Many of our customers want to squeeze in a couple of novels here in the dog days of summer and since some of us (again) now have to cancel travel plans due to the new Coronavirus risks, you should stock up now. What to choose? We’ll make it easy. We have lots and lots of other fiction bulging our store’s shelves, but these BookNotes specials are all at 20% off and each has some special appeal.
By the way, when browsing our huge archive of previous BookNotes reviews (as we hope you do) please note that books that I once recommended when they were first out in hardback in many cases are now in paperback, so the price would be cheaper. Tell us you saw it at an old BookNotes and we’ll honor that 20% off, too.
For right now, though, here’s what we selected to highlight from recent finds. Why not call up a friend or two and plan a little FaceTime, Zoom, or online book club? That’s fun. Just invite them to buy the books from us, okay? We’d be grateful.
So, grab that favorite beverage and get ready to read. Here we go.
The Weight of Memory Shawn Smucker (Revell) $15.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.79
As a special gift for those who pre-ordered this, we got Shawn to add his artistically creative John Henry, and we still have some of those autographed ones left. He’s such a good guy and every book of his captivates us. I reviewed this one a bit when we first announced it. Here is a somewhat edited version of what I said then about this spooky, warm-hearted, deeply moving page-turner.
Okay, Hearts & Minds friends, BookNotes readers, fans and friends. This is a book we’re eager to invite you to consider. Beth and I love this author and we’re hoping many of our supporters will get behind this new one, recommending it for their book clubs, choosing it as a novel to read, perhaps gifting it to the curious and open minded.
As we’ve said before, Shawn Smucker is both a friend and good customer. He has written a pair of excellent YA speculative fiction fantasies, The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There and a handful of moving, well written, and particularly thought provoking adult novels, like Light From Distant Stars and his Dante homage, These Nameless Things. Each has a bit of strangeness to them; Light has some surreal stuff that you don’t know if it imagined or real (like that smoke monster from Lost, ya know?) And Nameless had that descent into… well, you know. In this sort of imaginative work strange is good and he excels in making it believable and compelling.
Shawn has also done a book in the memoir genre, telling of his friendship with a refugee from Syria who had settled in Lancaster, PA, and what Shawn learned from this new, somewhat needy neighbor. Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor is also great for book groups or adult classes. It’s very, very good and good for these times.
The new novel, The Weight of Memory is his best yet. Some of the lines are just stunning as he turns a phrase or offers a metaphor. Without being overly literary or obtuse, he crafts a great story, good characterizations filled with pathos and wonder. (As the great Daniel Taylor said of an earlier Smucker book, he has written an “imaginative, morally complex (and therefore realistic) exploration…” Shawn and his wife, Maile Silva, (who do a fabulous podcast together about the creative life, being parents and spouses and writers, cleverly called “The Stories Between Us”) are tremendously fun and kind people and having them here to the store again when the Covid threat rescinded would be our great honor.
We were glad to take pre-orders for The Weight of Memory and I’m glad to say we’ve gotten some good feedback about it from early readers. It is dramatic and just a little creepy (although not a horror or suspense novel, really.) It is about a really interesting, middle aged man who I is raising his precocious granddaughter.
This well-done novel is a story about, well, a lot of things, including death (which will come as no surprise to Smucker’s many fans.) It’s not a big spoiler to say that the opening chapter reveals the main character with his young doctor, getting the terminal diagnosis. It is cleverly written and truly captivating — I truly was hooked from the first page. Throughout there are these good lines that just make me smile, including the line in that first chapter where the patient sits on the examination table awaiting the news in the doctor’s office and “the paper underneath me crackles like electricity.” Later, on a hot day as kids come out of school, their feet shuffle “like sandpaper.” Later, he mentions a Pentecostal preachers shoes which “shone like the deepest reaches of space.” I’ve seen that guy and his shoes, I thought. When he describes a rather inhospitable atmosphere in a small-town diner — one he used to hang out in as a teen when it was bustling with laughter — I thought, man, I’ve been to that place, too. He has a good eye and a way to describe surroundings that just ring true. What fun. And how strangely rewarding, like somehow the dad’s journey back to his old home town invites us to a similar journey of remembrance. Is there a particular weight of memory?
