Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Dutton: Sunderworld, Vol. I: The Extraordinary Disappointments of Leopold Berry by Ransom Riggs

From My Shelf

Inviting Board Books

Pre-readers should love touching, gazing at and playing with these board books.

A Is for Anemone (Harbour Publishing, $12.95) is a tactile knockout. The abecedary is a "first west coast alphabet" and includes entries like, "Sunsets glow on tranquil seas./ Totem poles tell our stories." Roy Henry Vickers, illustrator and co-author with Robert Budd, is a carver, painter, printmaker and storyteller of Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk ancestry. His illustrations beautifully depict representations of the West Coast, but the art literally stands out--every page includes a softly embossed feature that often can't be seen until children run their fingers over the page. The texture is in the tentacles of jellyfish, the lines of pouring rain and a bird that is almost invisible to the eye... it's a touch sensation.

Gillian Sze and Sue Todd's The Night Is Deep and Wide (Orca, $10.95) offers soothing text and arresting illustrations. Sze's quiet story about bedtime is enhanced by Todd's art, an ancient printmaking technique similar to woodcut: linoleum carving. Todd uses this technique to incredible effect, keeping every illustration black-and-white except for one pop of color per spread--all the more striking and likely to catch any child's eye.

In the "veeerrry long fold out book" Where's Brian's Bottom by Rob Jones (Pavilion Children's, $9.95), children and the adults reading to them travel through several rooms in a house to find the back end of Brian, a red dachshund. Every page turn--through the hallway, into the living room, ending in the bedroom where Brian's "bottom is still in bed!"--makes the book grow and grow. When children finally lay out the whole book, it reaches an impressive 6.5 feet. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Book Candy

Secrets of Lexicographers

Mental Floss revealed "11 secrets of lexicographers."


Author Charles Foster picked his top 10 books about human consciousness for the Guardian.


Gastro Obscura invited readers to "meet the woman writing the first Garifuna cookbook."


"Conservation treatment of Hendrick Doncker's Zee-atlas from 1660; or, how an atlas gets stressed, and what book conservators do about it," courtesy of the New York Public Library.


Open Culture explored "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: the real perceptual disorder that may have shaped Lewis Carroll's creative world."

Smile: The Story of a Face

by Sarah Ruhl

After giving birth to twins, playwright Sarah Ruhl (Dear Elizabeth; How to Transcend a Happy Marriage) found herself unable to smile--or even to move the left side of her face. Ruhl soon discovered she had Bell's palsy, a condition characterized by muscle droop and weakness on one side of the face. In her sharply observed memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, Ruhl chronicles her decade-long experience with Bell's palsy, and the disease's emotional implications for the rest of her life.

Like many mothers, Ruhl was focused on her babies during labor and delivery, especially when both twins had to spend a week in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). But while she was still in the maternity ward, she realized she couldn't close her left eye, or move the muscles on that side of her face. After bringing home both children and adjusting to her newly expanded family (which included an older daughter), Ruhl expected that her Bell's palsy would gradually disappear. It didn't. "In fairy tale logic," she writes, "you must trade something for something you desire. By this logic, I trade my face for my children. And it is a fair trade." But the longer the malady lingered, the more Ruhl began to wonder if her affliction wasn't a simple trade, but a symptom--or an effect--of something deeper.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Ruhl grew up smiling without a second thought at both friends and strangers. "They hand [smiles] out along with lollipops at the bank," she writes of her native Illinois. "Nice, big, broad untroubled smiles that you have to undo when you move to New York City." Although Ruhl had long since adapted to the more reserved style of living and socializing in New York, her work in the theater world meant that she interacted regularly with dozens of people--actors, directors, production staff--for whom affect (theirs and hers) was supremely important. Being unable to smile at hopeful auditionees, colleagues and friends was bad enough, but Ruhl worried constantly about her children. Would they still understand that she loved them, even though she couldn't form expressions of delight? Would her half-frozen face somehow stunt their emotional growth during their formative years? Ruhl meditates on these and other questions in Smile, while also charting her attempts to find a "fix" for her Bell's palsy. She tries a long list of possibilities--acupuncture, Alexander technique, physical therapy, even neurosurgery.

