Shelf Awareness for Friday, December 17, 2021


Union Square Kids: Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illustrated by Tom de Freston

Tor Teen: Into the Light by Mark Oshiro

Peachtree Teen: Junkyard Dogs by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

Blackstone Publishing: The Wisdom of Morrie: Living and Aging Creatively and Joyfully by Morrie Schwartz and Rob Schwartz

Neal Porter Books: All the Beating Hearts by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Cátia Chien

News

Akimbo Bookshop Eyeing Physical Store in Rochester, N.Y.

After opening Akimbo Bookshop as an online bookstore last year, owner Rachel Crawford is looking to open a bricks-and-mortar space in Rochester, N.Y. She has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help bring the bookstore, which focuses on small presses, diverse voices and literature in translation, to a historic building in downtown Rochester. 

"It's a gorgeous space," said Crawford, noting that it has access to outdoor space, is sandwiched between the Eastman School of Music and an independent theater, and is located right on East Ave., one of Rochester's main thoroughfares. "There's a lot of intellectuality buzzing there, and lots of foot traffic."

So far the campaign has raised more than $9,000 out of a $15,000 goal, and an anonymous donor has agreed to match donations up to $1,000 for the next few days. Crawford, who lost her job managing a nonprofit's bookstore and its events program early on in the pandemic, said the support she's received from the Rochester community has been incredible. As a single mom navigating an extremely difficult year, she found it hard to express the extent of her gratitude. "I feel very held by my community right now."

Rachel Crawford

Crawford hopes to move in quickly, without spending a ton of time and money on a build-out. The building would give her roughly 700 square feet of selling space, and she envisions having one wall of shelving and display tables for everything else. Not only does the space have an indie theater as a neighbor, she pointed out, but there are "four or five cafes" in the area and "the rent is amazing."

During Akimbo's first year as an online store, Crawford did not host any events, though she used to run an expansive events program for the nonprofit's bookstore. With the indie theater right next door, she's especially excited to start hosting events that combine books and film. As an example, she's working on a book and film club with Feminist Press that would pair Mahsa Mohebali's novel In Case of Emergency (translated by Mariam Rahmani) with the 2014 Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Crawford called film her "first love," and with the indie theater next door, "the potential for nerding out is unlimited."

There are plenty of authors and translators Crawford would like to bring to Akimbo Bookshop, but she plans to start locally when it comes to author events. She explained that Rochester's literary scene tends to be "eclipsed by the visual arts" despite literature being "integral to the arts," and she wants to highlight local authors. She also plans to get a number of book clubs rolling and have community members and community organizers help pick the books.

Speaking of community organizers, Crawford remarked that Rochester's "activist and mutual aid scene is probably unprecedented" compared to the rest of the country. There is a tradition that dates back to people like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, and current organizations like Black Lives Matter, Free the People and the Tenant Union of Rochester are doing "amazing" work.

Rochester is "rich with activism," Crawford said, and she wants to "make this space work alongside that" and have Akimbo Bookshop "elevate what is already happening here." She added: "Revolutions began in bookstores and cafes." --Alex Mutter


G.P. Putnam's Sons: Loyalty by Lisa Scottoline


Yu and Me Books Opens in NYC

Lucy Yu

Yu and Me Books, an independent bookstore and cafe with a focus on diverse voices, immigrant stories and the Asian diaspora, is open for business in New York City's Chinatown, NBC News reported.

Store owner Lucy Yu, who previously worked as a chemical engineer, opened the store at 44 Mulberry St. last Saturday. Yu and Me Books carries some 16,000 titles, ranging from memoirs like Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner and novels like A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza to the work of lesser known writers from Southeast Asia and Oceania. There are books for children and adults as well as a selection of graphic novels. The cafe, meanwhile, serves treats like red bean buns, sesame buns and sweet butter loaves.

"A lot of bookstores tout bestsellers," Yu told NBC News, "while Asian, Black and Latinx voices aren't amplified in the way they deserve to be."

