From the Shelf
The Orwellian Bookseller
Like many people, I was both "appalled and wryly amused" by Amazon's recent misunderstanding, misquote and mis-invocation of George Orwell in its ongoing battle with Hachette. While it may just be coincidence that Orwell was name-dropped in the middle of a confrontation between an online retail giant and a publisher, it is also appropriate, given that he often wrote about his relationship to books and the book business.
In his essay "Books vs. Cigarettes," Orwell observes that "reading is one of the cheaper recreations.... And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive."
As a former bookseller, I've long been intrigued by Orwell's brief experience in the profession, the fruits of which crop up in his work. I love the Orwellian bookseller, though I'd never hire one in my bookstore. Like dyspeptic Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, who contemplates his dismal fate amongst the stacks at Mr. McKechnie's bookshop, where the "small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encyclopedias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves."
Orwell recalls his own time as an Orwellian bookseller in the essay "Bookshop Memories" with irresistible sarcasm: "Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop."
Still, he did call bookselling "a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman." --Robert Gray, contributing editor
(This is a condensed version of a longer column that appeared in Shelf Awareness Pro.)
In this Issue...
by Aaron Becker
The girl and boy who met in Journey join forces in this edge-of-the-seat wordless adventure.
by Charmian Christie
A recipe collection designed for stress-free baking and delicious results from a popular food blogger.
by Chris Duffy, editor
On the centennial of the beginning of World War I, a powerful interpretation of trench poetry by some of the greatest cartoonists working today.
Review by Subjects:
Back-to-School Alternative Reading List; Capote Quotes
Back to school. It's that time of the year when "reading for pleasure will give way to burning through that syllabus," Flavorwire noted in recommending "50 great books you'll never read in school."
Word games: Mental Floss highlighted "10 words with difficult-to-remember meanings," noting that "sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick."
The Telegraph featured "Truman Capote: 20 great quotes," including this one: "'A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That's why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet."
Andrew Rosenheim, author of The Informant, shared his choices for "the top 10 books about Chicago" with the Guardian.
"The 6 reactions book-lovers have to people who don't read" were showcased by Bustle, which noted that "if you really want to whip a book-lover into a Tempest-like frenzy of emotions, all you need are four little words: 'I don't read books.' "
Design Bump shared "27 fresh bookshelf design ideas."
Michael Pitre: At Our Most Human
Michael Pitre is a graduate of Louisiana State University, where he was a double major in history and creative writing. In 2002, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He deployed twice to Iraq and attained the rank of captain before leaving the service in 2010 to get his M.B.A. at Loyola University. Pitre lives in New Orleans with his wife. Fives and Twenty-Fives is his first novel.
This novel involves a great deal of trauma, and one assumes you experienced similar trauma during your military service. Was your writing process cathartic, or painful?
My experiences in Iraq were pedestrian compared to those endured by the characters in this story. It's a book about people I knew and, in some cases, friends for whom I could have done more. That's the hidden pain of veterans, I think. We always remember the moments when we weren't brave, occasions when we didn't measure up, and days when we didn't give our best.
Catharsis came from a desire to do right by my friends. There were times when I knew exactly what would happen at the end of a paragraph, and I didn't want to finish it. Yes, it was painful. Had this book been easy to write, it would not have told a true story.
You point out that this is not a memoir, but you have a great deal in common with Lieutenant Donovan. Were the boundaries between fact and fiction always clear to you as you wrote this book? Did those boundaries turn out as you'd intended?
Early on, I was hyper-focused on maintaining a bright line between fact and fiction. Again, I set out to write a story that would honor the people I knew, and I'd hoped to avoid autobiographical details entirely. Of course, writing is a process. What crept into Donovan's character from my own experiences were mostly his feelings of inadequacy as an officer, and the awkwardness of being a young veteran in graduate school where classmates ask you to tell stories they aren't prepared to hear.
Are there any misconceptions about the war in Iraq that you felt you had to guard against?
