Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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

From My Shelf

Give Your Graduate a Book!

It's graduation season, and time to congratulate friends and family who have finished high school or college. Though I always give graduates what they most want (a check!), I also like to include a book to mark their achievement. Here are some of my favorite choices.
A Short Guide to a Happy Life (Random House, $15) and Being Perfect (Random House, $15) are a pair of small books based on commencement addresses given by acclaimed author Anna Quindlen at Barnard, her alma mater. They both provide inspiring advice, accompanied by beautiful photographs, on getting the most out of every day and living your best life, with a focus on happiness in the first book and avoiding the trap of perfectionism in the second.
My sons and their friends love F in Exams--The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers (Chronicle, $9.95) by Richard Benson, a hilarious collection of outrageously funny (and wrong) test answers written by real students. Any graduate at any level will laugh out loud and pass this book to his or her friends.
The perfect gift for high school grads moving on to college is The Naked Roommate (and 107 Other Issues You Might Run into in College) (Sourcebooks, $14.99) by Harlen Cohen, which combines practical advice on problems they might be embarrassed to ask about with a great sense of humor, plus stories from actual college students.

For my son's college graduation, I searched for the perfect book to help him begin his adult life, and I found it in Adulting 101: #Wisdom4Life (Broadstreet, $14.99) by Josh Burnette and Pete Hardesty. There are lots of books out there on finding a job or being successful at work or learning how to manage your finances, but this practical guide for those embarking on adult life includes all that--and much more. --Suzan L. Jackson, freelance writer and blogger at Book by Book

The Writer's Life

Tommy Orange: In the Present Tense

photo: Elena Seibert

Tommy Orange is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He was a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. His debut novel, There There (Knopf), is reviewed below.

When did you start writing and decide that this was your calling?
I came to it pretty late. I was kind of doing it unconsciously in the margins of textbooks and on the backs of notes. I have a distinct memory of writing weird little lines everywhere. I did not consider myself a writer, was not headed in that direction. I graduated from college with a bachelor's of science in the sound arts. I was a musician, but did nothing with my degree. I got a job at a used bookstore, and while I was working there, fell in love with literature; from there, I decided I wanted to write. I spent the rest of the time playing catch-up with everyone who knew for a long time they wanted to write.
How did getting your MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts--which offers the first indigenous-centered MFA program in the U.S.--change your writing?
I was three or four years into the middle of writing a novel when I started the program. I definitely picked up a lot of tools--there's an amazing faculty there. Also, it was really important to become a part of a writing community. There was a lot of support and energy that added to everything. I felt like I wasn't writing in a void. That helped in a lot of intangible ways.
The prologue and interlude in There There are so powerful. They sound like a universal song, or lament, that is always being sung in the background to the novel.
I wanted a prologue, and originally there wasn't an interlude, but my editor wanted to break it up--there were 14 pages of it. The way it worked out was perfect. It did always feel like I was trying to write something in a collective voice--the royal "we." As Native people, sometimes we feel we have to explain ourselves or set the record straight because our stories have been told wrong or not told for so long. I really wanted to reach back and update, and to explain what urban Indians are. There are Native families who have been living in cities since the 1950s, and 70% of Native people live in cities now, so it was a way of catching people up on what it means to be urban Indian, the relationship with a city that's its own thing, and I felt I needed to put that in at the beginning to contextualize.
In the U.S. as a whole, we like to think of Indians historically and romantically; if we think of urban Natives, we think of homelessness and alcoholism. You write, "We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere." You are pushing against stereotypes.
Yes, that's what I was doing with the prologue. We've been facing these stereotypes and these old tropes for so long. If you feel some rage in there, that's because it's really there. We are dying to be seen just as human and equal. And present-tense people.
Author Terese Mailhot said that she prefers to be called Indian because it's a "stark word, one embedded in the bureaucracy of North America." In There There, you use multiple words--Indian, Native, Native American, Urban Native, Indigenous.
Most Native people I know just use "Native" as shorthand. They don't say Native American or American Indian. Some other communities say Indigenous. I'm okay with Indians calling each other Indian, but it's uncomfortable for me to hear non-Natives saying "Indian." There are certain times when I will slip into saying "Indian"--it depends on the context.
I like what Terese said, and I like that we struggle with this, and that it's uncomfortable for us to even pronounce a people, because of how uncomfortable the very history is. We have a lot of reckoning to do with our history.
You said, "One of the reasons I wrote a polyphonic novel is that I come from a voiceless community." Was it difficult writing in different points of view?
It was difficult for a lot of reasons. There weren't too many other works to look at, for one. There are no other urban Indian novels that I know of, at least, there weren't when I was writing mine. It's super complicated to have everybody's stories get woven together into one whole story, but the powwow--being the place they all converged--gave me a guiding light.
What is the importance of powwows?
It means different things to different people, but I like it because it's both traditional and contemporary, and it's a place where we can dance, where there are competition and prizes, where we can work on and sell our jewelry. We get to see each other--it's intertribal--and it's a connection to our culture and heritage. You hear loud singing, booming drums--it's unapologetic and proud.
In the Thomas Frank chapter--before he was born, he "swam to the beat" of an arrhythmic heart--the percussion in his very being resonated with the sound of powwows.
People have commented on that chapter as being rhythmic, and I honestly did not intend to do it that way. That chapter is semi-autobiographical, and it came flying out of me in a very short time period. There wasn't much thinking as far as doing conceptual things with it. It really just happened fast.
In the first chapter, the test pattern Indian on Tony's TV sets up the importance of reflections for each of your characters--they look at themselves in mirrors, screens, metal surfaces. Are they searching for their true selves?
It's meant to function as a lot of different things. One is reflection, and looking for what is Indian about themselves--they are struggling with identity. The test pattern Indian reflects how we are depicted on screen; screens are ever-present in our lives now.
Who are your literary heroes? Who do you like to read?
Off the top of my head: Borges, Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, Roberto Bolaño, Marlon James, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ocean Vuong, Louise Erdrich. --Marilyn Dahl