Yu has been working toward opening Yu and Me Books for over a year. Earlier this year she created a GoFundMe campaign to help with start-up costs that has raised more than $16,000. Looking ahead, Yu plans to start hosting traditional author events as well as events with organizations like American Writers Workshop.

Despite her background in engineering she has been a lifelong bibliophile, and she always dreamed of opening a bookstore of her own "where people who look like me can walk into and think, 'I see myself on the shelves, I feel seen here.'" 

Yu also called the bookstore a tribute to her mother, whose initials are 'YM'. She said: "I’m very proud of my last name and wanted to represent my mom and how proud she was of where she came from, and how our stories are still intertwined.I couldn’t have got to where I am without all the sacrifices she made.”


GLOW: Tordotcom: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill


Binc: Award and Scholarship Winners; Kit Steinaway Retiring

Binc announced that Sarah Bruns Putman of Bookish: An Indie Shop for Folks Who Read, Fort Smith, Ark., has won the Indies with Impact Prize, supported by Penguin Random House; and Mackenzie Van Engelenhoven of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, has been awarded the Carla Gray Memorial Scholarship for Emerging Bookseller-Activists, presented in conjunction with the Friends of Carla Gray Committee.

Putman said the store's vision of its role in the community is to foster the love of reading, with a particular emphasis on reaching students between third and ninth grade. The project will focus on building classroom libraries "so students can see themselves reflected in those bookshelves."

"I am so proud to be among the recipients of the Indies with Impact Award this year," she added. "I spent 15 years in public education and was passionate about introducing great books to the students in my classroom. When I opened the bookshop in 2018, it felt as if my classroom walls just expanded. I know first-hand how difficult it is to curate a classroom library on a teacher salary, that is why I am thrilled to be able to offer scholarships to teachers in my area so they can curate their own classroom libraries--libraries that are diverse, reflective, and relevant. I am grateful to Binc for providing me and Bookish the support to jumpstart our community outreach in Arkansas. I truly believe that the right book in the right hands can change our communities and our world."

Jaci Updike, president of sales, PRH U.S., commented: "Independent bookstores are essential to local communities, and we are proud to provide support for booksellers who are making such a positive difference in people's lives. A heartfelt thank you to our longtime partners at Binc for making this program possible, and for everything they do for the bookselling community across the country."

Carla Gray Memorial Scholarship winner Van Engelenhoven explained that talking with readers in the King's English Bookshop and seeing their thoughts and ideas shaped by diverse books is inspiring. Her project is a store bookmobile to expand the store's reach into the community and bring free books to children in outlying areas that have no access to books or can't afford them. As a long term goal she wants to gradually expand and reach the "Native American reservations in the next five years."

Van Engelenhov added that she is "so honored to be receiving the Carla Gray Memorial Scholarship, and so grateful to Binc for the opportunity to increase my own education and then return and share it with the store. Over the last two years, The King's English Bookshop has undergone huge changes--both pandemic-related and not--so the financial support and opportunity for education comes at the perfect time, as we forge our new identity and find new ways to connect with and support the needs of our customers, particularly the Indigenous communities on nearby reservations."

Binc executive director Pam French commented, "Bookstores are the heart of a thriving community. The programs that will be launched thanks to these collaborations with Penguin Random House and the Friends of Carla Gray will have a lasting impact on the booksellers, bookstore, readers, and community. We look forward to the two visionary projects launching and seeing their lasting results."

---

Kit Steinaway

After 14 years in what she called "the best job of my life," Kit Steinaway, Binc's programs manager, is retiring at the end of the year. She stated, "Coming to work each day and being able to help in some small way as book and comic people bravely meet incredible challenges in their lives has been a true honor. Over these years, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with amazing and dedicated professionals in every facet of the industry. The one thing we all have in common is the firm belief in the importance of the beauty, knowledge, and vibrancy that bookstores and comic shops bring to their communities. For this, and for all of you, I am eternally grateful."

Pam French called Steinaway "the voice, the helping hand, and the soul of the Foundation.... She has well earned her retirement, but her humor, insight and willingness to jump in and figure it out will be missed every day."