Here is how the publisher summarizes things: the plot revolves around Paul Elias who, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, must find someone to watch over his granddaughter, Pearl, who has been in his charge. Paul decides to take her back to Nysa — both the place where he grew up and the place where he lost his beloved wife under strange circumstances forty years earlier.
But when he picks up Pearl from school, the little girl already seems to know of his plans, claiming a woman told her.
When they get to Nysa, Paul reconnects with an old friend, is nearly undone by the onslaught of memory, but that’s not even the half of it. Pearl starts vanishing at night and returning with increasingly bizarre tales and reality itself seems up for grabs. The Weight of Memory is both suspenseful and a bit introspective so will be appealing to many different sorts of fiction readers.
Perhaps like the more mysteriously gracious version of the menacing characters in his novel Light from Distant Stars, one doesn’t know if this is a figment of Pearl’s imagination, a mental illness (perhaps from some kind of intuitive stress from the losses in her life) or — maybe? — there really is some ghost-like apparition that is guiding her. In any case, Pearl seems to know more about Paul’s past life back in Nysa than he realizes. And as that older plot develops in memory, it evokes not only beautiful friendships from their teen and young adult years, but (for me at least) got me thinking about my own past. I’m sure it will do the same for you. What a gift a book can be.
It is important, I might add — okay, sorry for this little fun spoiler — that in the extended stay back in Paul’s old hometown, the town where her mother died, Pearl is reading two George McDonald fantasy novels. “I like Mossy,” she simple says once. You don’t have to catch the reference to The Golden Key, really, but it helps.
I like the way the publisher puts it: In The Weight of Memory “the past and the present mingle like opposing breezes, teasing out the truth about life, death, and sacrifice.” It’s also a captivating tale of memory, secrets, regrets and hope, love and some sort of sense of grace. Not bad for a summer read, eh? Highly recommended.
Jack Marilynne Robinson (Picador) $17.00 paperback OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60
We had taken pre-orders of this before it first released last year and even had the great privilege of selling some autographed hardbacks. (There are no more, by the way.) Now, we are delighted that in the summer of 2021, we have the great joy of announcing this as a newly issued paperback. Now you can get all four of the great quartet in the new matching paperback covers, all uniform sized.
I needn’t tell BookNotes readers, I’m sure, that Ms. Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, the first in this set of slow, exquisite stories sent in a small town in Iowa, exploring the memories and lives of several interlocking families. Jack was the forth (and an Oprah’s Book Club choice earlier this year; O Magazine declared that, “There is a richness and depth at every turn.”) We are glad that the paperback is now available,
“There is a richness and depth at every turn.” Indeed.
For what it is worth, Gilead remains the essential first read as it explores the memories of the aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames. The second is Home which explores his colleague and friend, another pastor in the town of Gilead, the Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton. The third novel is about the quirky wife of John Ames, Lila, and hence the title of that one, Lila. This most recent one, Jack, is about the son of Robert Boughton, the backstory that you may wonder about as you’ve read about him in Home.
That is, to oversimplify: Lila explores in greater depth a character from Gilead and Jack, in a way, is a sequel to Home. It really is important to read the earlier books, at least Home, to best appreciate Jack. When magazines the world over highlight that these books are about transcendence and the Divine, about faith and redemption, and when the writer is called “our country’s most thoughtful novelist” you know these are books we are eager to promote. We would be delighted if you ordered some today.
Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf/Vintage) $26.95 hardback; $16.95 paperback OUR SALE PRICES = $21.56 hardback $13.56 paperback
Yep, the title Hamnet is a reference to the famous character of the Bard. Actually, it seems that Hamlet was often called Hamnet in the Elizabethan Era. And so, there’s that, but even if you aren’t a huge Shakespeare fan, this is one rocking (and, one might say, relevant) story. And, yes, the plague of the subtitle is black death that was in 1580 ravishing England. Not only was Hamnet a much-discussed New York Times bestseller, but it was the winner of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Beth absolutely loved this one when she read it almost a year ago.
The description reads:
A young Latin tutor–penniless and bullied by a violent father–falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
As the Boston Globe said, “Here is a novel so gorgeously written that it transports you.”
“Here is a novel so gorgeously written that it transports you.”
For what it is worth, the one with the face and feather on the cover is the nice hardback with deckled edge paper; the blue one is a bit smaller, just recently out in paperback.