Never Anyone but You

by Rupert Thomson

In Never Anyone but You, Rupert Thomson (The Insult; Katherine Carlyle) re-creates with intimate and emotional detail the lives--and love--of two extraordinary women who lived in the early half of the 20th century: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Claude and Marcel met as teenagers (then named Lucie and Suzanne, respectively). Despite the possible censure they faced at the time, the two fell in love and embarked on a decades-long relationship with one another. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, their clandestine relationship was further covered by the fact that the divorced father of one married the widowed mother of the other, allowing the two women to live together as stepsisters without raising suspicion.

While history has better remembered Claude--her self-portraits and writing, in particular, have preserved many of her ideas on femininity and gender norms that are as relevant (indeed, downright revolutionary) today as they were during her lifetime--Thomson brings the love between Claude and Marcel to life by writing from Marcel's perspective. This narrative decision serves two purposes: first, by writing in the first person, Thomson conveys an emotional depth to the relationship that would be lacking if told from without. And second, by maintaining Claude as the subject of another's perspective, the art she's left behind is given further context for those who may seek it out.

That being said, the experiences of these two women were so intertwined and interrelated that Never Anyone but You is not so much an accounting of their individual lives and actions, but rather an exploration of their shared life.

"Sometimes, though, just sometimes, Claude would become me and I would become her--while making love, for instance, or dancing--and it was unforced and seamless, it was comfortable, this reversing of our roles, this intermingling of our attributes and our desires. I had seen acquaintances of ours notice this capacity in us, and I had watched it arouse their jealousy... they realized that they didn't have anything we wanted, and they took our self-sufficiency as a kind of rejection, or even as an expression of contempt."

This intimacy between the two women is born in part from the secrecy of their relationship and their continued dependence on one another for love and support. More importantly, though, it is what gave both a place of inclusivity in a world that wanted to exclude them--because of their gender, their sexuality, their politics, or some combination thereof.