I was eager to shun misconceptions about war in general, particularly when it came to glamour and gallantry. War is work. For the average U.S. service member in Iraq, it was filthy and exhausting, absurd and terrifying, repetitive and boring. That's why I chose road repair as the principal mission of Donovan and his Marines. It wasn't a sexy gig, but I don't know of another task in Iraq that was more dangerous or more necessary.
On the home front, I was wary of the giving the impression that Iraq War veterans are damaged goods. The young men and women who fill the ranks of the U.S. military are devoted professionals.
Though the characters in this story are struggling to reintegrate to civilian life, they aren't giving up, they aren't blaming anyone, and they aren't victims. They're working through their problems, and in the end, they're doing it together.
Who is the hero of this story? Or, your hero?
All three narrators are young men placed in impossible circumstances, and none of them come away clean. Even Donovan, who's all but bestowed with the formal title of hero, knows the truth about himself. The title becomes his burden.
The closest thing this story has to a hero is Sergeant Gomez. I've known a few Marines like her. I'd say they're my heroes.
I'm so glad you said that. She is so much more than the "token female" that she might have been in lesser hands. Her presence as the only woman in the platoon felt very natural. Does your experience bear out her ease in this story?
The short answer is yes, it's perfectly normal for a female sergeant like Gomez to run a road repair crew. Most Marines wouldn't give it a second thought. Female service members have been fully integrated into occupational specialties such as military police, combat engineers and logistics for well over two decades, and these groups have spent as much time on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan as anyone.
In fact, as the American experience in Iraq wore on, female service members became highly valued for cultural reasons. To avoid inflaming the population, male Marines were forbidden to search Iraqi women at security checkpoints. So, a task force of female Marines was assembled, trained in search techniques and deployed to check points throughout western Iraq. This ad hoc solution was eventually formalized into a program called "Lioness," in which every battalion in theater had to answer its "Lioness tax" by surrendering a number of female Marines for the duration of a deployment.
Lioness was so successful that the program was copied and expanded into Afghanistan. Infantry patrols were reinforced with Female Engagement Teams composed of six to 10 female Marines. While the grunts dealt with the Afghan men outside, the female Marines would take off their helmets, go into the houses and develop relationships with the Afghan wives, mothers and daughters.
I served in Iraq alongside a female sergeant named Sally Saalman, who was perhaps the most feared and respected Marine in our battalion. She'd served on a forerunner of Lioness in 2005, and had been badly wounded in a suicide attack that killed six service members, three male and three female. (Read more about that event here.)
That was her first deployment. We met on her third. When Saalman raised her voice, everyone around would shut the f*** up and listen.
When and why did you decide to switch voices between your three main characters?
From the beginning, I knew the story would require three different perspectives and that one had to be Iraqi. It's a long-ignored truth of war that warriors often suffer least. This is especially true in counter-insurgency, where the civilian population is the battlefield. The Iraqi people were the mission. I felt that not representing their experience with its own, distinct voice would've been narcissistic.
As for Donovan and Pleasant, I thought it important to show how some veterans have opportunities opened for them by their service, while others are left all but ruined by it.
Did you set out to write a book with a message or moral, or is this simply the story that you held inside yourself as a novelist?
I didn't set out to write a book with a message or a moral. This really was just a story I had to tell. But along the way, as the character of Dodge became very real to me, I stumbled across the idea of people finding each other in their shared frailty. We're at our most human when we can recognize our dread, and our weakness, in others.
For those who presume they have nothing in common with a kid from Baghdad, I'd hope that they finish this book having discovered that they have everything in common with him. --Julia Jenkins
The Blue Box
by Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson (Return to Oakpine), a grandmaster of American storytelling, has produced something new and exciting with The Blue Box. It's a collection of short short stories, some no longer than a page, most unlike anything Carlson has done before. They are whimsical and bizarre, starting and ending in odd places and rife with subtle touches of fantasy that wouldn't be out of place in a work of magical realism.