The Weight of Ink Rachel Kadish (Mariner) $16.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59
This beautifully crafted, thick paperback is another award-winner, having been honored as the National Jewish Books Awards Winner. And, again, Beth loved it. Those who appreciate solid historical fiction — this on goes flashing back in time from the early 2000s in London to the holocaust years and, importantly, to an interwoven tale from the 1660s — will love this. Even the Historical Novel Society (yes, there is a society of the historical novel) has written,
An impressive achievement… The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.
Beth immediately noted that it was like another we both loved, The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I suppose Kadish would take that as a compliment; she too is a very gifted writer. No lesser a writer than Toni Morrison has a blurb on the elegant front cover, saying Ms Kadish is “astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion.” At 550 pages you can really get lost in a complex story like this, what one reviewer calls “an intellectual mystery.” Perfect for this time of year.
The Sweetness of Water Nathan Harris (Little Brown) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
It isn’t always the case when a debut fiction work is universally acclaimed as so very excellent and the author is considered exceptionally “gifted and assured” (as Richard Russo, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, put it.) Russo continued that The Sweetness of Water is, “better than any debut novel has a right to be” Ha. As Elizabeth McCracken says, “The Sweetness of Water is an extraordinary book, and just the start of an extraordinary career.” Beth couldn’t put it down and she talked about it for days.
It is a generous story, evocative and big — one reviewer (as you can see below) liked it to contemporary African American writers such as James McBride and Colson Whitehead. It is, to be clear, a story set after the Civil War and invites us into the lives of formerly enslaved people. In this case, the story revolves around two brothers, Prentiss and Landry who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The two men are hired to work on a farm, hoping to save money to move north with a hope of reuniting with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.
In a Publishers Weekly column about the book it was reported that Harris shared how his father had done some genealogical research but was stymied — a situation not uncommon for black Americans, descendants of the stolen and enslaved. He suggests with this first novel he joined many Black writers who are “filling in their past.”
There are sub-plots and a parallel story (and a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers, who also move back to their small Georgia town of Old Ox.) It is said that Harris’s debut novel invites us in to these things with candor and sympathy (with equal parts “beauty and terror.”) Could there be a healing vision in this town of Old Ox? The inside flap says, “The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing of circumstances.” For what it is worth, Beth often does not like reading about such harrowing of circumstances, so took this up with some concern if she’d enjoy it. She did, certainly.
Perhaps we had heard a review on NPR or read somewhere saying it sort of deconstructs the antebellum myths of plantations and glory — in Russo’s words, Nathan Harris has “unwritten Gone with the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.” Yet, this writing was so good, even lyrical, at times funny, is written in a way that one reviewer called “breathtaking” anyone who likes good fiction will enjoy it. With its deep understanding of the human condition, you may truly came to love it. As Bret Anthony Johnston says, “Harris is a novelist with impossible rare talent and still rarer heart.”
The Pastor: A Crisis Bradley Jersak & Paul Young (Cappella Books) $19.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.96
This book is not set in faraway times nor is it lengthy. As a novella it is nicely made in a compact hardback size and at 137 pages, it’s a quick read. But, what an intense story it is. You may know that Brad Jersak is the edgy and Christ-centered pastor and thinker whose book A More Christlike Word I recently reviewed and that Paul Young is the controversial author of The Shack, a novel that is well worth reading as imaginative, compelling, moving fiction, a story about great loss and graceful redemption. This one has similar tones, but more raw and dark, wondering how faith can be meaningful in these hard, hard days.
The Pastor starts with an explosive public meltdown and a violent incident in the psychiatric ward. As it says on the back cover, “Now the Pastor stares into the abyss of his own secret shame. Before he can be free, he must confront his demons and find grace. But will he let go? Will he allow himself to be healed?” You know, the work of being a religious leader is daunting and many clergy create a persona (around his or her religious performance, obviously.) Sooner or later the exposure of this false identity may come to the fore. In this story, it comes crashing down.
It is interesting that on the back cover there is a quote from John Milton (from Paradise Lost, I believe) saying:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Yes, this is about mental health and trauma. There are some mature themes here, some scenes of bullying and assault that could be triggering for some readers (even the passionate photo of the cover of a man screaming in pain warns.) A character asks, “Can love roar louder than my demons?” That’s the question that this creatively written bit of short fiction so passionately raises. It is what one reviewer called “beautifully brutal.” I suppose it doesn’t need to be said but it is not only about or for ministers, by the way.