Thomson's novels have varied in subject, but his skill as a novelist is on full display in Never Anyone but You. Drawing on historical facts and what is known of Claude and Marcel's personal lives, he has built a richly imagined work of historical fiction that succeeds in capturing the essence of each distinct period of Claude and Marcel's life together: their teenage years in the provincial town of Nantes; the energy and passion of the Surrealist movement in 1920s Paris; the reclusive nature of the women's retreat in Jersey; the fear and apprehension that lay over Jersey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Each of these distinct periods serves to provide further context to the complex story of two individual women who defied expectations to live a life of their own creation.

This idea of self-determination and creation was central to Claude's art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that it features so prominently in Thomson's novel. But what Thomson succeeds in imagining, with layers of sentiment that make the story resonate across the decades, is the importance of that determination to the very identity of both women. It is the driving force behind Suzanne's decision to stay with Lucie; it is behind their decision to rename themselves upon arriving in Paris in the 1920s; it is what leads them to set up an exceptionally dangerous anti-Nazi propaganda project in Jersey during the German occupation of their home.

Perhaps most importantly, it is also central to their love for one another. Marcel recognizes the work Claude has put into making the "constantly shifting construct that was herself," and does everything in her power to preserve that construct, no matter the cost to herself or the forces working against her.

Steeped in historical detail, surprisingly timely statements on gender norms and mental health, and suspenseful moments of choice and deliberation, Never Anyone but You is a captivating and heartfelt tale of love and the many shapes it can take. --Kerry McHugh

Other Press, $25.95, hardcover, 368p., 9781590519134

Rupert Thomson: Between the Real and the Imagined

photo: Sveta Mishima

Rupert Thomson is the author of several novels, including The Insult, selected by David Bowie as one of 100 Must-Read Books of All Time; Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel; and Katherine Carlyle. His latest novel, Never Anyone but You, tells the story of the real-life love affair between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Thomson lives in London.

Never Anyone but You is based on a true story. How did you first come across Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore?

I found a photo of Claude Cahun in a magazine. She had shaved eyebrows, a shaved head, and she was wearing a black dress. Her head was kind of turned away. She just looked really bizarre. And I thought, "Who is that?"

There were a few biographical details in the article, and they were so intriguing. It was such an extraordinary story, and one I hadn't heard before. Never Anyone but You didn't start as a book quite then, but it lodged in my head, as these ideas often do.

The book is rich with historical detail across both women's lives and spanning several decades of the 20th century. How did you conduct your research?

I take a kind of peculiar attitude to research. I usually just start with my intuition. I wrote one or two drafts of the novel without knowing much at all. I do that to understand the psychological underpinnings of the characters. Background, structure, pace--all those things can come later, as far as I'm concerned. What I was really trying to get at is the relationship between Marcel and Claude.

This is a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because I nearly always discover valuable things that I wouldn't have discovered if I did all the research and at the end painstakingly constructed a book out of all the facts. It's bad because I make all kinds of mistakes. I write things that couldn't possibly have happened. So later on, I have a fair amount of problems.

I did go to Jersey twice, interviewed a bunch of people, and must have read over 100 books. I read and read and read, everything I could lay my hands on. But there does come a point when you realize you know what you need to know, and you have to go ahead with the writing.

I also tell this story from Marcel's voice. There are things she wouldn't have known in her life, or things she wouldn't have found important. The novel is her looking back on 40 years with an extraordinary and complicated woman. So all the research had to be run through the lens of Marcel's mentality. And that became a way of filtering what I was reading. That made it much easier to know what I was going to use and what I wasn't going to use. 

You mentioned this approach caused some problems, though?

After I'd been working on the book for over a year, I tracked down François Leperlier, who wrote the main biography of Claude.

There was a point in August 2015 when we met in person and had drinks together and dinner, and I asked to be in touch with him via e-mail. He was so unbelievably patient and useful. I would have tiny questions like, "When the two women lived on Jersey, did they have a car?" and then I'd have huge questions like, "What kind of Marxist was Calhoun? What kind of Marxism did they believe in?"