As a playwright and a woman, Ruhl is keenly aware that cultural myths and mores around smiling differ greatly for women and men. She muses on the ways women are perceived--as angry, detached, even lacking in emotional intelligence--if they don't smile when it is expected of them. She considers the role of smiling in pieces of art, from the Mona Lisa to her own plays, and the ways in which smiling has a chicken-and-egg effect on one's emotions. "I felt inside a paradox," she writes. "I thought I could not truly re-enter the world until I could smile again; and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldn't re-enter the world?"

As her children grow and her face remains frozen, Ruhl eventually finds ways to move on with the rest of her life: teaching, staging new plays, mothering her children, publishing a book of essays drafted mostly on Amtrak train rides. She is candid about the constant juggling act of being a woman with a career and a family, and also about the added layer of difficulty caused by partial facial paralysis. It isn't all doom and gloom: she takes great joy in her children and husband, and deep satisfaction in her work. But she wants her face--or at least her freedom of expression--back.

It takes a long time, in the book and in Ruhl's life, for her face to reemerge, even partially, from its half-frozen state. "The partial recovery is not terribly dramatic. It is the stuff of life, not art. But the partial recovery is, I believe, very much like life. Most people have partially recovered from something." But in her honest account of life with Bell's palsy, Ruhl has managed to turn her partial recovery into a kind of art: a portrait of a face, and a body, sometimes at odds with the soul inside. Even readers who have never suffered a serious physical injury will recognize that disconnect: the sense that the body and spirit are not always in sync. Ruhl captures this disconnect with honesty, grace and frequent flashes of wry humor, without always needing to wrap everything up into a tidy insight. Smile is at once an illness narrative, a meditation on smiling as cultural practice and symbol, and a compelling, behind-the-scenes look at the life of a playwright and mother. --Katie Noah Gibson

Simon & Schuster, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9781982150945

Sarah Ruhl: Struggling to Find Joy Without a Smile

(photo: Gregory Costanzo)

Sarah Ruhl's plays include Stage Kiss, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), How to Transcend a Happy Marriage and Eurydice. She is also the author of three books, including 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children. Smile: The Story of a Face (Simon & Schuster) is her memoir chronicling a long struggle with Bell's palsy after her twins were born.

What inspired you to write about your experience with Bell's palsy?

Bell's palsy in some ways dominated my life for years, but I never wrote about it, save for a tiny essay. I thought--"oh, that's my medical life" or "oh, that's a chronic thing to just get through," but it's certainly not a fit subject for a play (which is the form I usually write in). And at some point, I thought, "This inability to smile is dominating my thinking." I needed to get it down on paper, in the hopes that it might help other people, or that I might write my way out of an emotional snowbank where my car (spiritually, if you will) had gotten stuck.

The book is not only an account of your journey of fighting (and eventually accepting) your face with the palsy, but a meditation on smiling and the cultural and psychological implications of the inability to smile.

I've thought quite a bit for the last decade about the chicken-or-egg effect of smiling. In other words, does the smile create the joy or does the joy create the smile? Or both? And if that feedback loop is disrupted, how does one internally experience joy? This is a psychological question: it plays out differently in different cultures and addresses both the body and the spirit. I remember following a meditation practice while I could not physically smile and was told by the author to put a smile on my face in order to create internal relaxation and joy. And I wanted to hurl the book against the wall.

You address the reality that women are expected to smile more often and in different contexts than men, and the accompanying difficulty of being a woman with Bell's palsy.

I've seen women smile through difficult professional situations, and I've even seen women tell other women to smile through difficult professional settings. I think women use smiling unconsciously or strategically to ingratiate themselves in various settings that were built by men. I found that being unable to smile when meeting new people was excruciating, and for a life in the theater, which is so much about how you show affect, confounding. At least I am not an actor, I would tell myself.

I want to make clear that I don't think unresolved Bell's palsy is easy for men by any stretch of the imagination. As a chronic condition, Bell's palsy is a very hard mountain to climb, regardless of gender. But I do think men can, culturally speaking, do their jobs while projecting confidence without being asked to smile in order to reassure people.