If you want to know a bit more about what this book is about and how the authors came up with it, you can watch fantasy author H.R. Hutzel and her conversation with them here. It’s very good and covers a lot about the arts and their vision. Check it out and come on back to order if you’d like.
The Five Wounds Kirstin Valdez Quade (W. W. Norton) $26.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.56
Well, speaking of intense stories, this new novel is one of “healing and regeneration”as well as “bracing and wise” (in the words of Luis Alberto Urrea, author of House of Broken Angels.) Engrossing as it may be, witty (and even humorous, or so some have said) and written with an empathetic voice, it is serious.
Listen to Phil Klay, author of the recent highly regarded novel Missionaries:
The characters in The Five Wounds are so vivid, their grasping efforts toward love and redemption so finely wrought, and each page full of immaculate prose, that I read this novel with ever-increasing breathless urgency.
You may know (although I did not) that this started as a very highly regarded short story of the same name in The New Yorker. As it developed into a book fans were eager in anticipation for the fuller story.
In a wonderful on-line rumination Image editor James K.A. Smith (in his newsletter “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”) asked if The Five Wounds “is a Catholic novel?” Of course, that leads him to ask what would characterize such a novel (which leads me to ask what is a Christian novel, or a Christian bookstore, for that matter. But I digress.)
Jamie explained why he was reading this during Lent, and in the essay nicely summarized the novel:
The story is at the intersection of two intimate communities in northern New Mexico. The first—the focus—is four generations of the Padilla family who live together in the same house: Yolanda, the matriarch; Amadeo, her languishing, alcoholic son; Angel, his pregnant daughter; and eventually Connor, her son born in the course of the story. The novel is a compassionate but clear-eyed portrait of how tenuous and fragile their lives are—in virtue of the human condition we all share, and the isolating effects of late capitalism that isolate all of us, but also because of the long legacies of displacement and disempowerment experienced by indigenous and Latino communities in the Southwest. In so many ways, each character is suspended above the abyss by only a slender thread and the novel is attuned to the ways those threads fray. The most psychologically harrowing aspects of the novel are those moments when we fear we’ll see them snap.
Smith explains that a character in the story participates in a Catholic ritual where a character actually takes on the wounds of Christ in his reenactment of something like a passion play. Smith writes:
It will seem very strange, then, to ask whether The Five Wounds is a “Catholic novel.” And yet I haven’t been able to shake that question.
This is not to ask, of course, whether this is a good novel. (It is.) Nor does the question expect the novel to teach doctrine or adhere to ecclesiastical expectations. (Of course not; we’re talking about art, not propaganda.) The question is one I ask hesitantly (especially as a Protestant). I understand the skepticism and I’m not even sure I’m committed to the category just because I can’t shake the question.
The question isn’t about expectations, and harbors no sense of what Quade “owes” us in a novel called The Five Wounds. So let’s transpose it from my opening question —“Is this a Catholic novel?”— to a different sort of musing: How does Catholicism function in this novel? Does the visceral spectacle of Catholic ritual belie a world that is, in fact, thoroughly disenchanted?
While the story is framed by (somewhat rogue) Catholic rites, the world of the novel is flat, even naturalistic, rather than sacramental and “charged” (in Hopkins’s sense of the word).
Not to spoil too much, but Smith notes this:
Perhaps this is what I think is most at odds between the world of the novel and the spirit of Catholic faith. The Five Wounds is, perhaps above all, a tender portrait of willpower. For Amadeo, his crucifixion veers on a self-help strategy twisted into an act of machismo: this is how he’ll get his life together; this is how he’ll show he can overcome; this is how he’ll win his daughter’s and ex-wife’s admiration; this is how he’ll triumph over alcohol and redeem a lifetime of bad decisions. When he receives the nails, it is not an act of surrender; it is an assertion of what he can do.
He may be right — this may not be a deeply Christian or Catholic novel; if it is about trying, there may be little real grace to be found, although there is goodness and delight. Yet, another reviewer, C. Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, notes that the book is “bighearted, tender, wise, and shot through with moments of pure grace.” Hmm.