We went back and forth on lots of questions, and then, a year later, I went and spent three days with him. That actually almost undermined the book completely. I have this opening scene, for example, that takes place when the Germans are about to occupy Jersey, and Marcel is swimming in the sea, and feels the bombs falling miles away. François stopped me and said, "That's impossible. There's no evidence that Marcel was in the sea when that happened. Claude wrote about that moment and never mentioned anything about it." But as far as I was concerned, there was nothing Claude wrote that says Marcel wasn't in the sea, either.

We had a kind of clash between the academic nonfiction writer and the fiction writer, who works with the imagination. It was a really interesting few days, because he'd keep finding things with no evidence to prove it did happen, while I felt there was no evidence to say it didn't.

I have a theory about real facts and imagined facts. And the imagined facts take precedence even though I'm writing about real people. What fascinated me most about their story is what happened behind closed doors. Those moments that no historian could write, because they can only write things based on evidence. But the whole point of fiction is to go beyond that. So, for me, if something felt psychologically appropriate, I'd go ahead with it. 

Early in her relationship with Claude, Marcel says, "It was the life I was living that unnerved me. The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine."

That line looks so simple when you first read it, but it's actually quite a complicated idea. I believe mystery comes from clarity, rather than the other way around.

Marcel had, at one point, imagined a fairly conventional life for herself. Claude throws all of that completely up into the air. The idea of having a lover who is a woman at that time and that place was really unthinkable. I believe Claude's effect on Marcel was rather seismic. She changed Marcel completely. 

Really, the book is a love story. It's one woman talking about the life she spent with another woman who is just extraordinarily complicated and complex and vulnerable. It is an exploration of what is it like to love someone so impossible. --Kerry McHugh

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Candy

Presidential Mysteries and Thrillers

To mark this week's release of The President Is Missing by former President Bill Clinton and James Patterson, CrimeReads recommended "23 classics of presidential mysteries and thrillers."


Electric Lit explored "the four rules for a good book club... and how the group featured in the movie Book Club breaks almost all of them."


Bustle suggested "10 reading hacks for finally getting through your overstacked TBR pile."


Stefanie Dreyfuss "made a secret code to review every book she read, and it's genius," Buzzfeed reported.


For sale: "A winsome map showing the way to Pooh Corner" was showcased by Atlas Obscura, which noted you could "explore the '100 Aker Wood' for only $200,000."

Book Review


A Shout in the Ruins

by Kevin Powers

A Shout in the Ruins is Kevin Powers's follow-up to his acclaimed debut, The Yellow Birds. It's an ambitious sophomore effort that draws from more than a century of U.S. history, centering on the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Beginning in the antebellum South, Powers introduces us to the Reid family: Emily and her father, Bob; and their slaves, Aurelia and her son Rawls. Emily and Rawls grow up in close proximity but separated by a wide gulf. Even as a young boy, Rawls notes that Emily's pain differs from his "in source and scope. While hers came from a rare remonstration by her father, his was inscrutable and vast." As they grow older, they grow farther apart, before being reunited by the cruel plantation owner Levallois and the changes brought on by the Civil War.
The narrative also adopts the point of view of George Seldom, who, as a very old man in 1956 North Carolina, searches for evidence of his childhood. Seldom's parentage and true age are a mystery to him as an orphan coming out of the chaos from the Civil War, and he frequently ventures into the past through recollections of a hard life now approaching its end.
Powers's cast of characters is large for a relatively short book, and one of the pleasures of A Shout in the Ruins is the way it serves as a jumping-off point for a dozen or more separate but interwoven stories from a variety of perspectives. It brushes aside myth and romanticism for a clear-eyed look at American heritage. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: A Shout in the Ruins is a short but sprawling novel that follows slaves, plantation owners, orphans, veterans and many more from the antebellum South to the 1980s.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780316556477

