Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, June 8, 2021


Harper: The Hidden Palace: A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

From My Shelf

Flatiron Books: Palace of the Drowned by Christine Mangan

Jimmy Patterson: Daughter of Sparta by Claire Andrews

Beach Tote Paperbacks

Now that summer is nearly upon us, we thought we'd begin offering reviews of some of our favorite new releases in paperback. They're easy to tote, and it's the perfect time to catch up on some gems you may have missed. Pop them into a beach bag along with the sunscreen, or stack them alongside the hammock beside a tumbler of iced tea, or tuck one into the picnic basket along with a blanket and some snacks (outside and maskless!).

Last week we included reviews of one of Shelf Awareness's Best Books of 2020, Homeland Elegies by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (Back Bay, $19.99), which Shelf called "an astounding work of reality fiction," and The Death of Vivek Oji by National Book Award finalist Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead, $17), "a spot-on pick for thoughtful book club discussion" and shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Two poets headline this week's selections: one, a debut poet, John James, whose collection of 30 poems, The Milk Hours (Milkweed, $16, reviewed below), was selected by Henri Cole as the winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize; the other a more seasoned, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Natasha Trethewey, revisiting the themes from her gorgeous poetry collection Monument (Mariner, $15.99) for her memoir memorializing her mother's tragic early death, Memorial Drive (Ecco, $16.99, reviewed below), another of Shelf Awareness's Best Books of 2020.

In the weeks ahead, look for a mix of mysteries and thrillers, romances and nature books. As the days grow long and the sunlight lingers, books make ideal companions--whether you're venturing on trains or planes or buses or simply enjoying the backyard or parks in full bloom closer to home.

--Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness

Grand Central Publishing: Sizzling Summer Reads On Sale Now!


Book Candy

A Great Pairing: Knitting and Reading

CrimeReads investigated "why yarn lovers are good mystery solvers... because knitting and reading simply go together."

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Chirky, for example. Mental Floss suggested "15 antiquated words for 'happy' we should bring back."

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"Behold the Astronomicum Caesareum, 'perhaps the most beautiful scientific book ever printed' (1540)," Open Culture wrote.

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Entertainment Weekly invited readers to share author Rachael Lippincott's attempt to complete the bucket list from her latest novel The Lucky List.

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"Want to try Jane Austen's favorite cheese toastie? Now you can," the Guardian promised.

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Lit Hub checked out a "bizarrely beautiful library inspired by the human brain."


Kin: A Memoir

by Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Shawna Kay Rodenberg's harrowing memoir Kin leads the reader backward and forward in time and across an American landscape of trauma and healing. With a persistent focus on family and home, Rodenberg documents a process of learning and personal growth that is both unique and universal.

Kin opens in 2017, as the author guides CBS reporters though her native eastern Kentucky. They seek to crack open what they see as Trump country, and Rodenberg hopes to complicate that story. The backdrop is "my family's mountain, the mountain where my grandfather mined coal, where my father was reared with great love and brutality, where I picked my grandmother's strawberries and my grandfather's roses... the mountain on which my family sought refuge after leaving The Body, an end-times wilderness community, cloistered in the woods of northern Minnesota, that my father joined when he was red-eyed and mad with fear, following his tour of duty in Vietnam." The narrative then moves back in time to Rodenberg's childhood in Grand Marais, Minn., and the purposeful deprivations of The Body.

Rodenberg's upbringing in this strict religious sect gives her a cultural background that will make it hard for her to fit in later, and she suffers more than one form of abuse within The Body, including her father's recurrent rages. "Instead of following in alcoholic, workaholic footsteps, he made religion his primary vice, religion that was unconventional, ecstatic, even perhaps rebellious--and virtually militaristic, which must have felt familiar." The family eventually moves back to the secular world, to Ohio, to Kentucky and finally to the mountain of family origin. The austere, often angry influences of The Body will follow them.

This memoir recounts family stories, some from Rodenberg's memories, some passed down. She writes of each of her parents' childhoods, and of her aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors. She recounts the history of her hometown, Seco, Ky., a former coal-mining camp. Kin begins well before the traumatic story of Shawna's birth, "bruised-ass-backward into a world of chaos." The chronology is disjointed, jumping back and forth, shifting timelines as well as locations, which can be disorienting for the reader, but that effect feels true to the narrator's experience: Kentucky exerts a strong pull even in Minnesota, and pains felt by generations past are ever present.