As a mother of young children, you worried that your inability to smile "normally" would affect both your relationship with your kids and their emotional development.

Yes. I'd read about a psychological study where mothers with something called "still face," or lack of affect, interacted with their babies and the babies freaked out. I worried that the opacity of my face would lead to my babies not knowing, moment to moment, how delighted I was by them, how much I loved them. As it turns out, my voice was telling them that I loved them all the time, even when I thought my face was not delivering the right message.

Smile is the story of a journey toward healing that is decidedly not linear and doesn't fit in the "normal" box. Did writing about it help you make sense of the experience? What was it like to put together the whole narrative?

Writing the book absolutely helped me towards making sense of the journey. In a concrete but also symbolic way, I put the illness in the past tense, and the healing in the present tense. What an opportunity for a writer, or anyone really, to choose what tense they will put suffering in, what tense they will put healing in. I was both emotionally paralyzed by Bell's palsy and physically paralyzed; the writing of the book untangled a really tricky knot. Writing the book also helped me investigate some modalities I might not otherwise have tried--like physical therapy, which, it turns out, helped me a great deal. Making meaning out of illness--writing the story down, getting rid of unhelpful metaphors and creating new metaphors--was incredibly helpful to me. I also hope I find moments of humor within what can be a bleak medical landscape.

What would you say to readers who have, or have had, Bell's palsy?

If you're reading this and have recently had Bell's palsy, or know someone who has, please try to find the right doctor, get some anti-virals, and get some steroids immediately. And if Bell's palsy is not on your mind in that particular kind of way, I hope that the book finds you as a fellow traveler in the struggle to find joy, no matter if you're grappling with an illness, or just living with the inevitable suffering that life throws at us. --Katie Noah Gibson

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Be Here Now

In 1963, Richard Alpert was fired from Harvard University, along with Timothy Leary, for conducing academic studies on the effects of psychedelic drugs using Harvard students. He and Leary spent several years continuing their research with guided trips focused on reaching other realms of consciousness, states of being they found familiar to those described in an ancient Buddhist text, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. On a trip to India in 1967, Alpert met Bhagavan Das, an American who lived as a wandering Hindu holy man. Bhagavan Das took Alpert to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (known to his followers as Maharaj-ji), where Alpert experienced a life-changing spiritual connection. Alpert later returned to the United States with long hair, a longer beard and a new name: Ram Dass.

Back home, Ram Dass began giving lectures to increasingly larger audiences, which were often recorded. In 1970, the Lama Foundation in New Mexico added artwork to particularly poignant segments of those lectures and released them as a box of cardboard pages called From Bindu to Ojas. In 1971, this was expanded with a biography of Ram Dass and explorations of Hindu practices. This book, Be Here Now, became a countercultural bible and propelled Ram Dass to spiritual stardom. Before he died in 2019, Ram Dass wrote, among many other books, two sequels to Be Here Now--Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (2000) and Be Love Now: The Path of the Heart (2010). Fifty years later, Be Here Now is still in print from Harmony Books ($17.17). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review



by Chibundu Onuzo

Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo (Welcome to Lagos) examines the ways in which one person's identities can intersect and conflict in this riveting, gracefully spare novel of self-discovery.

Biracial Anna never knew her father, only that he was an African student named Francis Aggrey who had a relationship with her Welsh mother and returned to his native country without realizing they had conceived a child. Six months after her mother's death and in the midst of a wrenching divorce, Anna finds two notebooks belonging to her father among her mother's belongings. Written in his student days, the journal entries reveal "an intelligent black man, angry, humorous," as he deals with racism, his own political awakening, and interracial romance in late 1960s Britain. Anna feels a kinship for the fiery, acerbic man in the journal, and when she runs out of journal entries, resorts to searching the Internet, with surprising results. Anna marvels "To find out at forty-eight that my father was alive and a six-hour flight away," but connecting with him won't be easy. Her father is alive but no longer Francis Aggrey. He is now Kofi Adjei, retired dictator of the small African nation of Bamana, and Anna's quest to know him will change her irrevocably.