Klara and the Sun Karuo Ishiguor (Knopf) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
First this: Ishiguor was honored with the heady and important Booker Prize in Great Britain and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. (The British citizen was Knighted by the Queen for his literary service in 2018.) You may know his story The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, both which were made into highly regarded films. Mr. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, which seems sad to me to write here the first week of August. (The civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by our atomic WMDs on August 6th and August 9th, 1945, respectively.)
Klara and the Sun is his first novel since having won the Nobel Prize. It is said to be about, to put it succinctly “the wondrous, mysterious nature of the human heart.” He does this, in part, by having one of his main characters [what in the story is called] an “Artificial Friend.” (Do you recall Spike Jonez’s mesmerizing Her with Joaquin Phoenix with all that pathos? Just saying it’s not too fanciful.) The Washington Post review called Ishiguor’s Klara novel “a delicate, haunting story, steeped in sorrow and hope.”
As an NPR review noted, “again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a self? And how much of that self can and should we give to others?” Wow.
As an NPR review noted, “again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human?
Here are some of the impressive blurbs from impressive recommendations for this artful story.
One of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written….I’ll go for broke and call Klara and the Sun a masterpiece that will make you think about life, mortality, the saving grace of love: in short, the all of it. — Maureen Corrigan, NPR
Ishiguro’s prose is soft and quiet. It feels like the perfect book to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon. He allows the story to unfold slowly and organically, revealing enough on every page to continue piquing the reader’s curiosity. The novel is an intriguing take on how artificial intelligence might play a role in our futures…a poignant meditation on love and loneliness. — Maggie Sprayregen, The Associated Press
A prayer is a postcard asking for a favor, sent upward. Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories. — James Wood, The New Yorker
Moving and beautiful… an unequivocal return to form, a meditation in the subtlest shades on the subject of whether our species will be able to live with everything it has created… [A] feverish read, [a] one-sitter… Few writers who’ve ever lived have been able to create moods of transience, loss and existential self-doubt as Ishiguro has — not art about the feelings, but the feelings themselves. –The Los Angeles Times
The Four Winds Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press) $28.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.19
I’ve been hoping somebody on our staff would read this, but none of us have had the time yet — I suspect we are all just waiting for that right mood and moment. Well, more than a moment because once one starts this, it’s going to be absorbing. One of our team (I’m not naming names) may go upstairs to her bedroom in the middle of the day with such a story. You may know Kristin as the author of the run-away bestseller The Nightingale. It may be that that World War II novel was popular also because of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See (a WWII story we all loved for its pathos and excellent descriptive writing. You can pre-order Anthony Doerr’s forthcoming Cloud Cuckoo Land, due November 16, 2021, btw, at our 20% off. ) In my mind I connect those two books. Kristin Hannah is equally beloved and is known for telling one solid yarn.
And this book: oh my. It is about the dust bowl years. It may be pitched as an “epic novel of love and heroism and hope” but it is yet a local story, not Wendell Berry, exactly, but rural, set in 1934. The main character is Elsa Martinelli, “one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation” In one interview I read with Ms. Hannah, she said Elsa is one of her very favorite literary creations (which is quite a statement from an author of 24 books!)
It is notable that People calls it a “tour de force” and the New York Times called it “eerily prescient” in 2021. Their good review continued,
“Its message is galvanizing and hopeful: We are a nation of scrappy survivors. We’ve been in dire straits before; we will be again. Hold your people close.”
This may not be so symbolic and literary that she will win the heavy Nobel Prize, or even cause philosopher art patrons like Smith (as noted above) to ponder its essence. But I assure you, it will be a really good story which will inspire you to love and sacrifice, courage and friendship. Publishers Weekly said it will “revise the ghost of Tom Joad.” Good Morning America, somebody told me, said it was finally a story about home.
Through one woman’s survival during the harsh and haunting Dust Bowl, master storyteller, Kristin Hannah, reminds us that the human heart and our Earth are as tough, yet as fragile, as a change in the wind. This mother’s soul, suffering the same drought as the land, attempts to cross deserts and beat starvation to save her children with a fierce inner strength called motherhood. A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself. — Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing
By the way, I have to note with joy the aesthetic pleasure of the striking gold specks — wheat? dust? gold? — on the front and back flyleaves of this handsome new volume. It’s a really classy touch like we’ve rarely seen. And, if anybody worries, my Wendell Berry namedrop above was not gratuitous. Ms Hannah starts the book (which begins in 1921) with an epigram from Saint Wendell himself. That should tell you something, eh? Kudos to Kristin Hannah and The Four Winds.