Binc noted that during her tenure, Steinaway has attended more than 66 industry trade shows and conferences, visited more than 200 bookstores, sent hundreds of packets to introduce Binc to stores and led 38 program committee meetings. And "during Kit's tenure 4,878 natural disasters occurred... many of which she helped folks through."


Soho Press: Black Dove by Colin McAdam


Bloomsbury Buys ABC-CLIO

Bloomsbury Publishing has bought ABC-CLIO, the academic publisher of reference, nonfiction, online curriculum and professional development materials for schools, academic libraries and public libraries. Founded in 1955, ABC-CLIO, headquartered in Santa Barbara, Calif., has four imprints, 32 databases and more than 23,000 titles in its portfolio. ABC-CLIO will be part of Bloomsbury USA and the company's academic and professional division.

Bloomsbury CEO Nigel Newton commented: "ABC-Clio is a strong addition to Bloomsbury USA, our academic and professional division and Bloomsbury Digital Resources. This acquisition significantly grows Bloomsbury's academic and digital publishing presence in North America, creates new opportunities in international markets and opens new publishing areas to Bloomsbury, and is another key step in the delivery of our long-term strategic growth strategy."

ABC-CLIO president Becky Snyder said, "Founded by Eric and Inge Boehm in 1955, ABC-CLIO has stood at the forefront of scholarly publishing and academic solutions, committed to igniting a lifelong passion for learning through student-led research.  Our family-owned company has had deep ties and commitment to its authors and customers and we believe that intellectual curiosity and educational achievement go hand in hand. We are excited to be joining the team at Bloomsbury; a company we greatly respect and whose values and mission align with ours. We are excited about the opportunity Bloomsbury brings us, to significantly expand our reach in shaping education through innovative products that support research and learning."


Weiser Books: Mexican Sorcery: A Practical Guide to Brujeria de Rancho by Laura Davila


International Update: Readings Opens New Melbourne Store, 'Pandemic Reading Booms' in Trinidad & Tobago

Readings, which operates eight shops in Melbourne, Australia, has opened a new bookstore in Emporium Melbourne. On Facebook, Readings posted: "We are thrilled to announce that our new shop in Emporium Melbourne is now open. Designed by the talented team at Kirsten Thompson Architects, Readings Emporium is a beautiful light filled space overlooking Little Bourke St., complete with beautiful heritage windows and plenty of seating to contemplate and read. Finish the last of your Christmas shopping, stockpile some holiday reading, or simply pay us a visit to say hello!"

Announcing the expansion earlier this fall, Readings noted: "It has been a tumultuous 18 months for bricks-and-mortar retail, and Readings sees this as reaffirming its commitment to books, the city of Melbourne and the publishing industry."

Managing director Mark Rubbo had said: "There is some risk of course as we are banking on the city coming back to life, but we see this as a really positive statement for Readings, for the city, for authors, for publishers and for bricks-and-mortar booksellers. We are proud to be a Melbourne company and believe in our city and its resilience. We hope by investing in the city, and in turn local authors and publishers, we will strengthen our literary community, our business and provide more opportunities for employment."

Operations manager Joe Rubbo added: "We are thrilled to work with Kerstin and her team. We know it will be a beautiful space for readers to connect, discover new authors and share ideas. We look forward to holding events in the space, which we know people are really looking forward to in 2022."

--- 

In a Trinidad and Tobago Newsday piece headlined "Strange new twists as pandemic reading booms," Joan Dayal, owner of the Paper Based Bookshop in St. Ann's, Port of Spain, said that since the Covid-19 pandemic began, more young people have begun following the bookstore on Instagram and readers have requested more fiction to read.

"We did a lot of posting by Track Pack to all corners of Trinidad through TT Post," said Dayal, adding that the bookshop had many requests for African women writers and Caribbean literature, while men asked for award-winning foreign books. "A few men who buy books did a mix, not so much Caribbean, but they requested Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh. Book clubs continued to function during the pandemic.... I found younger people were doing more reading. They would follow foreign book reviews on social media and make requests, often for love stories."