Onuzo's astute portrait of a woman attempting to find her way to her future by mining the past mirrors the mythical creature from which the story takes its title, a bird that flies forward while looking backward. Onuzo shows that making peace with the past can be a starting point toward self-acceptance, and that imperfect families can find common ground in unexpected ways. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: In this riveting, gracefully spare novel, a British woman faces culture shock when she learns her father is the former dictator of a small African nation.

Catapult, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781646220830

Mystery & Thriller

No Memes of Escape

by Olivia Blacke

Olivia Blacke continues her quirky, warmhearted Brooklyn Murder Mysteries series with No Memes of Escape, her second book featuring amateur sleuth Odessa Dean. Small-town Southern girl Odessa, whom readers met in Killer Content, is loving her summer in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, N.Y., staying at her aunt's bougie apartment and waitressing at Untapped Books & Café. But things take a turn when Odessa and her friend Izzy join an escape-room adventure that ends in murder--and Izzy is a prime suspect. Determined to clear her friend's name, Odessa runs around the city (in her cowboy boots) interviewing other suspects. Then her Aunt Melanie comes home early, and Odessa has a new worry: she might have to leave New York City and head back to Louisiana unless she and Izzy can find another place.

Blacke's love for Brooklyn shines through in her writing, which celebrates the anything-goes range of New York lifestyles and the particular hipster bent of Williamsburg. Odessa's coworkers are an appealing bunch, and Izzy is a stalwart friend (though Odessa suspects she's hiding something). A return visit to the escape room provides fresh insight, and despite a couple of minor plot points that border on implausible, this second fish-out-of-water NYC adventure is great fun. Readers will want to pull up a seat at Untapped Books and order the day's special from Chef Parker (while hoping grumpy manager Todd is distracted by his Tinder dates). Odessa's roots may be pure Louisiana bayou, but her adventures in Brooklyn make for entertaining reading. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: NYC transplant Odessa Dean takes on another murder case in this quirky, warmhearted, slightly zany cozy mystery.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 320p., 9780593197905

The Neighbor's Secret

by L. Alison Heller

Secrets and gossip--and the fear that those confidences may leak out--seep through the upscale Cottonwood Estates community, where every resident has something to hide. The poignant and often amusing The Neighbor's Secret, L. Allison Keller's third novel, takes a deep dive into the personalities of a group of women and how they keep themselves sane and their families intact while dealing with betrayal. A monthly book club serves as their salvation.

The neighborhood used to revolve around wealthy Lena Meeker, whose elaborate parties united the residents--until 15 years ago, when a teenager was killed in an automobile accident following one of her gatherings. Now a recluse, Lena avoids neighbors, speaks only sporadically with her nearly estranged daughter and thrives on online shopping and "a rotating cast of paid friends," such as landscapers or cleaners. New neighbor Annie Perley desperately wants to be Lena's friend, pressuring her to join the book club. A much-needed social outlet, the club allows the women's personalities to surface as they discuss books, social issues, their children's problems and a vandal destroying neighborhood decorations. As the truth behind that car accident surfaces, more violence unexpectedly enters the women's homes.

Heller's fine hand at humor realistically illustrates the absurdity that can arise daily--an attempt at a woke potluck backfires; silly drinks concocted to match the book discussion (Pernod, champagne, lemon juice); regifted soaps with two bars missing. Heller (The Never Never Sisters) shows an affluent neighborhood's dark side, where threats and violence lie below the polished surface. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer

Discover: A book club becomes a lifeline for a group of women dealing with betrayal, gossip and secrets in this poignant and often amusing thriller.

Flatiron Books, $27.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250205810


It Started with a Dog

by Julia London

It Started with a Dog, the second installment of Julia London's cheerful Lucky Dog rom-com series, is set in Austin, Tex., during the Christmas season. London cleverly brings together two 30-something dog lovers with personalities and agendas as different as caffeinated versus decaffeinated coffee.

Aeronautical engineer Jonah Rogers leaves his job to help out at the Lucky Star, a charmingly humble--however lagging--coffee shop run by his parents, his aunt and uncle. With his father ill, Jonah--reliable and devoted, sacrificing and loyal--steps in to assist the longstanding family business that offers no frills, old-school coffee and desserts. Matters become complicated when he accidentally swaps his phone with Chicagoan Harper Thompson, in town to launch Deja Brew--a trendy, two-story coffee house accented with gleaming chrome coffee makers that serves upscale coffee and vegan food choices. The driven, only-child overachiever is up for a promotion riding on the success of Deja Brew. However, can she contend with Lucky Star, a local fixture in town, and a Starbucks situated in the very same neighborhood?