At each stage, Rodenberg struggles with the meaning and shape of love and caring, and the confusing truth that those who love us most can hurt us most. Religion will continue to play a large role in her life, complicated by her father's movements to and away from a strict adherence to The Body's teachings. She will continue to wrestle with sex and the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, through her troubled first attempt at college and beyond. Kin closes with Rodenberg on the cusp of pregnancy and marriage, but hints at what is to come: "I wish I could tell [that earlier version of myself] she had come to the beginning, not the end."

Rodenberg's prose is graceful and effortless, vulnerable and raw, beautifully descriptive without drawing attention to itself. She emphasizes character of place, from coal country where women "kept the food covered and draped cribs with quilts to keep the dust off their babies" to "town-sized time capsules, stoppered and sealed.... Barns sank beneath fields of kudzu and the roofs of old houses bowed in the middle like the backs of the ancient, singular mares that waited outside to be fed and put away."

While Kin is first and centrally a memoir of family, it is also about Appalachia, about histories more complicated than the opening scene's reporters care to see. It is ultimately about forgiveness, understanding and love. Rodenberg seeks an emotional reconciliation with her parents, especially the father she has butted heads with all her life. Of that battle, "even now, writing about it fills me with worry that I might be inadvertently reengaging, and that is why talking about it, why telling was and still is the hardest thing.... This is what it means to come from people who have been broken and exploited, they see the world in sides, theirs and the other, and disloyalty is the gravest offense, the blasphemy of the mountains." In a world of just two sides, it might be an act of rebellion to both love someone and hold them responsible.

As narrator, Rodenberg is intelligent and insightful. As character, she is resourceful, scrappy, defiant, brave and exposed. Her memoir is heart-rending and hard-won. "I didn't know when I started writing this book that it would become my own book of Revelations, rife with warning and promise, an account of my own and other apocalypses that created me, end times that predated me but shaped me as surely as if I'd lived through them myself." That sense of regional and filial legacy defines Kin, a work of nuance that complicates received narratives in all the best ways. --Julia Kastner

Bloomsbury Publishing, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781635574555

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin


Shawna Kay Rodenberg: The Timing of Revelations

(photo: Joshua Lucca)

Shawna Kay Rodenberg is originally from Seco, a tiny former coal camp near the headwaters of the Kentucky River in Letcher County, Kentucky. She is a mother, grandmother, community college English instructor and a registered nurse. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, the Bennington Review, the Crab Creek ReviewKudz and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel; she won a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers' Award in creative nonfiction. Rodenberg is also a vocalist; she and her husband, David, are collaborating on an album, a mix of original Americana, vintage country and traditional mountain songs. Her memoir, Kin, will be published by Bloomsbury on June 8.

Your story moves freely backward and forward in time. Why this format?

Kin was born, at least in part, from an obsession with the past, which is not to say I romanticize it, at least not anymore, but I definitely used to. My little niece, Norah, once walked into my house, looked around, and exclaimed, "I just love the way your house is full of past things!"--the best compliment I can imagine. I think maybe my love for past things has something to do with an early realization that they extend infinitely just as the future does, just in a less explored, and often darker, direction. I love uncovering family members who have died as much as I enjoy imagining future generations. No matter how much I research my family's history, I can never get to the bottom of all the mysteries that inevitably crop up, begging to be solved, and I love a good mystery. I think I grew up, thanks to the elderly folks in my life, knowing there was a treasure trove of information to be found there, and that it was disappearing, or at least access to it was becoming more limited with each passing year. Families change, or at least the stories they tell about themselves do. Places change, too. Schoolhouses and family homes crumble and return to the earth, especially in places where money for maintenance is scarce.

