Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, August 11, 2015

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

From My Shelf

Read Early, Read Often

As the 2016 presidential campaign gains momentum, one thing you can count on during the ceremonial browbeating and breast-beating competition will be a concurrent surge in "rant lit" books. They're the ones that aren't simply published, but seem to be hurled ferociously across the political divide in a high stakes game of biblio-dodgeball.

Fortunately, there are exceptions, including Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. From 2007 to 2010, he worked as a communications officer and speechwriter for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose ambitions would be derailed in 2009 by infidelity (Keywords: "hiking the Appalachian Trail" and "mistress in Argentina").

Swaim's job "wasn't to write well; it was to write like the governor…. I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time." The author's inside look at one small corner of the creaky machinations of government ("It was our job to generate supplies of 'language.' ") is more Veep than House of Cards, but the message is ultimately a serious one.  

Caring deeply about words turns out to be a handicap. Swaim gradually learns he must deprogram his gift to do his job: "Everybody complains that politics separates words from their meanings, and this is part of the reason why. Words are useful, but often their meanings are not."

His chronicle of daily office life is not only insightful, but surprisingly rational given his often bizarre treatment under Sanford's command. "The brutal reality is that politicians gain power by convincing us that they are wise and trustworthy," he writes. "What they do isn't in fact very different from the classical arts of rhetoric or oratory.... Rhetoricians, in other words--politicians--please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that's what they are doing."

The Speechwriter is a little scary, but in a good way. It's also a welcome antidote to rant lit. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

The Writer's Life

Book Brahmin: Matthew Battles

Matthew Battles is associate director of metaLAB at Harvard and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has written about the cultural dimensions of art, literature, science and technology for the American Scholar, the Atlantic, the Boston GlobeHarper's magazine and the New York Times. Battles has published extensively on the history and changing roles of libraries in culture. His book Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003) is appearing in a new edition this month, along with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word (Norton, July 27, 2015), a cultural history of writing.

On your nightstand now:

This makes for an embarrassing start: I have a pair of 18-inch-tall piles of books on my nightstand, bracketing the lamp. They're so tall they hide the lamp, so that it's nearly too dark to read. Active titles include Don DeLillo's Underworld, Open Sky by Paul Virilio, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel De Landa, The Mara Crossing by poet Ruth Padel and Hugh Raffles's remarkable Insectopedia, a surprising, sensitive exploration of intersections between human and insect realms.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The World Book Encyclopedia. It was the 1959 edition, already 10 years old when I was born, and it was Internet enough for 11-year-old me.

Your top five authors:

Jorge Luis Borges, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Tove Jansson.

Book you've faked reading:

Swann's Way--if the fake-read-novel is a genre, then Marcel Proust's work is its locus classicus.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I'll mention three: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, with mesmerizing descriptions of natural scenes and a story that tenderly, savagely turns on the broken love of a brother and sister; Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, a short novel for adults by the creator of the Moomintroll series of children's books; and J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, an account of natural-history observation which elides distinctions between narrator and nature. All three are published by New York Review Books, which makes me an NYRB evangelist as well.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I recently picked up in the library a 1937 Penguin edition of The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of the ill-fated Scott expedition to Antarctica in 1912. I love the nonchalance of the little dancing penguin on the cover--the Antarctic creature at home in a place of such debilitating difficulty for human beings. I didn't buy it--I'm happy to take it out of the library. But I would buy it for the cover alone; the penguin abides....

Book that changed your life:

Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones showed me how to do what I do as a writer (though I could never do it half as well).

Favorite line from a book:

"A Letter is a Joy of Earth/ It is denied the Gods." That's Emily Dickinson, a line she included in several letters, which ended up published as a poem. She reminds us how literature unfolds in time, the stream in which we're all swept up. Mortality and temporality limit us, but also make things like letters and books delicious.

Which character you most relate to:

Melville's Ishmael--I sense the sort of "loomings" the narrator of Moby Dick feels, and like Ishmael I seem to find myself at once in the midst of things yet looking in as if from outside or down from above, to watch, wonder and comment.

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

I'd like to read Gawain and the Green Knight, not as a scholarly project in decoding Middle English, but as a reader for whom it's a living text--to read it as its first reader, I suppose!

Book Candy

Books to Chill You on Hot Summer Days

Highlighting new releases and reprints that "will send a blissfully icy chill down your spine," Vanity Fair showcased "dark new books to cool down the dog days of August."


Mary Sebag-Montefiore chose her "top 10 classics to read before you're 10" for the Guardian.