Along the way, Jonah and Harper and their swapped phones lead them to romance as they discover they are business rivals. The local King Mutt dog competition ups the ante, pitting the couple--and their dogs, the lovable three-legged Dachshund mascot of Lucky Star versus Harper's mean old bulldog--against each other.

A perfect blend of coffee, dogs and romance permeates London's (You Lucky Dog; Charmer in Chaps) frothy rom-com that will leave readers thirsty for a third helping in this sweet, enjoyable series. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: In the second installment of a cheerful rom-com series, love percolates amid the competition of two Austin, Tex., coffee shops and their canines.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 352p., 9780593100400

Biography & Memoir

Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

by Nadia Wassef

Egyptian-British author Nadia Wassef's gorgeous, entertaining memoir recounts the launching of a modern bookstore, the first of its kind, in Egypt's chaotic capital of Cairo at the turn of the 21st century. With chapters corresponding to the different sections of the bookstore and its cafe, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller celebrates the remarkable success of the venture while sharing with humble honesty and wry humor the personal and professional challenges it created for the author.

Named Diwan, an Arabic word for "meeting place," the bookstore embodies Wassef and her sister Hind's dream to establish a female-led literary hub in patriarchal Egyptian society, where culture had atrophied, illiteracy was common and book lovers had few options to satisfy their intellectual cravings. Wassef's exuberance at realizing her dream was tempered by the reality of Egyptian society's cultural aversion to women in power and the suffocating encroachment of governmental bureaucracies. A shipment of The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver placed Diwan directly in the crosshairs of Egypt's archaic censorship laws, and Wassef worked hard to convince the censorship bureau official--via her male lawyer--that The Naked Chef was not offensive to public morals.

Wassef's debut brims with wistfully elegant musings on the consolation and inspiration offered by literature, and the struggles of parenting two young daughters while serving at the helm of Diwan's expanding empire. From a visionary who is passionate about the written word, Wassef's memoir is both an intimate reckoning with motherhood, marriage and feminism and a thoughtful meditation on Egyptian literary culture and history. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: An Egyptian British female entrepreneur recounts her remarkable adventure launching the first modern bookstore in Cairo, and its transformative impact on the city's cultural scene.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, hardcover, 240p., 9780374600181

I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream

by Richard Antoine White

Richard Antoine White's memoir I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing "the plumage of red seats," then flashes back to the narrator's childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he'll hold throughout this memoir. "I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero," he writes. "I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible."

White recounts how he survived his mother's addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. His journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, "a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time."

White writes passionately, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: "The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked." His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Flatiron Books, $27.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781250269645


The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets

by Janine di Giovanni

Journalist Janine di Giovanni, a Guggenheim Fellowship winner, turns her keen reportorial eye to the plight of ancient--and quickly disappearing--Christian communities in The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets.

After years of reporting from some of the world's most dangerous places, di Giovanni begins her intensely personal journey into the realm of faith during a Covid-19 lockdown in Paris, France, in 2020. Observing the empty streets, she sees it as a somber metaphor for the alarming disappearance of Middle Eastern Christian communities from Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Egypt--lands where Christianity was born, but now where it is dying out. Moving effortlessly from past to present, she describes the "then and now" situation of vanishing Christians in these four regions, personalizing them with a rich repository of individual stories and interviews of people struggling to stay Christian (and alive) in war-torn and Muslim-majority countries. Fascinated by how believers manage to hold onto their faith amid oppression, poverty and war, she realizes that "their faith, in many ways, is more powerful than any of the armies I have seen trying to destroy them."

Di Giovanni's mesmeric narrative is an elegant balance of journalism and history that also includes semi-autobiographical reflections of the role faith plays in her own life. Seeking to illuminate those "worlds and communities of people who might, in one hundred years' time, no longer be on this earth," di Giovanni grants life forever on the page to those vanishing now. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver, Colo.