As a very little girl, I began "saving" things--relics, photos, family recipes, perfume bottles, letters--and I never stopped. Ultimately, in writing Kin I came to understand that my story began long before I was born, and that telling it well would be an effort of preservation, of saving. What's more, it seems to me that often when people write about Appalachia, they usually begin in the middle of our collective story--they analyze our responses to difficult experiences, without addressing the historical moments that led us to the places, both physical and spiritual, that we inhabit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against this in her TED Talk, "The Single Story," and references the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who said that "if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, 'secondly.' Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story." So often when people write about Appalachia, they begin with opiate addiction, for example, rather than the marked efforts of pharmaceutical companies to ship more narcotics into the region than can safely be used by the population that lives there. Or they talk about poverty without discussing the decimation of the region by underregulated mining practices and extractive American theologies. Or they talk about violence without talking about our history of conflict, conscription and PTSD. More than anything, Kin was an attempt to get as close to the beginning of my story as I could.

You've closed the story of your life before it quite catches up with the present. How do you choose the memoir's scope?

I wrote the first 20 years for a couple reasons. First, because it seemed like a natural stopping point, since I was 20 when I married and left the mountains. But, more than that, I admit I often wish women would write longer, lavish, indulgent memoirs like their male counterparts, like Knausgaard, for example, do. I've been told that women tend to write shorter books and poems. Maybe this is solely pragmatic, because we are often busy, but I also think we tend to be more self-conscious about taking up space and wasting a reader's time. I tried to give myself permission to slow down and tell an indulgent, sprawling story. The next book, which I am already thinking toward, will likely follow the next 20 or so years.

How do you navigate the emotional challenges of writing about difficult memories?

I think I struggled most with this aspect of writing Kin, and I relied heavily on many creature comforts and rituals (British mysteries, too many dessert coffees, miles-long walks in the woods) to carry me through the five-plus years it took to plumb the first years of my story. Even harder to manage than my own discomfort was my worry about the overlapping of my story with the stories of many beloved family members I knew might not appreciate me running my mouth. Privacy is important anywhere but particularly in small communities where there is no anonymity, nowhere to hide. In Evansville, Indiana, where I now live, I can go to the grocery without seeing a single person I know, but this isn't true in the mountains. Even now, a couple decades since I've lived there, when I walk into the IGA in Fleming-Neon, people recognize me and call me by name, sometimes even by nicknames, and their conversations with me often include my parents and extended family members. I have worried myself to death about the responsibility of this, of telling the truth without becoming just another extractive, exploitative entity, especially since I no longer live there. Still, my story is my story, and I believe the entire world would benefit from more women, especially underrepresented rural women, telling the truth about our lives. It feels like navigating uncharted territory, though, and requires more courage than I thought I had.

You are also a poet. What does poetry bring to memoir, or vice versa?

I think it makes sound, the rhythm of a line, the timbre of language, paramount. I read this entire manuscript aloud many times, and not just for purposes of proofreading. I come from people who spin elaborate yarns whenever they get together, and it's such an art, the telling, the timing of revelations, the tone of voice. Poetry is also by its very nature, because of the brevity of the form, about what isn't being said, about the words that have been cut away, which tell their own story in tandem with the one that is actually being told. I think readers are smart enough to recognize this even if it's happening on a subconscious level, that the story they're being told is a fragment floating over unfathomable depths, and that those depths are part of the story as well.

Your acknowledgements express hope for more memoirs from rural-born women, with their "gorgeous, complicated voices." What would you say to women in Appalachia and beyond about telling their stories? 

That it's the most important thing we can do, and that it's worth every moment of doubt. When you're a writer, the world becomes your family, and it desperately needs your voice. --Julia Kastner


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Great Reads

Rediscover: The Man Who Lived Underground

On April 20, 2021, Library of America released The Man Who Lived Underground, a previously unpublished novel by Richard Wright, written in the early 1940s and once available only in a highly condensed version in the posthumous collection Eight Men (1961). The Man Who Lived Underground follows Fred Daniels, a Black man arrested and tortured until he falsely confesses to a brutal double murder. Daniels is forced to sign a confession before he manages to escape into the city sewer system. Of The Man Who Lived Underground, Wright said, "I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration." He was unable to find a publisher for the complete novel during his lifetime.