Infographic of the day: Electric Lit featured "unusual jobs of famous writers."


The MedievalBooks blog explored "chain, chest, curse: combating book theft in Medieval times."


"We like to think that book nerds are more clever than the average human," Flavorwire noted in featuring a selection of "bookish business card designs."

Book Review


Circling the Sun

by Paula McLain

Growing up in Kenya on her father's horse farm, the young Beryl Markham was able to make her own rules: exploring the farm's rugged terrain, becoming an expert horsewoman, befriending the Kipsigis natives who worked for and with her father. But when Beryl becomes a teenager, her father's business faces financial ruin and she is left to fend for herself. Fiercely independent yet unsure of social conventions, Beryl falls into a series of disastrous romantic and professional relationships. In her third novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain explores the complexities of Beryl's life and traces her journey from young girl to horse trainer to world-renowned aviatrix.

McLain's skill at blending fact and fiction, which dazzled readers in The Paris Wife, is on full display in Circling the Sun. Drawing on Markham's memoir West with the Night and other historical sources, McLain paints a lushly colored portrait of 1920s Kenya. Beryl narrates her own story, and her love for Kenya's wild landscapes, as well as her deep loneliness, comes through on every page. A complicated love triangle with big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and his longtime paramour, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (who under the pen name Isak Dinesen wrote Out of Africa), has a deep effect on Beryl's professional and personal life.

In prose as luminous as the African skies, McLain charts Beryl's journey of self-discovery: searching, stumbling, getting back up and eventually soaring. Heartbreaking and defiantly hopeful--like Beryl herself--Circling the Sun is a masterful story of hardship, courage and love. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Paula McLain's masterful third novel tells the story of Beryl Markham, a fiercely unconventional horse trainer, aviatrix in 1920s Kenya and author of West with the Night.

Ballantine Books, $28, hardcover, 9780345534187


by Austin Grossman

At first glance, Austin Grossman's third book, Crooked, seems like a major departure for the video game consultant–turned-novelist. His previous novels, Soon I Will Be Invincible and You, drew from the worlds of comic books and video games, respectively, resulting in delightfully nerdy adventures comparable with Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. Crooked, however, delves deep into the mind of none other than Richard Nixon, who makes a surprisingly hilarious and engaging protagonist.

In Grossman's telling, Nixon becomes embroiled in something akin to an occult conspiracy pitting Americans and Soviets against each other in an ever-escalating supernatural war. The nerdery comes into play when Grossman reinterprets American history through an occult lens, casting President Eisenhower as a powerful sorcerer whose vaunted highway system was actually part of a vast ritual, and Henry Kissinger as a centuries-old demon who takes the concept of the "Dead Hand" system far too literally. Fans of American history, especially American political history, will definitely get more out of the book's countless Easter eggs and outrageous jokes than the average reader, but anyone can find enjoyment in Crooked's bold fusion of Lovecraftian horror and political skullduggery.

Crooked is not merely a goof. Nixon's sad-sack inner monologue is simultaneously infuriating and sympathetic, much like the president himself. In between the demonic summonings and ritual bindings is a fairly traditional story of a man for whom the ends always justified the means, even when the ends were not quite clear and the means involved blood magic. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: A supernatural autobiography of Tricky Dick--Richard Nixon.

Mulholland Books, $26, hardcover, 9780316198516

The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War

by William T. Vollmann

Calling the fifth volume of William T. Vollmann's mammoth Seven Dreams series ambitious--at over 1,300 pages and stuffed with glossaries, maps, sketches and marginalia--is an understatement.

The series--its last addition was 2001's Argall--has dealt with the catastrophic effects European colonization had on Native Americans, and in The Dying Grass Vollmann describes the downfall of the Plains Indians through the eyes of the Nez Perce. The book follows Chief Joseph and his tribe on their long retreat from nemesis General Oliver Otis Howard, from Oregon and Montana to the Canadian border. The scenes in which the Nez Perce outmaneuver the larger pursuing force, and the sense of impending doom as the tribe is cornered, model bravura storytelling tied to a larger historical sense of what the events meant.

Vollmann's supple prose takes on the consciousness of each of his protagonists. The army, with its brute force, is handled with full humanity, and no character emerges as a stock villain. Howard comes across as especially tragic as his compassionate nature is ground under the wheels of his duty. The genocide of native tribes looms bitterly, and when the Nez Perce narrators ruminate on what has been irrevocably lost, their poetry is almost too much to bear: "The berries will now be turning red in the Buffalo Country, where perhaps we shall go/ by way of the Lice-Eaters' lands,/ riding farther from Wallowa, where something once was."