Carlson is usually known for his generous and compassionate view of humanity, his ability to capture the depths of a relationship with sharp dialogue and skillful scene setting. While those traits are evident here, this collection shows his playful side. Carlson has spent a lot of time in academia (he's currently the director of the fiction program at the University of California, Irvine) and that world falls under special scrutiny and lampooning in this collection. "In My True Style Guide," Carlson mocks both students and instructors with witty and weird suggestions on how to interpret teachers' grading comments.
One of the longer, more traditionally structured stories in the collection, "Teenagers Are Going Overnight to the Island Without Supervision," has a sense of mystery and menace that wouldn't be out of place in a slasher film. Many of the pieces are just dialogue, two people observed mid-conversation, mid-life, for a page or two. That Carlson can still manage formidable epiphanies and astute commentary on modern living in such compact space bears testament to his skills.
The Blue Box is undeniably fun, with stories that range far afield in subject and presentation; it's a slim, quick read with pleasures that outweigh its brevity. --Donald Powell, freelance writer
Discover: A charming, surreal collection of "flash fiction" from an established master of the short form.
Mystery & Thriller
The Long Way Home
by Louise Penny
Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, has retired. Scarred (both emotionally and physically) by the past, Gamache is hoping for peaceful days with his wife, Reine-Marie, in the tiny village of Three Pines.
But Clara Morrow, close friend of the Gamaches, is agonizing over her missing husband, Peter. Clara and Peter had planned to meet again after a one-year separation to see if their marriage is worth saving, but Peter failed to show at their anniversary and Clara is disturbed. Peter's art career has been waning, and ever since Clara gained national acclaim for a recent series of portraits she painted, Peter has struggled with jealousy. Clara is reluctant to disturb the Gamaches' peace, but she has to know: Did Peter simply walk away from her? All of their friends are sure that Peter would have done just about anything for fame. How far has he gone?
Louise Penny (How the Light Gets In, The Beautiful Mystery) brings her trademark poetry and scintillating, but almost painful, characterization to bear in The Long Way Home. Gamache, with his sharp mind and bruised soul, and Clara, with her artist's gifts and clumsy social skills, lead a team of their friends into the desolate Canadian wilderness to find Peter and discover the truth about the last year. Provoking meditations on the nature of art, inspiration and loss, The Long Way Home is a slow-paced paean to the power of an artist's muse and the danger of an envious spirit. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: The hunt for a missing artist leads to an introspective quest across the Canadian wilderness.
Keep Your Friends Close
by Paula Daly
Natasha Wainwright's life seems ideal. After 16 years of marriage, she and her husband, Sean, have two beautiful daughters and a hotel in a Lake District resort town. She knows that not everything is perfect--running their business can be stressful and doesn't leave her much time to nurture her marriage--but Natty feels confident that she and Sean share a rock-solid love, and she welcomes the distraction of a visit from her best friend, Eve.
When one of Natty's daughters suffers a medical emergency while studying abroad, Natty promptly rushes to her side for a few days and returns to find that Eve's promise to help out back home translated to having an affair with Sean, who claims to be in love with Eve. The nightmare only gets worse as Eve begins to show her true manipulative colors and Natty makes a rage-driven mistake that could land her in jail. She can't give up on her family, though, especially after she finds an anonymous letter claiming that her family isn't the first to fall prey to Eve's treachery. As she delves into Eve's past looking for a way to exorcise her from their lives, Natty slowly realizes that she and her family are in grave danger.
Though several aspects of Keep Your Friends Close, the plot-driven sophomore novel from Paula Daly (Just What Kind of Mother Are You?), may strike some readers as a bit antifeminist, the story taps into the frightening notion that security is an illusion. This nail-biter will leave readers breathless and wondering how well they know their friends. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: A taut thriller about a woman whose life and family are stolen by her closest friend.