The Man Who Lived Underground is not the first of Wright's work available in its entirety or at all only after the author's death. Unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy and more were not released until the 1990s. The novella Rite of Passage was published in 1994 and a book of haiku in 1998. Wright left an unfinished novel, A Father's Law, which his daughter released in 2008. That same year, Harper Perennial published an omnibus edition of Wright's nonfiction political works called Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen!. The Man Who Lived Underground ($22.95) includes the companion essay "Memories of My Grandmother" and an afterword by Wright's grandson, Malcolm. --Tobias Mutter


Tachyon Publications: The Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie Liu


Book Review

Fiction

One Two Three

by Laurie Frankel


"One, Two, Three" are the "triplet shorthand" names Mab, Monday and Mirabel Mitchell call each other in Laurie Frankel's (This Is How It Always Is) heartbreaking yet heartwarming novel of a town destroyed by chemical pollution and its fight for justice, led by an unforgettable family of heroines.

The 16-year-old Mitchell sisters were born to a newly widowed mother in the wake of Bison Chemical's poisoning of the town's water supply. "Everyone here has survived what happened here," Mirabel explains (via a device mounted on her wheelchair). Monday, who speaks but without contractions, says "the only people who did not die or leave were the ones who could not." Mab, who peppers her speech with SAT study words, notes that Bourne Memorial High School "limps, rolls and motors in." Their mother, Nora, has been tenaciously building a class-action lawsuit for 17 years, while holding multiple jobs (one as the town's much-needed therapist); her daughters have a "sister-pact" to aid her fight. When Bison announces it will reopen in the town, and a handsome, suave boy--the grandson of its founder--enrolls in school, the sisters are dazzled yet pragmatic: maybe he's the key to the evidence Nora needs.

The story unfolds in alternating chapters, told by One, Two and Three, emphasizing the whip-smart girls' distinctive voices, sharp humor and mutual (yet never sappy) affection. Frankel adds a quirky but credible supporting cast of Bourne citizens. All the way to a fast-paced and heroic climax, readers will be rooting for them. --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: In this heartbreaking yet heartwarming novel, triplets assist their mother in her quest to hold responsible the chemical company that devastated their town.

Holt, $26.99, hardcover, 416p., 9781250236777

New Harbinger Publications: Raising Feminist Boys: How to Talk with Your Child about Gender, Consent, and Empathy by Bobbi Wegner


Should We Stay or Should We Go

by Lionel Shriver


"Even before agreeing to leave this world hand-in-hand on 29 March 2020, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson had long embraced the commonplace romance that if one of them died, the other would soon follow." Kay and Cyril committed to this "modest proposal" in October 1991: to guarantee they die with dignity, they will commit suicide on Kay's 80th birthday.

In her 15th book, Lionel Shriver (The Motion of the Body Through Space) repeats the literary structure of her 2007 The Post-Birthday World, here writing 12 alternative storylines whose (literal) "endings" evoke widely varied emotions.

The title Should We Stay or Should We Go forecasts Cyril and Kay's ambivalence in the parallel universes Shriver creates. Likable, sympathetic characters (even though Cyril, as a doctor, secured the lethal stash of Seconal, the couple's vision was mutual), their personalities remain consistent throughout. Philosophical Kay ponders "what it means to be alive in the first place," while Cyril is "all brutal brass tacks" and pledges his final time on earth to defeating Brexit. One version features a slip-up, in which Kay "goes" while Cyril stays; in another scenario, Kay discovers a surprising post-Cyril life. One disconcerting episode has the Wilkinson children discovering the plan and enforcing a "house arrest," followed by relocation to the draconian Close of Day Cottages. Shriver's speculation extends to the political and technological: when "Retrogeritox" grants eternal youth, Kay eventually bemoans the passivity of "unbridled freedom." Alternatively, by the year 2039, migrants and anarchists overrun Great Britain, or asylum seekers enrich a peaceful, multicultural nation. Sometimes discomfiting, often hilarious, Kay and Cyril's 12 stories consistently reflect their mutual love and commitment. --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: In a thoughtful and entertaining novel, a dozen different endings conclude a couple's handling of their suicide pact.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 288p., 9780063094246

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

by Rivka Galchen


As she demonstrated in her 2014 short story collection, American Innovations, Rivka Galchen has a taste for the fantastic. She puts that talent to good use in her second adult novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, a vibrant, provocative story based on real events that astutely holds up life in a small town in 17th-century Europe as a mirror for the present day.