The Dying Grass stands out among contemporary American novels, a fierce grab at lasting greatness that clears with grace every hurdle it dares to leap. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: The fifth novel in William Vollman's Seven Dreams series describes the destructive panorama of the Nez Perce War.

Viking, $55, hardcover, 9780670015986

The Night Stages

by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart (Sanctuary Line) returns to her trademark themes of place, memory and loss in The Night Stages, a quietly lyrical novel about a woman who attempts to escape the limitations of her life in postwar, rural Ireland for a new life in America. Tam's journey becomes a reckoning when she is stranded by intractable fog at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland.

The airport, a real-life jewel of mid-century architecture and dominated by the waiting room's majestic mural called "Flight and Its Allegories," provides the setting that organizes the novel. This mural triggers Tam's memories and ruminations over the course of three fog-bound days after leaving Ireland and her married lover, Niall. Figures and scenes within the painting prompt specific memories for a narrative that weaves back and forth in time to tell stories of Niall, his estranged brother, Kieran--for whose disappearance Niall cannot forgive himself--Tam herself and Kenneth Lochhead, the historically based artist who painted the mural.

For the most part, Kieran and Kenneth's stories are told from their respective points of view, while those of Tam and Niall are reported and described as though from a distance and have the feel of reconstructed memory. The novel is slightly uneven as a result. Yet as ever, Urquhart's prose, melodic with Irish names and inflections, is gorgeous, her images incisive. A face is "stern with thinking" or an angry child is "full of refusal." The Night Stages is an elegiac novel that describes the landscapes of home and heart with Urquhart's trademark grace. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: A woman caught between her lover's remorse over his lost sibling and her own place in the world.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, hardcover, 9780374222192

How to Be a Grown-Up

by Nicola Kraus, Emma McLaughlin

Rory McGovern has lived on the brink of financial disaster for the last decade. Her husband, Blake, is an actor who peaked as a teenager, and they scrape by on residual checks. But they were always happy until Blake started flaking out--on Rory, on their children and on adulthood in general. Since someone needs to support their family, Rory gives up her freelance design work and gets a full-time job at a hot new lifestyle website for kids called JeuneBug.

Desperate to keep her kids from realizing how fragile their family's situation is, Rory frantically tries to stay on top of school projects and birthday party plans, while also figuring out how to succeed at a weird job where everyone speaks in cryptic business lingo. The problem is, her two bosses are half her age, and no one else at JeuneBug actually has children. Can Rory be the grown-up in the office and the grown-up in her family, without having a mental breakdown? Will she be able to save both her career and her marriage?

From the authors of The Nanny Diaries, How to Be a Grown-Up is a fun, fast-paced look at modern life for a working New York mother. Rory's struggles are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and completely familiar to anyone who's ever attempted to get a three-year-old to do something they don't want to do.

Perfect for those who enjoy Lauren Weisberger's books, or McLaughlin and Kraus's earlier titles, How to Be a Grown-Up is smart, fabulous reading. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: A woman struggles to handle a high-powered new career while attempting to save her failing marriage and raise her Manhattanite children.

Atria, $25, hardcover, 9781451643459

Mystery & Thriller

Brush Back

by Sara Paretsky

"I've lived my whole life in this city, and I know too much about how business gets done here," proclaims V.I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky's Brush Back. The experience of both protagonist and author with Chicago's political, criminal and athletic landscapes make the 17th novel of Paretsky's P.I. crime series a thrillingly convincing addition.

When V.I.'s old flame Frank Guzzo shows up in her office asking for help exonerating his mother--newly released from prison after serving 25 years for beating her daughter to death--the seasoned private eye has deep reservations. This woman treated the Warshawski family viciously, and V.I. believes Stella Guzzo is guilty of the crime for which she was convicted. But V.I.'s history with Frank Guzzo motivates her to look into the case. What she uncovers leads her and her loved ones into the dark, dangerous underside of Chicago politics--and Wrigley Field.

Through three decades of V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky (Critical Mass) has portrayed the strong, independent female authentically. With V.I. now in her 50s, Paretsky continues to draw a determined, believable hero. V.I. bleeds when she's assaulted, aches the day after and admits fear of a corrupt social system much larger and more powerful than she. But she also perseveres, "You know how it is. I was jumping over a tall building and forgot that it takes me two bounds these days."