There There

by Tommy Orange

In Tommy Orange's brilliant debut novel, There There, 12 people, primarily urban Cheyenne, move toward convergence to attend a big powwow in Oakland--most eagerly, some warily. "We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. We all came... for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid... layered in prayer and hand woven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed and cursed."
Tony Loneman begins the interwoven stories. He has fetal alcohol syndrome, which he calls the Drome. His eyes droop, his mouth hangs open. But he's tall, he's strong, he makes "looking like a monster" work for him. Dene Oxendene is recording urban Native stories. Edwin Black is biracial; he made it through grad school, writing his thesis on the influence of blood quantum policies on modern Native identity and literature written by mixed-blood Native authors. Opal Violet Victoria Bear Shield goes to the powwow to watch her young nephew, Orvil, who has learned to dance watching YouTube videos. Opal's sister, Jacquie Red Feather, a substance abuse counselor, is also on her way to the powwow, 10 days sober.
There There is a fierce story of despair, addiction, recovery and hope, with moments of sweetness and humor. Orange asks what it means to be Indian, Native, biracial--how is identity parsed? In the Gertrude Stein sense, "there is no there there" connotes the absence of homeland. For Orange's people, Oakland is a new "there." His title is also a promise of comfort, but one that proves elusive.
Tommy Orange has written a bold, passionate book that stabs you in the heart. --Marilyn Dahl

Discover: There There, a powerful novel about urban Native Americans, is underlain with a drumbeat of sadness and conflict, but threaded with hope.

Knopf, $25.95, hardcover, 304p., 9780525520375

Pretend I'm Dead

by Jen Beagin

Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel, Pretend I'm Dead, features the raunchy, antsy, droll and painstakingly proficient housekeeper Mona. After a blue-collar childhood in Torrance, Calif., with an alcoholic father and equally dysfunctional mother, she is placed with distant kin in Lowell ("Hole"), Mass., and pretty much left to fend for herself. By day she cleans the houses of her adopted hometown. By night she works at a pop-up needle exchange, where she meets a disabled addict wearing a tee with Jack Kerouac on the front. Two decades older and living in an SRO hotel, this man she calls "Mr. Disgusting" has a room with real paintings, Indian textiles and shelves of existential and Russian novels--unlike her last boyfriend, "some edgeless dude... whose heaviest cross to bear had been acne." Mona may not know where she's going, but she knows what she likes.
If Mona's uneasy relationship with Mr. Disgusting opens doors to possibility, her housecleaning work grounds her. She's got a vacuum jones ("on applications she listed it as one of her hobbies") to go with the practice of raiding her clients' medicine cabinets. When Mr. Disgusting disappears, he leaves her a letter urging her to escape to New Mexico to start a new life. Why not? After packing her pickup with books and cleaning supplies, she takes off, rents half an adobe casita duplex in Taos, and launches a housekeeping business.
Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead delivers a real bang for the buck. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel introduces the raffish and despondent Mona, a beguiling and lovable cleaning lady.

Scribner, $24, hardcover, 240p., 9781501183935

Life Is Good

by Alex Capus, trans. by John Brownjohn

In Alex Capus's Life Is Good, Max, a 50-something, married father of three, is cozy in the world he's built for himself. A former writer, he now owns a bar in the small town in Switzerland where he grew up, tending to the needs of his neighbors and old friends after seeing his sons off to school each day. That coziness envelops the book, pulling you into a quiet life--sort of like sliding onto a well-worn couch.
There isn't really a plot. The novel begins when his wife, Tina, departs for a year-long sabbatical in Paris, leaving Max to fend for himself and his nearly-grown sons. Capus (Léon and Louise), however, is more interested in probing the psychology of that departure than using it as the start of a narrative arc. Life Is Good dwells in memory, the stories the narrator tells himself and friends about his marriage, childhood and the history of his hometown.
Given the description one might assume the story is a bore, a navel-gazing look at the life of an established man. But Capus's writing is lively, and Max is just off-kilter enough to make hanging out with him interesting. Plus, at 200 pages, the book makes sure to not overstay its welcome. It's a perfect companion to a snoozy Sunday afternoon, lounging on that well-worn couch. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Discover: The short novel Life Is Good envelopes the reader in the coziness of small-town life.