Galchen's novel is set in the duchy of Württemburg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, just as the Thirty Years War is beginning. Most of its action takes place in the town of Leonberg, near Stuttgart, and focuses on the prosecution of Katharina Kepler, mother of famed mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, for witchcraft. When she's not tending to her cow, Chamomile, Katharina is a well-known presence in the community, noteworthy for her interest in herbal remedies and her sometimes cantankerous personality.

A claim by fellow townswoman Ursula Reinbold that Katharina served her a poisoned cup of wine provokes Katharina to file a slander suit that's soon met by a formal accusation of witchcraft against her. What follows is a Kafkaesque legal proceeding that at one point lands Katharina in prison, where she must pay the guards hired to watch her.

Like Maggie O'Farrell's prize-winning novel Hamnet, Galchen's story succeeds in infusing a work of historical fiction with a completely modern sensibility, all without sacrificing any of the story's fidelity to its source material. Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is a consistently entertaining novel that casts its own memorable spell. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: This story of a witchcraft trial in the 17th century is vibrant and entertaining, with a decidedly modern tone.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9780374280468

Mystery & Thriller

The Listening House

by Mabel Seeley


Mystery lovers will likely have two persistent questions as they read this reissue of Mabel Seeley's lost treasure The Listening House, first published in 1938: 1) "Who's the killer?" and 2) "Why can't all fictional sleuths be as wonderful as Gwynne Dacres?"

Twenty-six-year-old divorcée Gwynne is between copywriting jobs when she moves into Mrs. Garr's lodging house in fictional Gilling City. On Gwynne's first night at the house, she awakens to the sensation "not of my own ears hearing sounds, but of other ears listening, of the house listening." While she has previously been accused of having an active imagination, she's not imagining the dead body that she finds at the bottom of an incline behind Mrs. Garr's place. The victim has been shot, and everything points to his having fallen or been pushed from Mrs. Garr's property. This won't be the last corpse associated with the house, and, sure enough, each of Gwynne's fellow lodgers has a motive for murder.

The Listening House is a corking good mystery abuzz with bon mots, snappy comebacks and sexual tension, calling to mind the best screwball comedies of the 1930s. With her novels, Seeley (1903-1991) introduced early examples of self-reliant female sleuths, and Gwynne is a paragon: she more than matches wits with the men working the case. Even more unusual for a female protagonist of her time, Gwynne has un-leading-lady-like looks and couldn't care less: "I'm short and stocky, as a girl with Scotch peasant ancestry has a right to be." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: First published in 1938, this bubbly mystery, which offers an early example of a strong-minded female sleuth, centers on a lodging house that produces multiple corpses.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 368p., 9780593334546

Biography & Memoir

Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours

by Tony Oppedisano, Mary Jane Ross


Tony Oppedisano was Frank Sinatra's road manager, boy Friday, minder, mentee, surrogate son and best friend. Two decades after Sinatra's death, Oppedisano has another role: he's "one of the last living experts" on the mythic singer, which makes his lovely remembrance, Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours, an invaluable record.

The author, who was born in Brooklyn in 1951, was thunderstruck upon meeting the singer in 1972: Oppedisano was a Sinatra fan and a musician devoted to the American songbook. The men found common ground as blue-eyed Italians whose fathers had discouraged their artistic ambitions, but the 1992 death of former club owner Jilly Rizzo, their mutual friend, led to a new level of closeness: "Over the two thousand nights and mornings that followed... Francis Albert and I talked." Those recollected conversations, supplemented with notes that Oppedisano took at the time, fuel Sinatra and Me, which is organized around themed chapters, as on Sinatra's love life, his famous friends, and--let the record show--"the fiction that Sinatra was a major player in the Mob."