The Best Kind of Trouble
by Lauren Dane
With this steamy romp, Lauren Dane (Count on Me) introduces a new series featuring a gorgeous band of brothers.
Back in their hard-partying younger days, Natalie Clayton and Patrick Hurley shared a two-week fling spicy enough to make a jalapeño pepper jealous, then went their separate ways--she to college, he on tour in his brothers' rock band.
Years later, Natalie has put her wilder ways behind her. The daughter of an addict, she had a dark, frightening childhood that left her with the desire to always call her own shots. Now a librarian in the sleepy little town of Hood River, she's built a life she can control. When she runs into Paddy at a local coffee shop, Natalie is determined to resist the attraction they still share. Now a famous rock star, Paddy comes with his share of chaos and baggage, which makes him the last man Natalie should want. Unfortunately, he's the only one she does want.
Paddy knows running into Natalie again is fate. Despite her suspicious nature, he eventually gets her back into his life and bed, but convincing her that he's settled down isn't easy. When Natalie's druggie father resurfaces and awakens all her anxieties, the lovers must grow together or fall apart.
Dane keeps her rock-star plot believable with all the relationship complications that come with fame. Her frequent and scorching love scenes are tailor-made for readers who like red-hot romance. Well-developed secondary characters will leave readers eager for the next installment. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: The explosive reunion of two lovers--a librarian and a rock star--whose passion immediately reignites.
Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comic
by Chris Duffy, editor
In Above the Dreamless Dead, Fairy Tale Comics editor Chris Duffy brings together an international cast of award-winning artists to provide their interpretations of "trench poetry," the literary blossoming that documented life at the front during the Great War. The title derives from the last line of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's "The Dancer," and the volume includes the works of Gibson, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy and many more.
The collection is divided into three sections: "Call to War," "In the Trenches" and "Aftermath." Artist Sammy Harkham portrays Francis Edward Ledwidge's "War" with images of idyll unfolding into a barren wasteland of empty rooms and decaying corpses, all told from the viewpoint of a wandering dog. The lyricism and grace of Wilfred Owen receives a touching tribute from George Pratt (winner of the Eisner Award for Enemy Ace: War Idyll), who uses black-and-white acrylics to evoke fear, despair and desolation in "Greater Love" and "Dulce et Decorum est." For Owen's "The End," Danica Novgorodoff gives a minimalist spin to the final quietness of death after the long and thunderous rush of battle.
The illustrations rendered by these artists are stark and powerful, transforming the poets' words into a moving reel of emotions that relay the horror, sadness and loss from a period of history that is sometimes neglected. "In drawing comics from [these poets], the contributors are doing what we all do when faced with the words of soldiers: bearing witness to those who bear witness," writes Duffy in the introduction. "It is the least we can do." --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: On the centennial of the beginning of World War I, a powerful interpretation of trench poetry by some of the greatest cartoonists working today.
Kill My Mother
by Jules Feiffer
Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer's Kill My Mother is a moving tribute to film noir, the golden age of Hollywood and World War II combat. Annie and her mother (who is employed by a private eye and is twice the detective he is) try to solve the mystery of who killed Annie’s policeman father, which serves as a launching point for a plot that has more twists than a roller coaster. Stuffed with the spicy ingredients of classic noir--femme fatales, gunplay, drunken private eyes, seedy bars and muddy back alleys--the graphic novel simmers with moody atmosphere as Feiffer tracks his characters from the Depression through the end of World War II. Whether boxing, stumbling drunk, making love or trying to kill each other, the characters move with a grace that extends beyond the traditional borders of a panel comic; Feiffer's penciling lends a human delicacy and vulnerability to even the most brutal action and adds poignancy and a sense of real loss and peril to events. The script is tight and evocative, filled with the snappy patter and seedy patois of classic detective novels.