Haus Publishing, $19.95, paperback, 160p., 9781910376928

The Ensemble 

by Aja Gabel

First-time novelist and former cellist Aja Gabel delves deeply into the sacrifice and passion needed to deal with the fiercely competitive world of classical music and into the relationships among four friends who find a way to make it to the top together.
In 1992, four young string musicians form the Van Ness Quartet, trading promising solo careers for the lure of greater fame and fortune as an ensemble. Ambitious, steel-spined first violin Jana knows she thrives best when playing with others. Privileged viola prodigy Henry could become a superstar on his own, but his friendship with Jana keeps him loyal to the quartet. Sweet, gentle second violin Brit has no family and clings to her fellow musicians as a substitute. Daniel, cellist and ladies' man, waits tables to pay for his rented tuxedos and instrument, sometimes resenting his need to work harder than the others to stay in the music business.
The Ensemble follows the Van Ness members over the course of 18 years, through their ups and downs as they win and lose competitions, support and antagonize each other, and find their way home to one another through music again and again. Complex and tender, this slice of life reveals the toll professional music takes on relationships, with its requirement of constant travel, and physically, as the musicians suffer injuries from routine bruises to excruciating arm pain. With its range of topics and core theme of chasing a passion, Gabel's debut will strike the perfect chord with book clubs and readers who love character-driven narratives. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Aja Gabel's debut novel follows the members of a string quartet from young adulthood to middle age for a beautiful portrait of lifelong friendships.

Riverhead, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780735214767

Food & Wine

More with Less: Whole Food Cooking Made Irresistibly Simple

by Jodi Moreno

In More with Less, the food blogger behind the popular What's Cooking Good Looking offers recipes and inspiration for clean, whole-food dishes that can be prepared in no more than 30 minutes.
"When you try to make more out of less, something magical happens," writes Jodi Moreno in the introduction to her cookbook. It is magical, indeed, to realize that while Moreno's recipes are simple to prepare and call for a minimal number of ingredients, they promise complex and nuanced flavor palettes. Dishes like Broccoli + Tahini Soup with Broccoli Stem Ribbons, Parsnip Chowder with Garlic Chips, Cucumber Noodle Pad Thai and Coconut Curry Lentil Balls highlight the promise of plant-based foods. A chapter on fish dishes offers highlights like Maple Mustard Marinated Black Cod. Each of the 130-plus recipes in More with Less is, as Moreno puts it, designed to be "versatile and forgiving," meaning dishes can be easily adapted to be dairy-, gluten- and soy-free, depending on readers' tastes and dietary restrictions.
With a comprehensive list of additional resources and a recommended stock list for one's whole foods pantry (and fridge and freezer), More with Less makes whole-food cooking and clean eating a feasible--and flavorful--possibility for home cooks. Moreno's plant-centered dishes and her invitation to play with flavors, ingredients and textures in new and exciting ways will appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike; even those skeptical of the health benefits of clean eating will find new dishes to explore here. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: The popular food blogger behind What's Cooking Good Looking offers more than 130 recipes for clean, whole-food eating at home.

Roost Books, $35, hardcover, 272p., 9781611804706

Biography & Memoir

Tesla: Inventor of the Modern

by Richard Munson

It's not unusual to find electrical engineers and inventors skewed to the edge of the weirdness spectrum, but Nikola Tesla was in a class all his own, as represented in Richard Munson's illustrated biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. He was a Croatian-born ethnic Serbian immigrant who stood 6'2", weighed 140 pounds, dressed to the nines, spoke eight languages, slept only three hours a day, memorized and wrote poetry, filed 300 patents and mesmerized Wall Street investor audiences with crackling Jedi-like light tubes arcing between eight-foot electrically charged plates. He was like an uber-nerd forerunner of Elon Musk--the charismatic entrepreneur who named his car company after Tesla. On the other hand, Tesla was also a celibate germaphobe, a superstitious numerologist and a lousy businessman who died broke at age 86, in the New Yorker Hotel.
More than just a biography of this strange genius, however, Munson's Tesla is a history of the nascent electric power industry and men like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Guglielmo Marconi, who competed with Tesla to bring the miracle of electricity to the masses. Under license to Westinghouse, Tesla's "alternating current" generator converted the electricity market from Edison's "direct current" limited access system to the ubiquitous power grid in place today.
An inventor's inventor, Tesla never managed to leverage his genius into the wealth that Edison did. And Munson (From Edison to Enron), a Midwest businessman and energy wonk, taps a variety of primary sources, industry trade literature and Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions, to flesh out this enigmatic inventor and contrarian thinker. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Tesla tells the extraordinary story of the eccentric and enigmatic inventor whose genius transformed the global power industry.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780393635447