Oppedisano doesn't gloss over his subject's flaws: Ol' Blue Eyes could be spineless when it came to his fourth and last wife, whose tussles with Sinatra's children the author had to mediate. But Oppedisano leads with Sinatra's virtues, especially his generosity and ahead-of-the-curve work to erase the color line in the entertainment industry. Sinatra and Me may leave readers longing for a friend like Frank; they'd be equally lucky to have one like Oppedisano. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This tribute by Sinatra's much-younger best friend is like an Ol' Blue Eyes tune: sparkling, warm and emotionally true.

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 320p., 9781982151782

History

All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake

by Tiya Miles


Tiya Miles (The Dawn of Detroit; Ties that Bind), a professor of history at Harvard University, does a difficult task incomparably well in All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. With gentleness and historical acumen, Miles explores the history of this sack, and why it is important in larger terms as part of African American history.

In 1921, Ruth Middleton embroidered a sack that had belonged to her grandmother Ashley, listing what the sack originally contained. Her great-grandmother Rose, an enslaved woman, gave the sack to her daughter Ashley when the nine-year-old girl was sold away from her in 1850s South Carolina. Miles carefully researches the items mentioned in the embroidery: a dress, a handful of pecans, a lock of Rose's hair, "my Love always." Miles explores what these would have meant to both Ashley and Rose, and how Rose was doing her best to care for her daughter, even when the terrible system of chattel slavery attempted to thwart Rose's basic humanity.

Little is known about Rose or Ashley's early lives, but Miles has found many contemporary accounts to enlighten readers as to what may have gone on in the lives of enslaved women of that era. And she elucidates how a sack was specifically important. As Miles says, "African American things had little chance to last.... How could people who were property acquire and pass down property?" All that She Carried will transport readers to difficult times in American history, and make them think more carefully about all the physical goods they take for granted in their day-to-day lives. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this fascinating history, Harvard history professor Tiya Miles explores the path a cotton sack took through four generations of Black women.

Random House, $28, hardcover, 416p., 9781984854995

Health & Medicine

Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World

by Elinor Cleghorn


Elinor Cleghorn offers an epic yet approachable social, cultural and scientific history of women's health in Unwell Women, tracing the sexism and racism seen in modern Western medicine from ancient times through the present day.

"We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body's mysteries," Cleghorn writes in the introduction. "And we expect medicine, as a science, to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality." But, as she shows over the following chapters, medicine is anything but impartial, steeped as it is in social and cultural histories. From its earliest recorded days in ancient Greek texts, medicine has both inherited and reinforced the socially constructed gender binary, falsely reducing womanhood to a person's "capacity--and duty--to reproduce."

Drawing on extensive research, Cleghorn reveals medicine's long history of misdiagnosing--and mistreating--women, with sections on ancient and medieval times, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the mid-20th century to today. The resulting tome is massive in scope, but in Cleghorn's expert hands, this long history does not feel unwieldy. Each chapter carries clearly into the next, as Cleghorn peels back the layers upon layers of misogyny and sexism baked into medical concepts of "unwell women"--and the corresponding "treatment" options that often did, and do, more harm than good. Throughout, she also acknowledges the depth of racism inherent in the already sexist system, calling out the horrors inflicted on enslaved Black women in the United States in the name of research, for example.

Unwell Women is a powerful and necessary work of social and cultural history. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: This epic yet accessible social, cultural and scientific history of women's health traces the roots of sexism and racism in modern Western medicine.

Dutton Books, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9780593182956

Now in Paperback

The Milk Hours

by John James


The 30 poems of John James included in The Milk Hours are haunted in one way or another; they carefully and soberly take account of what it means to be aware of the natural world, and the inherent cost of that knowledge. It's no wonder "Le Moribond" nods to French songwriter Jacques Brel--both James and Brel write works that are given over to death and the decay that follows it. However, James never treats death as something to be longed for, or as a sick joke. The language he uses to describe the discovery of the bodies of animals and grief over lost parents is sober and considered. This is a writer who has found clarity and delivered it through the poetic form.