Discover: This is a rewarding, thoughtful and somber journey into the Middle East to find the last "holdouts" of the Christian faith in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Egypt.

PublicAffairs, $30, hardcover, 272p., 9781541756717

Social Science

Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis

by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, editor

In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS ripped through queer communities and cast a pall over the years to come, even after effective medication became available to HIV-positive individuals in the mid '90s. Multitudes of people died. Fear and stigma curdled amid the devastation until pharmaceuticals brought a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill to market for HIV-negative, at-risk populations in 2012. That's 30 years of acute terror, and with Between Certain Death and a Possible Future, Lambda Award-winning author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (The Freezer Door) has rallied a dazzling array of writers, activists, filmmakers and performers to deconstruct that traumatic epoch.

This exceptional anthology bridges a false division between the queer generation characterized by death and the one characterized by prevention. "There is another generation between these two," writes Sycamore, "one that came of age in the midst of the epidemic with the belief that desire intrinsically led to death, internalizing this trauma as part of becoming queer." Moreover, Sassafras Lowrey highlights the ongoing nature of the crisis in "Homeless Youth Are Still Dying of AIDS."

Notably, criminology assistant professor Alexander McClelland offers a moving critique of single-minded PrEP fanfare in "Old Testament," writing, "The moment to have a bonded connection over our shared relationship to HIV, negative or positive, is no longer on the table. For some of us who have lived with HIV for a long time, this can be refreshing, and for others, disconcerting." The 36 essays in this anthology foster a necessary and dynamic discussion of that shared relationship, negative and positive, haunted and hopeful, manifesting ever more possibilities for the future. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A dynamic and impressive array of queer writing analyzes the shared trauma of growing up amid the AIDS crisis.

Arsenal Pulp Press, $22.95, paperback, 368p., 9781551528502


Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred

by Victoria Loorz

After 20 years as a Christian pastor and environmental activist, Victoria Loorz was burned out in both roles. Church of the Wild candidly traces how she integrated her twin callings by cofounding the ecumenical Wild Church Network, and paints an appealing picture of a nature-rooted theology.

Christianity's hierarchical language has set up a false division between humanity and nature, Loorz believes. Some Christians view God as a remote creator uninvolved in the everyday; when she mentioned feeling connected to animals and trees, churchgoers chided her for embracing pantheism. Yet she sees nature as "shimmering with divine presence." Observing a doe and fawns up close in her yard becomes a particularly sacred experience for her.

Nowadays, Loorz considers herself an "edge walker" of the "Christ tradition," with mystics from all faith traditions modeling proper reverence. Through convincing studies of the notion of wilderness in scripture (biblical depictions of the wild include Jesus going up a mountain to pray and John the Baptist's subsistence lifestyle in the desert), Loorz develops the refreshing insight that the life of the spirit is primarily about relationships and "conversation with others who are not human."

Invoking a sense of mystery, Loorz makes theology accessible to laypeople. A closing "Resources" section gives sample outdoor liturgy from the Church of the Wild she started in Ojai, Calif.

This engaging work blends exegesis and anecdotes, citing thinkers like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane as it encourages a spirituality that is in touch with nature and unconfined by doctrine. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

Discover: An environmentalist pastor proffers a distinctive outdoor church experience that fuses Christian-inspired spirituality with a love for wild places and creatures.

Broadleaf Books, $17.99, paperback, 272p., 9781506469645


But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits

by Kimberly Harrington

Essayist Kimberly Harrington (Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words) brings her signature wit to But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits, 30 essays reflecting on the quiet unraveling of her marriage. Though each piece is decidedly personal, the collection feels universal, encouraging all readers--partnered or not, happily or less so--to reexamine the common narratives around marriage and divorce.

If that all sounds a bit heavy, trust Harrington to supply the biting humor she is known for while avoiding any hint of malice toward her former husband, noting that he approved every page. These choices support Harrington's argument that divorce need not be a tragedy, ultimately answering her own question: "Could we want the best for each other even when that 'best' wasn't each other?"