With V.I. Warshawski working to brush back the bad guys, Paretsky scores another hardboiled winner sure to make the fans go wild. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: The hidden element of Wrigley Field holds answers to a 25-year-old murder that is more than just another case for V.I. Warshawski.

Putnam, $27.95, hardcover, 9780399160578

Biography & Memoir

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

"This book is about how I came to embrace and celebrate the variety and contradictions that make up my life," writes Dan-el Padilla Peralta in the introduction to his memoir, Undocumented. Variety and contradictions abound: Peralta lived in a homeless shelter with his single mother and brother while attending one of New York City's most prestigious private schools; he attended Princeton as a Classics major while fighting to gain legal immigration status in the United States; he was written up in the Wall Street Journal as an undocumented student while struggling to find a way to work legally after college graduation.

Undocumented is, as he intended it to be, the story of these many aspects of his life, and how he came to graduate at the top of his Ivy League class against all odds. Perhaps because of the many layers of his personal and public life, Peralta's memoir can at times feel scattered: personal stories of family meals and phone calls are strewn amid recollections of various school events, which are distributed among accounts of the various homeless shelters and low-income apartments in which Peralta and his family lived. But throughout these pieces are powerful musings on the role of race, politics and poverty in the lives of those in the "hood"--as well as those in the upper echelons of Manhattan society--that rescue Undocumented from floundering.

Though he admits that his story is rare, the product of "structures, contexts, and luck reigned supreme," Peralta's experiences paint a vulnerable--and very personal--story of the immigration debate in the United States. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: How one undocumented student graduated at the top of his Ivy League class.

Penguin Press, $27.95, hardcover, 9781594206528


The Real Lives of Roman Britain

by Guy de la Bédoyère

Guy de la Bédoyère's The Real Lives of Roman Britain is not a narrative history of Roman Britain. (De la Bédoyère has already written several versions of that narrative.) It is instead an attempt to look at the 360 years of Roman occupation in terms of human experience rather than "the generalities of military campaigns, the antics of emperors, the arid plains of statistical models and typologies of pottery, the skeletal remains of buildings, and theoretical archaeological agendas."

The attempt is not entirely successful due to a problem that de la Bédoyère identifies early in the book as "visibility." There is surprisingly little evidence, physical or textual, concerning the Roman experience in Britain, and even less about individuals--often no more than a name and a hint. (Sometimes not even a name. One individual, known as the "Aldgate-Pulborough Potter," is recognizable only by the distinctive incompetence of his work.) Consequently, much of the book is devoted less to the lives of Roman Britain and more to an evaluation of the available evidence.

In lesser hands, this close analysis of inscriptions, clay tablets, pottery shards and, yes, the skeletal remains of buildings, could be as dry as the dust from which they are taken. De la Bédoyère considers each bit of evidence with wit and imagination, leading the reader with him on the path of discovery rather than simply providing his conclusions. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: An examination of what we know about Roman Britain and how we know it.

Yale University Press, $40, hardcover, 9780300207194


The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals and Other Forgotten Skills

by Tristan Gooley

Tristan Gooley (The Natural Navigator) has spent more than 20 years walking through the countryside and along the coasts of England, and is the only living person who has both flown and sailed solo across the Atlantic. In The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs, Gooley generously shares his astute observations of natural (and fabricated) elements--trees, plants and animals, clouds, stars and planets, and cities, towns and villages. Although Gooley's home is England, he is a world traveler and his observations are universally helpful.

Gooley's recommendations are oriented toward the curious and practical, and can be applied to any walk in nearly any location: "This is a book about outdoor clues and signs and the art of making predictions and deductions... to make your walks, however long or short, eminently more fascinating." For example, the smell of smoke may indicate a temperature inversion in the air; therefore, fog may be likely in the morning or evening, but will not last long. The prevailing wind direction can be ascertained by noticing which side of the trees is thicker with branches. Our fists can be used to determine how long before the sun sets, and the placement of shops and cafes reflects the flow of foot traffic. While Gooley's tips encompass useful, practical ways to predict a change in weather, determine when a predator may be prowling and find true North at night, his true gift is in igniting curiosity and wonder about the world around us. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: Anyone interested in becoming more observant in both natural and urban environments will benefit from The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs.