There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story

by Pamela Druckerman

American ex-pat and author of Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman applies her wit and insight to life in one's 40s, the awkward transitional decade when many individuals shift out of their youth but don't quite enter old age yet. The mother of three says, "I've noticed that men only appraise me on the streets of Paris now if I'm in full hair and makeup." And waiters have shifted from calling her "mademoiselle" to "madame." Determined to understand this disorienting stage, she delves into the finer points of being a grown-up as she travels the winding road of a 40-something adult.
At times she turns up the humor, as in a chapter about arranging a threesome for her husband as his birthday gift, which turns into a freelance assignment for an American magazine. But There Are No Grown-Ups is equally full of heartfelt insights and revelations. Druckerman shares her battle with cancer and celebrates the success of her book. She acknowledges goals she'd like to reach but hasn't quite accomplished yet.
Throughout the book she receives advice and she imparts it. She examines the mysterious decade with sincerity but never takes herself too seriously. Candid and spirited, Druckerman takes the fear out of 40. She offers those facing this decade reason to anticipate it positively, and those who are currently experiencing it--or already have--plenty to reminisce over. There Are No Grown-Ups assures everyone, "vous allez trouver votre place--you will find your place." --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: Parenting expert Pamela Druckerman tries to make sense out of being 40-something in a book that blends humor, memoir and self-help.

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9781594206375


Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir

by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers was a married young mother with a master's degree in city planning when she moved to Manhattan in 1964 and fell in love with Central Park. It was good timing, as the 800-plus-acre park needed love. Conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won a design competition in 1858 with their plan for a public park that was also a work of landscape art, Central Park went into decline in the 1960s, an era of poor management and relaxed regulations.
Vandalism, financial shortfalls, political intransigence and accusations of elitism were among the obstacles that Rogers faced during her 20-year commitment to return Central Park to its Olmstedian glory. In 1980, she became co-founder and president of the Central Park Conservancy, a joint public-private enterprise that, although no longer under her leadership, continues as a force for civic good.
Replete with black-and-white and color photos, some providing opportunities for before-and-after comparisons, Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir has an authorial reserve that prevents it from fulfilling its promise as a memoir, but it's a fascinating and invaluable document of a wildly successful restoration effort. Rogers is at her most vivacious when describing on-the-job challenges, as when the bird-watchers of Central Park protested the Conservancy's removal of several trees in order to reinstate some of the park's original view lines. "A tree war can be a nasty kind of turf battle" are just about the harshest words you'll get out of the endearingly patrician Rogers. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Elizabeth Barlow Rogers intertwines the story of New York City's Central Park with an account of her decades of stewardship.

Knopf, $30, hardcover, 336p., 9781524733551

Essays & Criticism


by Michael Chabon

Pops, Michael Chabon's third collection of essays, is a fun-loving meditation on fatherhood. Chabon remembers the small moments between himself and his four children that culminate in a rewarding, albeit sometimes challenging, life as a father. In "Little Man," he grapples with the understanding that his children will become people beyond his complete comprehension while he follows his gifted son around Paris Fashion Week. In "Baseball," he considers what it means to share interests with your children, rather than impose them. These tidbits lead to a final essay that reveals the subtle scars behind his own relationship with his often distant pop, a relationship that Chabon will forever try to outrun as a father himself.
While much of the collection's subject matter could be heavy in tone, Chabon balances these weighty emotional moments with tenderness and light humor. Overall, the collection reads as a concise and breezy reflection on family life, offering insight and entertainment in even doses. Acknowledging that parenthood is not a sitcom subplot, Chabon doesn't shy away from the thornier conversations he's had with his children, recounting a conversation about race in "Tom" and a tutorial on feminism for his son in "Dicktitude." These essays don't offer simple right answers for being a role model (thank goodness), but rather engage with the difficulty in a adroit and gentle way. As a follow-up to Chabon's Moonglow, this collection continues the thread of fatherhood, expectation and masculine domesticity that enlightens so much of his best work. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A pitch-perfect ode to fatherhood, Pops offers a set of feel-good yet still thoughtful essays for the literary dad.

