Betsy Burton is the co-owner and 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 almost forty years ago.
Once in a great while a book strips you to the marrow. Erosion did this to me. Undid me completely. I’ve been—we’ve all been—desperate in this time of desecration and destruction. Terry Tempest Williams holds up a mirror for us, reflecting our pain by showing us hers in both a personal and a global sense, not only forcing us to look squarely at the political and environmental landscapes, but to regard them from new angles. In the first essay she makes clear that the world she so loves is disintegrating, herself along with it, and that the only way to fight off despair is to not just see the erosion of so much that we love for what it is, the pain of it, but, as her father tells her, to stare it down. The pain of it. The grief. The metaphors for doing so are as rich and varied as the earth she writes of. The night vision of owls, the helping hand of community, the reality reflected in bleached bones....The cast of characters who populate our ravaged world are all there in vivid prose and poetry as well: owl, sage grouse, prairie dog, polar bear, protesters, storytellers, drillers, politicians, all crisscrossing the eroding landscape, hiding, flying wild, denying, meeting, fighting. The price she’s paid for her own fight is recited, the loss of a job, a way of life, a landscape, as she seeks answers in other places, at Harvard Divinity School where she now teaches, attempting to learn about the ongoing erosion not only of place but of community and of the body politic, of democracy. The erosion, in other words, of all we know. Her brother dies. Suicide. The unthinkable pain of it. Our future, eroding as we watch. The need to fight—and, finally, the hope that can come. The fight for Bears Ears now in court, the fight for San Juan County, won against all odds. Her view is not from the peaks of wilderness but from bedrock—the only place we can viscerally feel the need for change.
First there is the tart voice of Halima, as astute and acerbic as Elizabeth Bennet’s, followed by that of Jacob Wainwright, a not-yet-ordained minister so blinded by the light of his own missionary zeal that he misperceives all that he sees. Through the eyes of this unlikely pair, cook and scribe respectively, both former slaves, we see the man for whom they work, Dr. Livingston, funny, flawed, obsessively searching for the source of the Nile even as he grows increasingly ill. His death and the epic journey of his company from the interior of Africa to the coast, and then on to England, bearing his remains, is the stuff of this imaginative and masterful novel. The path they take through hostile terrain teems with danger—from one another as well as from the outside, from hostile tribes and from starvation. But it is also scarred everywhere with traces of the slave trade that ravaged the continent and its peoples. Gappah brings to light the source not of the Nile but of the taking, buying and selling of human beings, the evidence of which is savagely vivid and indelible, echoing hauntingly through their journey. As large as life and as paradoxical, as full of sex and gossip and deceit and goodness and death as all of our lives, Out of Darkness, Shining Light does illuminate the world—its darkness as well as its light.
Eight-year-old John, who observes accurately enough but doesn’t necessarily understand what he sees, lives through a long hot Washington D.C. summer in 1959 in a neighborhood plagued (or blessed, if you’re precocious) by spiders, gossip, hatred for Nazi sympathizers, communists, and anyone else who is the least bit different. Trouble is, because it’s D.C., politicians, spies, and diplomats from across the nation and around the world abound; everyone is different—even in the 1950s. When the arachnid invasion and the rare lizard-like creature being studied in the National Museum present John, his two best friends, and their tomboy sidekick Beatrix with the possibility of a weapon akin to the new and fearsome nuclear bomb, they embark on a quest that turns into high adventure. This, along with their attempts to protect Ivan’s gorgeous aunt, to get a look at the iron lung and the translucent frog of their next-door neighbor, and to plan a party they think will bring peace to the neighborhood, makes their summer full to say the least in a tale that is funny one minute, terrifying the next. Acidly sweet and painfully clear-eyed, a wondrous combination of great storytelling and dead-eyed truth-telling, Summerlings is an absolute joy to read. If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer or that effervescent memoir by Chris Rush, The Light Years, Summerlings is the book for you.
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.
As in Shakespeare’s famous play, a boy and a girl from two houses ‘alike in dignity’ (in this case the homes of two Irish cops whose fates have turned these next-door neighbors against one another) fall in love, into that seemingly boundless sea of passion the bard described so brilliantly and that Keane too captures perfectly, achingly—but differently, not ending the bloom of perfect teenage love with death but instead following its course over years so that what might well become a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion develops at a slow boil. As the lives of Kate and Peter play out, so too do the lives of their parents and relations, from the time of their own blooming loves through the shoals and riptides of their respective marriages. This is a gripping, wise and bighearted novel whose characters come alive on the page, wowing the reader. I consumed it with a lump in my throat and a fast-beating heart and, in the end, found my hope in humanity renewed by that alchemy that can be found in only the best fiction.
As fluid and elusive as the watery world in which the protagonist is so often submerged, Rock’s latest is, like all his work, dreamlike, fragmented, unpredictable. A young man still dependent on his parents is spending a summer with them in a lake community on the shores of Lake Michigan. He’s trying to write but is essentially unmoored. Swimming almost nightly, he’s aware in a dreamlike way of what goes on in the lake’s shadowy depths, its currents, crosscurrents, undercurrents, just as he is subliminally aware of the unseen forces that have driven his own past. Then he encounters another swimmer, a widow a decade older who is as mysterious as the watery depths above which they stroke in tandem. All of this moves back and forth with a present 20 years later when the narrator/author, now a husband and father, parents his two daughters with love and imagination. I’ve never read a better account of a young man adrift in a world still unchartered in his mind. I found it spellbinding and brilliantly illuminating.