The NGO Let's Read cleaned and packaged books, which they put in Living Water Community food hampers. "People started to ask for books with their hampers," said co-founder and director Suzette Cadiz. "Through donations, we gave out 1,600 brand-new books. Students went to school and collected packages with their names on them."

Let's Read started the Little Free Library in Matura. T&T Newsday wrote that "six such libraries are about to be launched along the north coast, but their names were quickly changed to the Little Community Library, because people thought the books were free to keep.... Let's Read also threw its support behind Shivana Sankar-Balliram's pandemic book drive in Basta Hall, Couva."

"Shivana was inspired by us on Facebook to read to her little girl when she was born," said Cadiz. Let's Read bought Sankar-Balliram a red wagon and walked with her to deliver books on that initial run.

Sankar-Balliram said she had collected many books from reading to her two-year-old daughter since she was born. When the pandemic hit, "she started the idea of a book club in a sanitized environment so children would have access to books that would help them learn," T&T Newsday noted.

"We load up the wagon to deliver books ordered from my e-mail address for children who didn't come to the temple," she said. Together with some of the 50 children she serves, they deliver books. "I see the benefits of reading. My daughter has a photographic memory because of the repetitive reading since birth. I believe education is definitely the way out of poverty, and it starts with reading."

---

In a Twitter thread, Irish children's author Sarah Webb shared a glimpse inside her other job, as a bookseller at Halfway Up the Stairs children's bookshop in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. "Lots of people have expressed surprise that I'm working as a part-time children's bookseller. I don't think they have any idea how skilled a job bookselling is," she tweeted, followed by a list of seven "things children's booksellers do every day." 

Webb noted that "it's a wide ranging, varied role and every day is so different. So there you go--some of the roles of a children's bookseller. I'm off to read more children's books now. My 2022 pile awaits!" --Robert Gray


Notes

Image of the Day: Patricia Cornwell's One Event with One Reader for Autopsy

For her new book, Autopsy (Morrow), Patricia Cornwell held just one in-person signing, with just one reader: it was a surprise appearance with Wesley Thomas, a Washington, D.C., man who had been homeless for nearly 30 years but had recently found shelter through a charity called Miriam's Kitchen, which operates from Western Presbyterian Church.

In a Washington Post story about Thomas, he noted that he loved to read in his new home, and his favorite author is Cornwell. As WTOP recounted, Cornwell saw the story and arranged for the event at the church. Thomas said he was "shocked. Not in a million years I thought this would happen." Cornwell gave him a signed copy of the book and they talked about the plot and characters.

She said she wanted to stay in touch with Thomas. "I'm making a new friend. This is not a hit-and-run: You're going to give me your e-mail and if you'd like, we'll chat some. You might get sick of me actually."


Posman Books's Lyrics Charity Auction Raises $30K

Posman Books, which has a store in New York City, two in Atlanta and another in Boston, has auctioned off two signed copies of Paul McCartney's The Lyrics for a total of $30,701, with the full amount of both auctions going to two charity organizations.

The auctions ran from October 28 to December 14, with one copy selling for $16,100, to benefit the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the other selling for $14,601, to benefit ACLU Georgia.

While Posman Books started both auctions on the store's website, the team moved the auctions to eBay to get better reach and visibility and ultimately raise more money.

"It was really terrific to make that much money for two vital organizations doing such important work--$30,000 is a fantastic sum," said Robert Fader, buyer and v-p of Posman Books. "I'm grateful to everyone at Posman who made this happen and thanks also to W.W. Norton for getting Sir Paul to sign."


Baker & Taylor Publisher Services Adds Five Clients

Baker & Taylor Publisher Services will be providing full sales representation and distribution for five new clients:

Little Feminist, Oakland, Calif., a publisher of children's books that feature under-represented identities and that are anti-racist, body-positive, trans & gender-fluid inclusive, and challenge ableism. Its titles have received numerous accolades, including the 2021 Stonewall Award for We Are Little Feminists: Families, which became the first board book to win an American Library Association medal. (Effective immediately, worldwide.)