The Incredible Winston Browne Sean Dietrich (Thomas Nelson) $26.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59
I might as well admit it. Again, we’ve not read this, but it is on my stack. I love novels set in small towns (and lots of readers like books about baseball) so I have high hopes for Winston Browne. Mostly, I’ll again admit it, I’m excited because my friend Shawn Smucker highly recommended this author and this book. (Shawn’s got a nice blurb on the back, even.) Some of you may know the fiction (or even the nonfiction) of Sean Dietrich who is a guitar picker and country guy, essayist and storyteller who often goes by the moniker Sean of the South. Yep, he’s that interesting guy, author of the very well received novel, The Stars of Alabama.
I love that Sean of the South wrote a memoir called The South’s Okayest Writer. His publisher released last year a memoir about his remarkable journey down south called Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Memoir of Learning to Believe You’re Gonna Be Okay (Zondervan; $24.99.) That autobiography — in the style of a celebrated southern storyteller, starts with the stunning line, “The day before he shot himself, I saw a blue heron.” It has been described as “an unforgettable memoir of love, loss, the friction of family memories, and unlikely hope.” Indeed, Deep South magazine called it “a spark of hope to those who need it.”
So, you can see why we are eager to tell you about this recent novel that looks just really, really nice. There have been lots of great endorsements encouraging you to read The Incredible Winston Brown, about a principled, baseball-loving small town sherif in the town of Moab, Florida.
One reviewer wrote:
With the help of Moab’s goodhearted townsfolk, the humble and well-meaning Winston Browne still has some heroic things to do. He finds romance, family, and love in unexpected places. He stumbles upon adventure, searches his soul, and grapples with the past. In doing so, he just might discover what a life well-lived truly looks like.
And Sean, himself, said this about The Incredible Winston Browne:
I wanted this book to be about common people who do extraordinary things. I wanted to treat hard times with dignity.
Chasing Manhattan John Gray (Paraclete Press) $24.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.20
Perhaps you were one of the many who heard about this author’s big bestseller a Christmas ago; the rights to Manchester Christmas were bought by a Hollywood producer even before the book came out. In that one, the stained glass windows of an abandoned church seem to be speaking to Chase Harrington, a writer, who is trying to find new meaning in her life (and is embroiled in a romantic quandary.) Faith, mystery, suspense, Christmas cheer — it was a sweet, cozy, story.
This is the second about the lovely Chase as she moves to New York City on the heels of her best-selling novel. As the back cover puts it, “Wanting her life to return to normal, instead she finds herself on an assignment involving an elusive millionaire, a mansion with secrets, and a misfit cast of characters who all need her help.”
Two things about this light and charming inspirational story. First, it is published by Paraclete that is known, mostly, for deeper spiritual writings, liturgical resources, ecumenical and profound with somewhat of a sacramental worldview. They do serious monastic spirituality, produce sacred chant CDs and mature poetry. So that they think this upbeat story is worthy, I’d check it out. Secondly, John Gray has also written for Paraclete two children’s books about animals (so, of course, a fabulous dog is part of this plot, too.) He and his wife have rescued many a pup and the proceeds to this, like Manchester, go to ministries hoping the poor and, of course, to animal rescue projects.
The Midnight School Suzanne Woods Fisher (Revell) $15.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.79
What a great, easy-to-read book to promote among those of us who care about reading, about helping others learn to learn, about how the gospel can motivate us to help the disenfranchised, even in ways that seem innovative and socially and institutional complicated. The Midnight School, as we’ve said before at BookNotes, is historical fiction and romance that is enjoyable and inspiring. Kudos to Suzanne Fisher, a popular writer of Christian fiction, for bringing this little known and dramatic episode to life in this fine bit of faithful storytelling.
The backstory is complex but can be summarized simply: in the early part of the twentieth century many folks in Appalachia could not read. Lucy Wilson was a (fictional) woman who arrived in Rowan County, Kentucky in 1911— visiting a relative, haunted as she was by personal tragedy. She went to assist her cousin, (the real-life) Cora Wilson Stewart, who was in those years the superintendent of schools. One person called Lucy “a fish out of water” and so it was Lucy who had the eyes to see that the primitive conditions and intellectual poverty was an injustice that needed addressed.