Kill My Mother is as epic and complex as a James M. Cain novel, not to mention as dark; the body count keeps rising and no character is safe. The octogenarian's almost feminist empowerment of women prevents the story from becoming mere trite tribute. Feiffer has taken his fervor for noir and skillfully rendered it onto the page; the result stands worthily beside its influences, but is as fresh and new as anything the comic industry is currently producing. --Donald Powell, freelance writer
Discover: A noir graphic novel by influential cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer.
Food & Wine
The Messy Baker: More Than 75 Delicious Recipes from a Real Kitchen
by Charmian Christie
Step aside, froufrou cookbooks showcasing delicately balanced layer cakes, uniform cookies and perfect piecrusts. Make way for Charmian Christie, the Messy Baker (of food blog messybaker.com), and her advice: relax! Her philosophy is clear in the table of contents; chapters include adjectives such as crumbly, sloppy, smudgy, gritty and drippy. Let the culinary fun begin!
Lest the home baker think "messy" equates to "careless," Christie clarifies her guidelines, directing her readers to "always wear an apron, be patient, set out the ingredients before you start" and more. She demystifies common ingredients--the four main flour types a baker will encounter and vanilla in its various iterations, for example.
Armed with basic knowledge and Christie's conversational intros to each recipe, bakers will tackle impressive recipes. Her brownies are Deep Dark Cherry and Chipotle; her cookies Double-Stuff Über Oreo. But there's more here than just sweet pastries. The 75 recipes include plenty of savory fare, too. "Smudgy" entries ("food that makes you wipe your face") include chicken-and-honey pizza, and a "Gritty" offering is Christie's version of centuries-old Middle-Eastern lavash bread.
As appealing as the mouthwatering recipes are, the friendly tips on almost every page are the real gems, such as the observation that Florentines don't keep, so "guess you have to eat them right away. Shucks." Close-up photos of in-progress or finished recipes will boost a reader's enthusiasm, while some provide a homey touch: wooden spoons all in a row, a beautiful cat looking on from the kitchen windowsill. Welcome to the Messy Baker's world! --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: A recipe collection designed for stress-free baking and delicious results from a popular food blogger.
Summer Food: New Summer Classics
by Paul Lowe; photographs by Nina Dreyer Hensley and Jim Hensley
Cookbook or coffee-table book? Summer Food is both: a collection of simple, party-worthy recipes and a beautiful book of food art, with full-page color photographs. Bound in an embossed cover (no dust jacket) and printed on heavy stock that feels as sumptuous as the recipes, this is the perfect hostess gift--or present for yourself.
Originally published in Norway, Summer Food from Paul Lowe (of Sweet Paul quarterly magazine) and his co-creators, Nina Dreyer Hensley and Jim Hensley, was photographed entirely outside. Seasonal foods prepared with Scandinavian simplicity glow with the suggestion of endless blue skies. Smoked salmon, fresh herbs, grilled corn, heirloom tomatoes shout "summer!" and translate into any language. While the recipes are an homage to Lowe's heritage, the ingredients are as easy to acquire in Ohio as they are in Oslo.
This beautiful collection is straightforward and accessible, divided into chapters for the three main meals plus drinks and desserts. Many recipes have only four or five ingredients, and all include a photo and brief conversational tip. The beverage recipes epitomize the author's commitment to fresh and seasonal: every drink centers around a fruit or vegetable, including apricot-and-rosemary mimosas, and the Green Giant (veggies plus vodka).
Little personal essays interspersed throughout (The Day the Juicer Exploded; memories from his measles-recovery celebration in "Paul's Fever Party") suggest that if this nice fellow can serve fresh, seasonal dishes from breakfast through cocktails and make it look easy, so can we. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: Scandinavian recipes with fresh, seasonal ingredients fit for relaxing summer dining.
Health & Medicine
Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician
by Sandeep Jauhar
In his 2007 memoir, Intern, Sandeep Jauhar recounted two years of a grueling internal-medicine residency. Doctored, which continues his story through his first five years of practice as a cardiologist at a large teaching hospital, shares with its predecessor its author's gift for precise, observant writing, and it offers an unsettling portrait of the state of American medicine today.
