle humor that he seems to have absorbed from his time with his beloved monks. The monastery’s history, its relationship to the LDS Church, the spirituality he breathed in with the clear air during his time there are an illuminating prism through which not just to see but also to understand his past and his present. A touching memoir.
It’s hard to believe that this is the final book by the man known everywhere as the finest spy novelist of our times (and one of our best novelists, per se). But perhaps it’s even more difficult to believe that a man close to 90 could write a novel which, although short, is possessed of such complexity and moral depth—and better, one which has a bookseller as a protagonist! Julian Lawndsley, a well-to-do financial trader has left London and the high life in his prime to run a small bookshop in a seaside town. Perhaps because, despite the sophistication of his former career, he is a neophyte in the book business, when a Polish émigré with deep book knowledge and heady ideas walks in, our hero is intrigued. As he gets to know more about Edward Avon—and, in the end, his family—Julian learns his new friend has many faces, one of them that of a past MI6 agent; that Avon’s wife, an ex-agent as well, is dying of cancer, that her relationship to her husband is ambiguous to say the least; and that their daughter is possessed of a surprising degree of hostility to both parents. An even more tangled skein involves a spy named Proctor who is following Avon’s present movements and winnowing through his past—especially as it relates to Bosnia, where Avon worked for the government under the code name Florian. Complexity upon complexity winds its way into the plot in typical le Carré style, leaving the reader wondering and guessing, sympathies torn as the threads of past and present begin to merge and personal and political loyalties war, while Julian inadvertently plays bit parts and watches from the sidelines. In short, quintessential le Carré, brooding, layered, ambiguous, labyrinthian, and suspenseful—what could be better?
Ellen Adams, a political opponent of the new President, has, to her surprise, been named Secretary of State. Although she quickly discovers the appointment to be a political ploy, still, she is possessed of the power of her high office—a good thing when a coded message is delivered by a young FSO worker and a bomb is detonated almost immediately in London, followed by another in Paris. The mystery of their origin and the subsequent targets of the bombers, the stuff of this tense and readable thriller, involve a tangle of Pakistani, Irani and Afghani politics, along with aspirations of a group of terrorists to which these complicit countries have—intentionally or not—given birth. Clinton’s expertise as Secretary of State and Penny’s at penning well-plotted mysteries make this not only riveting and frightening, but also as informative as any primer on present-day politics of the Middle East. Fascinating and page-turning, it has the added benefit of a feminist cabal of capable women.
Billy is the most likable assassin you’re likely to meet in any thriller: he checks to make sure his victims are truly deserving of their fates, he’s kind, polite to a fault, thoughtful. Engaged on what he hopes will be his last assignment—taking out another assassin who is presently awaiting extradition and arraignment, timing uncertain—Billy embeds himself in a small town called Red Bluff. Without intending to, he begins to make friends with his neighbors, their children, and his office mates—not the best of strategies for an assassin. Worse, having endless time on his hands, he begins work on the memoir that’s supposed to be his cover (ironically), although aware that his associates are monitoring his computer, he’s careful to use the voice he presents to the world. To all who know him professionally, Billy is a phenomenally good shot who is otherwise clueless, a man who asks dumb questions and loves Archie Comic Books. In fact, Billy loves Emile Zola and is ten steps ahead of his associates at all times, as King maintains an ironic balancing act in which our hero teeters on the brink of becoming fully human—especially after he encounters Alice.... But that would be telling. Suffice it to say that King’s witty, compelling and thoughtful book-within-a-book is intriguing, wildly entertaining, chock-full of vivid characters—whether gangsters, hardworking parents, exhausted soldiers or vulnerable children—and, when it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, it is as moving and thoughtful as it is compelling. I couldn’t put it down—which is saying something, considering its 500+ page length.
A boy in the midst of a mixed-race family, a mixed-race community in Houston tells tales of neighbors and friends and families, of his brother and sister, his father and mother, of infidelity and baseball and drugs and death and love in his neighborhood and in his family’s restaurant. The chorus of community interferes and supports, gossips and judges in a coming-of-age story that is harsh in terms of reality, as harrowing as it is touching, vibrantly told and brilliantly original.
Reading Power’s new novel is a bit like reading the Bible—it’s voluminous, lyrical, passionate, compelling, chockfull of fascinating characters, of tales that span years and continents, and beneath its overarching, endlessly compelling story lies one central truth: in this case, the truth of trees. Unlike the Bible, The Overstory is grounded in science as intriguing as the tales it tells, as fascinating as the cast of characters who trek the forests and track the pathways of the internet Powers pulls us into. A research scientist, two voracious readers, an artist, an engineer, a statistician, a techie to the nth degree, trees of every imaginable variety, all interact across species and interests and inclination in a breathtaking book that enchants you, angers you, takes away your hope, gives it back....the ride of a lifetime. The ride of our collective lifetime. Our overstory. Do not miss it. Give a copy to everyone you know. Spread the word. This is a life-changing book.
The little town of Greenstone, Minnesota, is a faded sort of place, the prosperity provided by mining and manufacturing long gone, as is its local almost-hero, a nearly famous baseball player who disappeared in a plane somewhere over Lake Superior a decade back. His good friend Virgil still runs the local theater, selling popcorn to the two or three customers who come in of an evening—until, heading home in a snowstorm one night, Virgil sails off the road, floating toward certain death in the waiting water...Improbably rescued in the nick of time, Virgil has lost some memory (including his favorite adjectives) but gained a second chance at life, evidenced in the new way he looks at old friends, his openness to new ones. A colorful cast of characters—ranging from the vanished ball player’s son, ex-wife, and a father he had never known to the staff at city hall where Virgil works part-time to the giant sturgeon who haunts the local waterways to the unsavory Adam Leer—make for a big-hearted and thoroughly entertaining read graced with humor, a whiff of mystery, and a good dose of whimsy.
The aftermath of war shed a livid glow across the world long after the last bombs were dropped in 1945. In London the lives of two children, Nathaniel and Rachel, were caught in that eerie glow when their mother disappeared, leaving them in the care of “The Moth,” a stranger they’d met once. Still attending school in the day, the pair entered a strange new world in the evenings, their home a sort of night circus with The Moth its impresario, his sidekick “The Darter” ever-present, and a menagerie of mismatched urban dwellers from beekeepers to opera stars, dog smugglers to ethnographers to spies. From the laundry room in the bowels of the Hotel Criterion in Piccadilly Circus to the vacant London houses Nathaniel invaded with his first love Agnes to night journeys with Rachel and The Darter in mussel boats on the Thames, life became a moonlit kaleidoscope of lurid and larger-than-life people and experiences. Their naiveté in the often magical and as often nightmarish parent-free world they were learning to inhabit is the stuff of this brilliant novel—along with the aftermath of their abandonment as they come of age and enter adulthood. As breathlessly told as The English Patient, and as profound, as poignant as The Cat’s Table, and as haunting, Warlight surpasses both in the light it sheds on our aloneness, on our unadmitted needfulness, on the ways war can warp our lives, and on what we try so hard to bury in the darkness of unacknowledged memory. Brilliant doesn’t begin to describe it.