Cardinal Rule Press, Wixom, Mich., which produces children's literature that empowers young readers through messages of hope, courage, and the Golden Rule. Some of their books include Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun: Having the Courage to Be Who You Are, Evie's Field Day: More Than One Way to Win, and Sunny Side Upbringing: A Month-by-Month Guide to Raising Kind and Caring Kids. (Effective January 1, worldwide.)

Schaffner Press, Tucson, Ariz., a literary press founded in 2001 by former literary agent Timothy Schaffner. It publishes literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry and focuses on the themes of universal social concern and social change, such as health, the environment, issues of race, war, and other humanitarian issues. In recent years, Schaffner Press has expanded its scope to include books in translation from French and Spanish, with plans to include translations from other languages as well in the near future. (Effective January 1, worldwide.)

Tapioca Stories, New York, which publishes Latin American children's books for English-speaking readers and is devoted to helping children discover the diversity and commonalities between people from all corners of the world. Tapioca Stories selects and translates children's books created by contemporary Latin American authors and illustrators. (Effective immediately, U.S. and Canada.)

Feeding Minds Press, Washington, D.C., a part of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture that has the mission of building awareness and understanding of agriculture through education. Feeding Minds Press publishes children's books that connect young readers to where their food comes from and who grows it. (Effective January 1, U.S. and Canada.)


Personnel Changes at Macmillan Children's Publishing

Leigh Ann Higgins has been promoted from marketing assistant to marketing coordinator at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group.


Media and Movies

Media Heat: Amanda M. Fairbanks on CBS Saturday

Tomorrow:
CBS Saturday: Amanda M. Fairbanks, author of The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind (Gallery Books, $28, 9781982103231).


TV: Dead Reckoning

Chambers producer Andrew Nunnelly is adapting The Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History by Dr. Nicholas Barratt, for Sreda Global. Deadline reported that the limited series, titled Dead Reckoning, "is a thriller set amidst the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic that combines horror and supernatural elements with a never before told true story revealing the truth of what really sunk down the ship--and the otherworldly, haunting details that defy explanation to this day."

Nunnelly will write the script, and a search is currently underway for a director. Alexander Tsekalo and Cory Lanier will executive produce for Sreda Global with Nunnelly producing via his Askew Inc. banner.



Books & Authors

Awards: YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalists; PEN America Literary Longlists

The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, has announced five finalists for the 2022 Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award, which honors the best in nonfiction published for young adults (ages 12-18), highlighting excellence in writing, research, presentation and readability. The winner will be named January at the Youth Media Awards during the ALA’s virtual LibLearnX: The Library Learning Experience. The Excellence in Nonfiction finalists are:

Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield by Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers)
Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert (Balzer + Bray)
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo (Norton Young Readers)
In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers: The Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months and Years After the 9/11 Attacks by Don Brown (Etch/HMH)
The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life by Amy Butler Greenfield (Random House Studio)

--- 

Longlists have been released for the 2022 PEN America Literary Awards, which will confer more than $350,000 on writers and translators. Spanning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, science writing, translation and more, these longlisted titles "are dynamic, diverse, and thought-provoking examples of literary excellence," PEN America noted. Finalists for all book awards will be revealed in January. The longlisted titles may be viewed here.


Reading with... Hannah Morrissey

photo: Alaxandra Rutella

Hannah Morrissey grew up on a farm in a small northern town and now lives near Milwaukee with her husband and two pugs. Hello, Transcriber (Minotaur Books, November 30, 2021), her debut novel, was inspired by her work as a police transcriber. This thriller-romance hybrid centers on a married police department transcriber who becomes fixated on a case and on the detective covering it.

On your nightstand now:

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby. I love the premise of two unlikely and unconventional heroes uniting to find out who murdered their sons.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton for the first time when I was 12. While I always knew I wanted to be a writer, this book opened a whole new world of "What if?"

Your top five authors:

I'm afraid that as soon as I commit to five authors here, I'm going to discover a new favorite. But I consistently love Michael Crichton, Oscar Wilde, Tana French, Gillian Flynn and Lisa Jewell.