Life is here as well, uneasily cohabiting with the dead. The title poem of the collection, "The Milk Hours," grapples with James's new fatherhood in the context of his own long-gone father. Throughout the collection, history frames the present, whether in quotations from Plato or Walter Benjamin, or simply in memory. The inherent tension between these subjects--past and present, life and death--animates his work and breathes life into it. Regardless of theme, however, James is a poet of staggering lyricism, intricate without ever obscuring his intent. Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Milk Hours announces the arrival of a great new talent in American poetry. --C.M. Crockford, freelance reviewer

Discover: John James's debut collection of 30 poems, The Milk Hours, is a raw and beautiful meditation on the delicate balance between the natural world and ourselves.

Milkweed Editions, $16, paperback, 9781571315366

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

by Natasha Trethewey


Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir. Trethewey's mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter's memories and what she's forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother's murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, "a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South."

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter's move to Atlanta, when Trethewey's parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother's apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness in this compelling, gracefully and gorgeously rendered memoir, a Shelf Awareness Best Book of 2020. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in a compelling and lyrical tribute.

Ecco, $16.99, paperback, 224p., 9780062248589

Children's & Young Adult

The Dirt Book: Poems about Animals that Live Beneath Our Feet

by David L. Harrison, illus. by Kate Cosgrove


Author David L. Harrison and illustrator Kate Cosgrove join forces again (And the Bullfrogs Sing) to celebrate dirt in this lyrical nonfiction picture book. Cheerful images bursting with color accompany 15 playful poems that explore the mysterious activities happening "below the roots where green grass grows,/ .../ where boulders rest and tree roots drink."

Harrison invites his audience to imagine riding a magic elevator down below the surface--an elevator Cosgrove ingeniously depicts as a tree, burrowing into the earth. On this trip, the book's creators explain that dirt is made with a mixture of rock, root, dead things, insects, fungi and "at least a billion germs." A biosphere of life carries on thanks to this seemingly unpleasant concoction; Harrison's lively rhymes and Cosgrove's playful drawings make the insects appealing and fascinating: "Earthworm squiggles,/ earthworm squirms,/ earthworm dines on/ dirt and germs."

An extra-long portrait format emphasizes the below-ground setting and supplies Cosgrove with an ample canvas to tell each poem's story in her detailed colored-pencil and digital illustrations. There is a plethora of knowledge to absorb from Cosgrove's art, including such varied information as the patterns on the tortoise shell and the delicate webbing on the bumblebee's wings. The Dirt Book includes back matter that offers additional details, and a bibliography provides curious readers with resources for further exploration. This charming picture book is a splendid way to encourage an understanding and appreciation for nature and the often-unseen life that inhabits the planet alongside humans. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: This nonfiction picture book extols the wonders of dirt in 15 fascinating poems.

Holiday House, $18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-9, 9780823438617

Every Body Shines: Sixteen Stories about Living Fabulously Fat

by Cassandra Newbould, editor


Sixteen writers share candid, earnest stories about body diversity that celebrate people who are fat, who may also be queer, straight, cis or nonbinary, not to mention anxious, proud, rebellious, uncertain or joyous. In short: young human beings. Well, mostly. There's also a murderous mermaid in the mix.

Fat characters are placed front and center in Every Body Shines. They do things any human does: walk on the beach ("Letting Go" by Renée Watson); play softball ("Outside Pitch" by Kelly deVos); eat food ("Dupatta Diaries" by Nafiza Azad); and ride a school bus ("Unpleasant Surprises" by Linda Camacho). They also travel in space ("Weightless" by Sheena Boekweg) and rescue people from burning buildings ("Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire" by Rebecca Sky). Because that's the point of the anthology: people of any size, like people of any gender, ethnicity, personality or sexual orientation, can do and be whatever they want. Every author in this compilation has lived some version of their character's experiences, and their voices come through loud and proud, determined to make readers feel, as Your Fat Friend essayist Aubrey Gordon writes in the introduction, "understood, validated, seen, and celebrated.... My fat friends understood that fat people do everything thin people do--we're just not always given the space to do it." Here, in Every Body Shines, everybody is given the space to glow. After all, as editor Cassandra Newbould writes, "Readers, we get the happy endings, too. Don't forget it!" --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A mindful, meaningful compilation of stories featuring characters who prove that being fat is not a deterrent to happiness, nor is it the main event of anyone's life.

Bloomsbury YA, $18.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 13-up, 9781547606078

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