To help those who had no other option, she invited adults to literacy schools, held after dark on moonlit nights. They were sure that the best way to combat poverty was through education, especially literacy. They had no idea if the folk would come. There is, of course, the plot theme of the haughty outsider who learns to reconsider some of her own attitudes as she learns from the locals.
This upbeat novel is inspired by true events and I suppose you know that despite exceptional hardships (personal and cultural and political) these inspiring ladies eventually found their late night schools to be exceptionally successful and they expanded them across the hollers and into other rural counties. This was, in fact, the genesis of the adult literacy programs that now exist in nearly every place in America. This is a sweet, good, read.
As Laura Frantz, herself a Christy Award-winning author (of Tidewater Bride), put it, The Midnight School is a novel that is,
An unforgettable story about love and the transforming power of words and community. Deeply moving and uplifting.
Jacobo the Turko: A Novel In Verses Phillip Bannowsky (Broken Turtle Books) $20.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00
Well, if the above novel approaches the need for a serious social reform in an upbeat and captivating faith-infused romance story, this one is nearly the opposite in style and vision. Bannowsky is a seriously deep poet and an even more serious radical activist; he has for years been in the trenches of working for progressive change in part through serious interfaith conversation and joint social action. His novel, if one can call it that, is a story told in poetry form. It is demanding, playful, at time infuriating, and fully fascinating.
Bannowsky (who helps edit a lit mag called (Dreamstreets) has read and conversed and lived at the margins of conventional faith for years, citing his appreciation for the likes of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Palestinian theologians such as the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb and Naim Attek. Back in the day he knew the Berrigan Brothers and he is an aficionado of grassroots and global poetry; he has taught English in Ecuador and Lebanon and, yep, the wilds of Delaware. He has worked many years on the assembly line of a now-razed Chrysler Plant in Newark. He was raised as a Navy brat, as he puts it, so one could say he gets around and has seen the world in ways many of us have not.
There is a glossary in the back of this “novel in verse” and you learn that Bannowsky knows his Christian theology (explaining a heresy about Christ’s two natures and wills from Chalcedon) and unique phrases in other world religions as well. It is helpful to see Arabic or South American phrases that appear in Jacobo translated and explained. That helps a little, at least.
Importantly, you learn that the name Turko is a bit of a slur, an Ecuadorian expression for waves of Lebanese who immigrated to Ecuador. Banno notes that it is “related to their roots in Ottoman-controlled (ie Turkish) Lebanon/Syria. Today they are well-established in Ecuadorian business and politics.” (Who knew?)
And so, this may be “theatre as good read” as one reviewer put it, and it is eccentric, but it is informed by deep awareness of global culture and a longing for fundamental human rights. Global, inter-religious, allusive and suggestion-rich, this is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
The very indie Broken Turtle Books notes that Jacobo the Turko is — get this — “a tragicomic take on Gitmo.”
The plot flows something like this, I think: it recounts the misadventures of Jacobo Bitar, an Ecuadorian of Indigenous and Lebanese parentage, “who seeks the American Dream on the beaches of Delaware, only to be robbed of his pay and passport, harried by I.C.E., and deported to Lebanon (where he has never been and) just in time for the 2006 Hezbollah/Israel war. From there, he is abducted to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility and ultimately confined at Guantánamo Prison. “ As one who knows a little bit about I.C.E. and (illegal) detention of immigrants and asylum seekers, I’d say stranger things have happened.
Here is what a fellow creative, poetic activist says of it:
Jacobo the Turko is a novel in verses quite unlike any other. Phillip Bannowsky’s linguistic dexterity and exceptional musicality create a unique narrative voice—the perfect voice to tell this picaresque tale that is a wild gumbo of characters and adventures, politics and class, and the absurdities and cruelties of modern life. Bannowsky’s visionary blending of novel and poetry—and letters and documents and rap and prose and concrete poetry, etc.—is nearly indescribable, so strap yourself in for a wild ride and see for yourself. —Jim Daniels (The Middle Ages, poetry; The Perp Walk, stories)
Eden Mine S. M. Hulse (Picador) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60
Everyone knows there are certain sorts of literary genres that capture the tones and texture of place. We think of Southern writing, of course, and there is a feel to much from the great Southwest (I hope you’ve read Desert Solitaire by Abbey) So many sophisticated, contemporary novels are set in New York or other urbane locales. There is a lot of Appalachian writing and, of course, we think of Wendell Berry’s Kentucky.