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.
I fell instantly under the spell of The Far Field. Reading in the first couple of pages of regrets expressed for things that had happened six years before, seeing a sleeping mother, a mysterious visitor, I wanted to know more. I wondered with the child, Shalini, what could be behind the lethal tongue of her quick-witted, unbridled mother or the visits of the man from Kashmir who appeared from time to time, telling them stories as they sat on the couch during the day when the father was at work. My curiosity snagged and my empathy stirred, I made my willing way with Shalini, now grown, as she traveled to Kashmir on an improbable search for the man from her childhood and for answers to that original mystery of who her mother was. Following Shalini from childhood into adulthood, from Bangalore to a small mountain village in Kashmir that opened her eyes and her heart, I found myself transformed—not just by the bewitching language and the irresistible pull of the story but also by the humanity and cleareyed compassion of the teller. A compassion that allows reader and teller alike to recognize truth and then to forgive—oneself as well as others. This isn’t just a good book but a passionate, farseeing and utterly brilliant novel.
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.
If Sheldon Horowitz, the octogenarian New Yorker on the run in Oslo in Norwegian by Night, was an intriguing, quirky, and in the end unforgettable character, so too is Irving Wylie, the laid-back philo- sophical sheriff, part-time theologian and full-time humorist, who is searching for a Norwegian suspected of murder in upstate New York. Sigard Odegard, Oslo’s police chief, has been packed off to America by her father to rescue Marcus, a brother she hasn’t seen for decades and the suspect in the murder Irv is investigating. Prepare yourself for not only a mystery of substance but a satiric look at America from kindness to kitsch, guns to gluttony (the Cheesecake Factory scene for one sly example) to overt and covert racism as plainspoken Sigard crosses swords and words with the ever-surprising (and often laugh-out-loud funny) Irv. Romance, suspense, humor are all here but so is a witty, perceptive picture of America, warts and all. I loved it.
Two scientists, one an American naturalist who’s studying the lifeway of the urban fox, the other a Ghanaian psychiatrist who’s studying the impact of trauma on the brain, on human behavior, collide, literally, on a bridge in London. That collision is figurative as well as literal, however, since their encounter creates not just a connection but an unraveling, a re-raveling, that has consequences for them both. All of which sounds neat and tidy but like life, there is nothing tidy or neat about this intriguing, sometimes touching, often funny tale, weaving as it does an ardent chase down urban streets in search of a fox, of a missing child, of an old love, with a search for truth through the muddiness of misinformed beliefs and convictions. Happiness is a skillfully constructed, wonderfully written and complicated novel but also a fast-moving one; I couldn’t put it down and I can’t quit thinking about it.
Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran who is no stranger to war or to violence, has a peaceful new occupation: reading the news to isolated communities in North Texas. Until he accepts a gold piece as payment for transporting back to her own people a 10-year-old white girl who’d been captured by the Kiowa four years before. Trouble is, Joanna thinks she’s been kidnapped; that the Kiowa are her people. So begins a journey you’re guaranteed not just to enjoy but think about and remember as this unlikely duo takes to the road, trailed by danger. Although they slowly forge a bond, despite themselves, Captain Kidd is determined to do what he considers to be right. At journey’s end what’s right becomes problematic, however, and the expected sentimental ending becomes instead a situation that is unexpected, unsettling, and ambiguous—both legally and morally. Which, along with the lyrical writing, may be the reason this little novel was short- listed for the National Book Award last year. But awards notwith- standing, this is a rip-snorting Western novel, full of action, while at the same time a touching tale of two people, one 70, one 10, learning to care. A rare and lovely combination.
Like Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, is a Shakespearean retelling, this time” of “The Tempest.” It’s also a novel of revenge unlike any you’ve ever encountered. It involves a famous theatre director, Felix, who, on the brink of launching a production of ”The Tempest” that will secure him eternal fame, is cast out of the world he loves by a conniving assistant. If not already alerted to the fact that, although part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series Hag-Seed is a highly unusual retelling of “The Tempest,” the reader would recognize the odd quality of the rough magic in the air right in the Prologue, which features dialogue in rollicking rap delivered by a burley boatswain; Ariel clad in a blue plastic bathing cap and iridescent googles; the crack of gunshots. Clearly no ordinary play!
But back to the story. Our hero Felix, cast out, downcast, bent on revenge, now lives in an abandoned shack, his only company the ghost of his long-dead daughter Miranda. After finally coming to life Felix applies for a job as theatre director at the local correctional facility. The inmates, dubious to a man and dangerous to say the least, become increasingly enchanted by Shakespeare—re-written to suit their world—and by the heady seductions of theatre, while the reader grows equally enchanted by them. Then Felix learns his nemesis is to visit the prison—preparatory to doing away with the theatre program that the inmates so love.
What follows is pure Shakespeare. Or rather, pure Margaret Atwood: people at cross purposes, plays within plays, star-crossed fates if not lovers, a tangle of betrayal and fealty, love and greed and jealously, all of which proceed at a heart-in-throat pace, the mood at once darkly cynical and deliciously satiric, every page conveying the irresistible sorcery of the stage and the heady air of comedy. Pure magic.