Book you've faked reading:

Literally every book for my Vampires in Translation class. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it was. I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova instead, and got a much more thorough education on Vlad the Impaler and his victims.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano. To say I LOVE this book is an understatement. This book is like ordering a piece of chocolate cake, and then discovering a layer of cookie dough in the middle. It's a delicious surprise, with hilarious banter and oh-so-relatable characters. I recommend this book to anyone who loves a fun mystery. In fact, I just recommended it to my dental hygienist.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson. I love the cold hues of this cover and the girl who is either falling or floating, reaching for a skeleton key. It gives me chills just looking at it. I haven't read it yet, but it's high up on my TBR!

Book you hid from your parents:

I never really had to hide any books from my parents. I will say, however, that I read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon when I was pretty young and if they knew how sexy those books are, they might have encouraged me to read something else. Not that I would have listened, haha.

Book that changed your life:

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is my favorite book from when I was a kid, and it stands the test of time for me, today. It made me fall in love with creating characters and exploring fictional worlds one word at a time.

Favorite line from a book:

Can you do it? When the time comes?... Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? --The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I love the weight of this thought, the sparring idea of killing the person you love most in this world because it's better than what will happen if you don't. Cormac McCarthy is a master at accomplishing rich, painfully evocative emotion in sparse words.

Five books you'll never part with:

I feel like each of these books has something new to offer every time you read them:

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I read an interesting thing about sequels, that they exist because we want to experience something for the first time again. If there was a book I could truly read again for the first time, I would choose Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. She really got me with that twist.

Book with a perfect ending:

I have two: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I won't spoil the endings, of course, but by the time I read the final sentence of each of these novels, I felt like I could look back and see how instrumentally everything had been laid out with total perfection.


Book Review

Review: Our American Friend

Our American Friend by Anna Pitoniak (Simon & Schuster, $27.99 hardcover, 336p., 9781982158804, February 15, 2022)

Anna Pitoniak's twisty third novel, Our American Friend, clearly draws at least some inspiration from former First Lady Melania Trump. But this fast-paced combination of thriller, Cold War history and sharp commentary on making one's way in the world as a woman stands on its own. Pitoniak's novel follows two very different women: Lara Caine, a Russian ex-model married to a blowhard U.S. president, and Sofie Morse, the young journalist invited to write Mrs. Caine's biography.

In classic thriller fashion, Pitoniak (The Futures; Necessary People) begins her story near the end: Sofie and her husband, Ben, are living under the radar in Split, Croatia, after a hinted-at scandal involving the First Lady. How they got there, and why, is a mystery that slowly unravels over the following chapters, as readers learn about Sofie's background and how she became drawn into Lara Caine's rarefied life. As the First Lady tells Sofie her story, the narration begins shifting between Sofie's present-day experiences and Lara's life growing up as the daughter of a diplomat in postwar Moscow and Paris. Readers meet Lara's parents and sister, and get glimpses into her privileged childhood, the challenges of her teen years and the secrets the public doesn't know. As Sofie absorbs more and more of Lara's story--meeting Lara's family, even traveling to the First Lady's weekend home--she can't shake the question: Why has Lara decided her biography should be written now? And why did she choose Sofie to write it?

Pitoniak expertly evokes the tense atmosphere of Cold War-era Europe, where Soviet diplomats living abroad enjoyed greater freedoms than at home, but were still constantly looking over their shoulders. At first, Sofie's present-day life seems less complicated, but as her time with the First Lady continues, she starts wondering if there's more to this project than meets the eye. The secondary characters include several other sharp-eyed women (Sofie's sister, Lara's mother, a family friend), all of whom must make different, difficult choices to build the lives they want. Through the intertwined lives of her characters, Pitoniak muses on the mutability of history, the trickiness of making decisions for love, and the ways in which secrets--even long-buried ones--can take on a life of their own.