Eight years after graduating, Jauhar joined the staff of Long Island Jewish Medical Center as a cardiologist specializing in congestive heart failure, the treatment of which is a $40-billion annual business. Almost from the beginning, he was beset by relentless financial pressure, as he struggled to support his wife and newborn son in New York City on his hospital salary. Most of his angst was the product of a system whose financial incentives pit hospitals and physicians against each other and frequently run counter to what he considers optimal patient care.
Doctored features many vivid accounts of Jauhar's encounters with patients and colleagues, illustrating the high-stakes ethical and professional decisions physicians face daily. These stories, often deeply personal, bring a human dimension to his sharp critique of a "system that makes us bad, makes us make mistakes." The "us" is key: Jauhar is as unsparing in judging his own conduct as he is that of his profession as a whole.
It will take much more than this book to cure the critically ill American health-care system, but we can thank its author for starting the conversation that may help speed a recovery. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Discover: A cardiologist's memoir that serves as an often-blistering indictment of the American health-care system.
Children's & Young Adult
by Aaron Becker
This triumphant wordless picture book reunites the girl with the red crayon, the boy with the purple crayon and the majestic purple bird from Aaron Becker's debut, Journey (a 2014 Caldecott Honor book).
As the two children take refuge from a rainstorm under a stone bridge in a city park, a king emerges from a set of double doors and thrusts a document into the boy's hands. The monarch, seized by soldiers and pulled back through the doorway, tosses an orange crayon that matches his crown and robe. The girl fetches the crayon and places it in her toolbelt. Girl and boy each draw a key that unlocks one of the double doors, and their adventure begins. Becker draws readers back into the world of Journey, where the king is held captive on a giant boat. The young heroes examine the king's document: a map with a half-dozen landmarks connected by a rainbow of different colors, foreshadowing the scavenger hunt to follow. For their first destination, an underwater ruin, the boy draws a purple squid (on which they hitch a ride), and the girl sketches red fins and oxygen tanks (one for the bird, too). A turn of the page reveals an Atlantis-like city glowing in golden light. Each destination yields another crayon color, as they narrowly escape the king's oppressors.
Becker's smaller vignettes quicken the pace, while his full-spread images reward close attention. In the final harrowing escape, the purple bird plays a key role and lights up the sky. Fans will eagerly anticipate the final installment. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: The girl and boy who met in Journey join forces in this edge-of-the-seat wordless adventure.
365 Days of Wonder: Mr Browne's Book of Precepts
by R.J. Palacio
Fans of Auggie Pullman's story in Wonder will remember his fifth-grade English teacher, Mr. Browne, and the memorable precepts he imparted as he encouraged his students to write. Here he shares wonderful "words to live by" as a thought for each day, all year long, with an essay to introduce each month's bounty.
Mr. Browne opens with the story of how he began to collecting precepts. In college, he discovered a 17th-century man-of-all-trades with the same name, Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote: "We carry within us the wonders we seek around us" (this also doubles as the January 1 entry). Browne placed this quote above his desk and carried it in his wallet as he traveled with the Peace Corps, and his wife framed it as a wedding gift when they married. Mr. Browne passes on his passion to his students in Wonder and again in these pages. From age-old adages to smart sayings from students (Palacio selected 365 of 1,200 precepts submitted by children all over the world), Mr. Browne's collection will get students thinking. His opening essays often use personal anecdotes by way of instruction, such as the story (for April) of his three-year-old son's resistance to vegetables (the doctor tells him, "He can't eat them if they're not even on his plate"). The February essay takes on an uncharacteristically teacherly tone that's less effective, but this book, overall, will be welcomed by Wonder fans and attract new ones.
This collection of inspirations would also make an ideal gift for homeroom teachers (and English teachers, of course). --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Mr. Browne's collection of inspiring "words to live by," one for each day of the year.