An amicable divorce is not unusual, so why this book? Perhaps because of the couple's unconventional decision to separate formally while continuing to live and parent together, maintaining the family structure for themselves and their children. Harrington navigates the quirks of this arrangement (separate bedrooms, dating apps, family vacations?) but never gets bogged down in the minutiae of her experience. Instead, she chooses to focus on those questions that weigh on everyone: How did I get here? What do I still have to discover? When is good enough not good enough? Never claiming to know the answers, Harrington invites readers into her story, giving them the chance to empathize or relate, regardless of relationship status. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian-in-training

Discover: Often vulnerable and deeply funny, these 30 essays consider marriage, divorce and how to think about both.

Harper Perennial, $16.99, paperback, 304p., 9780062993311

Children's & Young Adult

Walking in Two Worlds

by Wab Kinew

Walking in Two Worlds by Wab Kinew (Go Show the World) is a standout genre-bending YA sci-fi that movingly explores challenges faced by an Indigenous teen and a Chinese teen coming of age in Anishinaabe country.

Anishinaabe teen Bagonegiizhigok, who goes by Bugz, doubts herself in the real world. Although she proudly leads the healing dance in her jingle dress at pow-wows, she can't relate to the other dancers, who look "the way Anishinaabe women should look," not "chubby" like her. But in the virtual world of the Floraverse, she's an unstoppable warrior with millions of followers and a trim waist. She's also the top target of Clan:LESS, a ruthless group of sexist men who seek Bugz's source of power in the game. Feng, a Uyghur teen, fled Xinjiang, China, because "the party" would have "disappeared" him for his participation in Clan:LESS. Relocating to live with his aunt, the Rez's doctor, puts him in contact with Bugz. And when the teens immediately click, Clan:LESS sees it as an opportunity.

Myriad difficult storylines receive due space: embracing cultural pride while eschewing harmful tradition; loving one's country but not its rulers; how Indigenous land is fundamental to Indigenous existence; the dangers of xenophobia and body shaming; the importance of self-esteem and external support to individuality. As a powerful parallel throughout, Bugz must constantly defend the location where her real and virtual worlds are one--a symbol of her ideal self--from those who would overtake (read: colonize) it. Kinew delivers a fun, brilliantly executed blend of gamer geekdom, social issues and Indigenous culture. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: This YA sci-fi follows two teens, one Indigenous and the other Chinese, as they deal with tradition, expectation, cultural pride and their authentic selves in both real and virtual worlds.

Penguin Teen, $17.99, hardcover, 296p., ages 12-up, 9780735269002

The People Remember

by Ibi Zoboi, illus. by Loveis Wise

The People Remember uses a rhythmic and poetic style to link the seven principles of Kwanzaa to the history of African descendants in the Americas.

The book begins with Africans being stolen from their homes; Ashanti, Fulani, Ibo, Yoruba, Akan and many other peoples were bound and taken across the ocean to the Americas. When "they landed on the shores/ of South Carolina and Virginia,/ Hispaniola and Brazil," speaking different tongues, they had to learn how to communicate with each other in order to become "all one." The people remember slavery, freedom and the Great Migration "to new lands,/ to new borders" where they could grow and eat a slice of the American pie. But it wasn't easy. The accounts of historical resilience and solidarity work together, building to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, such as Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination) or Nia (purpose).

Accompanying Ibi Zoboi's inspirational text is Loveis Wise's digitally rendered artwork. Wise (Say Her Name) creates bold, jewel-toned illustrations that break literal boundaries--a lick of flame, a leg outstretched in dance, a flying bird that acts as an artistic interpretation of poetry all slide across the gutter to make double-page spreads. This, the detailed faces and the intricate backgrounds of Black people perfectly reflect Zoboi's words and show that the people, their creativity and their faith cannot be boxed in. In her debut picture book, Zoboi (Punching the Air; American Street) invites people of all ages to dive into a lyrical telling of the plight of African descendants in the Americas, their tenacious spirits and their ability to find their own culture. --Natasha Harris, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this inspiring children's picture book, the seven principles of Kwanzaa are woven into the stories of African descendants in the Americas.

Balzer + Bay, $19.99, hardcover, 64p., ages 4-8, 9780062915641

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