With sharp observations on everything from D.C. insider politics to the mundane details of family life, Our American Friend is both an engaging feminist thriller and a meditation on the ways history often surprises even the people who make it. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Anna Pitoniak's smart, twisty third novel combines Cold War history with espionage and sharp feminist social commentary.


Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Which Reminds Me of... A Christmas Carol

'Tis the season--again--for holiday travel and get-togethers with friends and family amid the challenges of a global pandemic. Yes, personal and public protection measures remain essential, but that doesn't mean you have to be a Scrooge about traveling and spending time with loved ones. --WebMD

Hear that? It's the sound of A Christmas Carol being read aloud in homes, performed on movie and TV screens, and produced on stages all over the planet. You think the Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies are ubiquitous? Bah, humbug! Scrooge never sleeps this month. It's a wonder he can even find time to take a meeting with Spirits. 

Which reminds me of...

Whistlestop Bookshop, Carlisle, Pa., posted on Facebook earlier this month: "Peculiar, perhaps, to share this illustration by Harry Furniss to a 1910 edition of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, but today has turned into a dark rainy Monday. Happy December!... Everyone should re-read the Carol sometime this month, if only to remind yourself how radically progressive it was (and is). How Dickens could show you horrors of society, tragedies of personal choices, and make you laugh at the same time is a mystery of art...." 

Which reminds me of...

Yesterday, I typed "Dickens Christmas Carol" into Google News search. The first item to pop up was an op-ed from the San Diego Union-Tribune, headlined "Opinion: Here's what A Christmas Carol can teach us during the pandemic." 

Emery Cummins (something of a Dickenisan moniker itself) wrote: "In 2021, we do well to remember this Victorian tale when tempted to place personal convenience over the well-being of others. It is all too easy to scoff, 'Bah, humbug!' when asked to show proof of vaccination or wear a mask. But when the common welfare of our fellow citizens hangs in the balance, we have a community obligation to set aside personal feelings and engage in behaviors that protect the weakest among us from serious illness or death."

I also discovered that People's Light theater in Philadelphia is featuring a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol with a different perspective. The Inquirer reported that producing director Zak Berkman "says he sees Scrooge less as the epitome of greed and more as a man ravaged by loss and fearful of opening his heart. He subtitles his adaptation 'A Ghost Story of Grief & Generosity'.... Grief, is of course, one of the leitmotifs of our current Covid-19 era, whether over economic hardship, social isolation, or the illness or death of loved ones."

Which reminds me of... 

In Christopher Morley's classic novel The Haunted Bookshop, proprietor Roger Mifflin observes that after Thanksgiving, "my mind always turns to Christmas, and Christmas means Charles Dickens. My dear, would it bore you if we had a go at the old Christmas Stories?" 

Not, however, A Christmas Carol, because Roger proclaims that the other stories are "infinitely better. Everybody gets the Carol dinned into them until they're weary of it, but no one nowadays seems to read the others. I tell you, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas to me if I didn't read these tales over again every year."

Which reminds me of...

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City displays Charles Dickens's original manuscript of A Christmas Carol every holiday season, always turning one page. This year it is open to the finale of Scrooge's quarrel with his nephew over the value of Christmas. I last paid tribute to this manuscript in 2016, sitting in the library and thinking about the book as both a singular art object as well as the original vessel for a fundamental tale we share again and again to remind ourselves of an important lesson about being human that seemed so obvious when we were children. We... tend to forget.

Which reminds me of...

When the Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge attend--though spiritually distanced--the festive office Christmas party Mr. Fezziwig throws for his employees, this conversation ensues: 

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude."
"Small!" echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
"Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"
"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

Which reminds me of...

Whistlestop Bookshop's excellent Dickens Facebook post, mentioned above, reached this conclusion: "As a kid I did not empathize with Scrooge's terror at seeing his own tombstone--the silence of the Third Spirit was scarier to me--but as I get older I begin to understand it represents to Scrooge all the lost opportunities for joy and happiness. If the tombstone is the sum total of your life, surely it is better to be kind and generous while you're alive and be remembered as such." 

Which reminds me of... A Christmas Carol.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor

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