The Experiment, $16.95, paperback, 9781615192410


Roll Deep

by Major Jackson

Although poet Major Jackson lives in South Burlington and teaches at the University of Vermont, he's no Robert Frost. Raised by his grandparents in Philadelphia, Jackson comes from urban streets and schools where music, vacant lots and graffiti shaped his African American roots. His first collection, Leaving Saturn, and second, Hoops, explored that personal background in the ongoing sequence poem "Urban Renewal." In Roll Deep, Jackson continues the "Urban Renewal" narrative with 18 new segments describing experiences in the wider world of Greece, Spain, Brazil, Kenya and Italy, in which beauty masks undercurrents of poverty and violence. For example, in "La Barraca Blues Suite" the narrator savors "a daily paper/ ...between sips of café con leche" while knowing "Guernica is down the street." Or in "The Dadaab Suite," the speaker views Kenya's majestic Maasai Mara while "the sound of crushing bones racked my ears;/ a battalion of lions gorged on a half-eaten gazelle."

As poetry editor of the Harvard Review, Jackson firmly grasps contemporary poetry. Roll Deep works within traditional meter as it embraces hip-hop rhythms and references to modern conveniences, still holding to the themes of Jackson's roots. In "Dreams of Permanence" he observes thinly masked racism in a desolate urban scene "before city cops,/ seemingly patrolling only this part of town,/ rush to manhandle some shy kid." In the concluding personal poem, "Why I Write Poetry," among his many reasons, one stands out: "Because my grandfather loved clean syntax,/ cologne, Stacy Adams shoes, Irish tweed caps,/ and women, but not necessarily in that order." More Langston Hughes than Robert Frost, Jackson is a poet of many voices. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Major Jackson's fourth collection of poems, set in a half dozen countries and touching on music, love, racism and violence.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393246896

Children's & Young Adult

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

by Margarita Engle, illus. by Edel Rodriguez

Newbery Honor author Margarita Engle (The Surrender Tree) reflects on her childhood as a kind of poetic travelogue, with one wing in her father's U.S. homeland and the other in her mother's native Cuba.

Through Engle's eyes, from early childhood through age 14, readers see her maternal grandparents' land as an escape from her home near Los Angeles. She feels the push and pull of her double-sided heritage: "Two countries./ Two families./ Two sets of words./ Am I free to need both,/ or will I always have to choose/ only one way/ of thinking?" What her mother views as deprivation in Cuba, young Margarita sees as "endless adventure," such as traveling by horseback or oxcart. When one of Abuelita's mares is expecting, she promises the foal to Margarita and her older sister. Yet that is not to be: the Bay of Pigs sprawls between them, cutting them off from their Cuban relatives. Margarita contrasts the intimacy of intergenerational relationships in leisurely paced Cuba with her hurried, isolated lifestyle in California. Engle describes the universal feelings of wanting to improve at things, such as horseback riding and making friends, as well as moments specific to her childhood, such as hiding under her desk during bomb drills.

Pair this with Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry for a multilayered look at the 1950s from two young women who find their sense of belonging by writing poems. Engle's book opens a window into what resuming relations with Cuba means to generations of families forcibly separated for nearly 60 years. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A Newbery Honor author's poetic reflections on her dual childhood as a Cuban American growing up in the 1950s.

Atheneum/S&S, $17.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 12-up, 9781481435222

Lillian's Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

by Jonah Winter, illus. by Shane W. Evans

Readers follow 100-year-old Lillian on her way to cast her vote, in this moving tribute to the long uphill struggle that her vote signifies.

"A very old woman stands at the bottom of a very steep hill," Jonah Winter (The Founding Fathers) begins. Shane W. Evans's (We March) mixed-media portrait captures both Lillian's intelligence and hard-won serenity. As she makes her way up that hill, she remembers the plight of the generations before her: her great-great-grandparents standing on an auction block "in front of the very same Alabama courthouse where rich white men, and no one else, are allowed to vote"; her great-grandpa Edmund on his way to vote in 1870, thanks to the Fifteenth Amendment (though his wife still had no right to vote); then the impediments of the poll tax, and the obstructions to women even after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Evans distinguishes Lillian's memories as ghosted images outlined in pencil and pen on cutouts of solid colors, allowing Lillian's elegant figure to pop in every scene. One of the most powerful is a double-page spread that splits between the sepia-toned image of Lillian voting for the first time in 1965 and her present-day self robed in elegant finery and rendered in full color.

This is a picture book for older readers who can understand the symbol of the KKK's burning cross and the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s. It delivers a powerful message about never taking the right to vote for granted. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A powerful picture book history of the struggle to win the right to vote.

Schwartz & Wade, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 7-10, 9780385390286

Powered by: Xtenit