Harper, $19.99, hardcover, 144p., 9780062834621

Children's & Young Adult

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I

by Carolyn Mackler

Five months after the events in the Printz honor-winning The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, 16-year-old Virginia still doesn't have it all figured out. She's "fallen out of like" with boyfriend Froggy; BFF Shannon is MIA for the summer; and, worst of all, police have charged her older brother, Byron, with rape. There is one bright spot: Sebastian, a "sea-glass-eyed, long-haired... nonskater artist boy" who makes her "stomach flip." Happiness is fleeting, though, when a twist of fate threatens to ruin their summer romance before it even has a chance to begin.
Virginia breezily shares her insecurities, fantasies and fears in a chatty voice, immediately establishing a rapport with readers, who will likely empathize with her "Entire Family Issues," including when her CEO dad makes her feel like "a lowly employee in his executive universe." Curvy Virginia often feels invisible in her athletic family, but she is often the metaphorical "punching bag whenever [her] parents are stressed," and it's only after both her siblings have disappointed their parents that Virginia finally rises to the top of "The Mike and Phyllis pressure machine."
While Carolyn Mackler's (The Future of Us) The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I delves into sensitive and painful topics, there is also a lot of humor. Virginia's wry observations of her small slice of the world are delivered through brutally honest lists about important things in her life, like her rules for "How to Make Sure Skinny Girls Aren't the Only Ones Who Have Boyfriends" (Rule #2: "Don't act like you're intimately acquainted with all the restaurants within a twenty-block radius of your apartment"). This welcome sarcasm coupled with a frothy romance balances the headier, more emotional topics. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

Discover: A wry teenager navigates family challenges, body image issues and romance in this stand-alone sequel to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

Bloomsbury, $17.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 14-up, 9781681195995

From Twinkle, with Love

by Sandhya Menon

At 16, Twinkle Mehra is the youngest junior at her Colorado Springs charter high school. Twinkle knows "[s]ome might call people like [her] losers," but Twinkle prefers the term "groundlings"--channeling the poor who stood in front of Shakespeare's stages, unlike the privileged in their "silk feathered hats" comfortably seated at a distance. For much of her life, being "Invisible Twinkle" hasn't been all bad, especially since she had Maddie Tanaka as her best friend. But now that Maddie has left her to join the silk-hatted, Twinkle has plenty of time to figure out why Maddie feels she's not "BFF material" anymore.
For as long as she can remember, Twinkle has wanted to be a filmmaker. With the school's "biggest event of the year," the Midsummer Night festival, approaching, Twinkle gets her chance to take the director's chair. She finds her producer in film critic-wannabe Sahil Roy, who happens to be the brother of the boy Twinkle has been crushing on forever. Difficult truths and painful accusations will need to be resolved, new alliances will be made, secret admirers will be unmasked and Dracula and other monsters will all need to be confronted (and tamed).
India-born, Colorado resident Sandhya Menon's (When Dimple Met Rishi) second teen rom-com, From Twinkle, with Love, clearly celebrates the influence of her self-confessed "steady diet of Bollywood movies." She transfers her filmi devotion to the page as Twinkle tells her story through journal entries addressed to her "fave female filmmakers." Between Twinkle's entries, Menon inserts Sahil's confessional blog and his texts to his best friends, along with mysterious e-mails Twinkle receives from a fan calling himself "N." While Twinkle's is clearly the directing voice, Menon makes sure she gets a diverse, committed supporting cast and crew to help her sparkle and shine. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: 16-year-old Twinkle Menon goes from being virtually invisible to commanding the spotlight when she makes her debut film with a crew of unexpected new friends.

Simon Pulse, $18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781481495400

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