I do not know much about the novels of the great contemporary West, except maybe the wonder of Kent Haruf and some of Cormac McCarthy (There are great cowboy stories, and we know many esteem the legendary True Grit by Charles Portis and of course Larry McMurtry.)We learned that S.M. Hulse (whose debut story Black River was considered very strong and achieved national acclaim) was a new voice of contemporary Western prose and a fiddle player and horsewoman herself.
I think it was this quote (among many) that won me over:
The prose in S.M. Hulse’s debut novel Black River mirrors the Montana land in which it’s set: spare, powerful, and dangerous. This is a novel about love born from violence, about families torn apart by tragedy, and about a community that must take a long, hard look at its past if it’s ever going to see its future. Like Kent Haruf and Larry McMurtry, S.M. Hulse knows the landscape about which she writes, and she understands the hearts of those who live there. —Wiley Cash, author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
I started Eden Mine and somehow my wife commandeered it, finishing it while I waited it out. She didn’t tell me much so I could pick it up where I left off, and now we are both happy fans (and both have Black River on our lists.) Eden Mine was, indeed, set in rugged terrain of rural Montana and I am very eager to heartily recommend it. The long shuttered but polluting mine (Eden) to which the titles refers in the story is up the way from another mine, Gethsemane Mine. Uh-huh.
Here’s the thing: there is some drama at the very beginning of Eden Mine that I simply can’t explain for fear of taking away your own surprise when you turn the pages. It isn’t graphic or awful, although there is some serious stuff and you will not know at first whodunit, let alone why. Even the very nature of the crime is something I don’t want to give away as I was just so startled when I realized what it was about.
Granted, there are settings and themes that are obvious and gratifying; Alexi Zentner in The New York Times Book Review says it “perfectly captures not only the landscape of the American West but also what it feels like to survive in a town that is dying.” But there are surprises galore under that big sky and you’ll enjoy discovering them if I don’t say too much.
The main woman, Jo — I can’t say everything about her, either, but you can enjoy knowing she is a painter — loves her brother and there are real tensions that start the story as she must discern if he is a culprit (and why he is on the run.) The book gives us much to talk about — ethics, art, faith, family, politics, morality, land, legacy…
As the back cover says,
A timely story of the tensions splintering families and communities all over this country, S.M Hulse’s Eden Mine is also a steady-eye gaze into the ideal of the West and the legacies of violence, a moving account of faith in the face of evil, and a heartrending reckoning of the terrible choices we make for the ones we love.
PLEASE PRE-ORDER The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (Harper) $28.99. OUR SALE PRICE = $23.19 This is not yet released. RELEASE DATE = August 24, 2021.
This massive, important new work is truly brand new, having just released a week or two ago. Jeffers is known in literary circles as an award-winning poet; her first poetry collection The Gospel of Barbecue, came out in 2000. She has also released short stories and has been honored as a nominee for the National Book Award. Her short stories are set in Georgia and she thinks of them as “Faulknerian.” She did her undergraduate en and MFA in Alabama (and has won an Alabama-based Harper Lee Prize) so she indeed deserves to be thought of as a Southern Black writer. A much respected poetry collection was inspired by archival work she did on the late colonial-era Black intellectual, Phillis Wheatley. This major new release has been much anticipated. Not every poet, it is said, can write long-form novels but in this, Jeffers has given it her all. The book weighs in at over 800 pages.
It is a long, epic, multi-generational saga starting with the story of Ailey Pearl Garfield of Washington DC (born into an upper class black family in 1973.) In between the long chapters are the “songs” (which are actually other chapters —side-stories — tracing the history of Ailey’s relatives, which “go back generations to the earliest residents of Chicasetta GA (the fictional town of her earlier short stories) and includes Native Americans, Scottish slave holders, and enslaved Africans.”
I suppose most BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds customers know about W.E.B. Du Bois and his notion of the ‘talented tenth.’ Jeffers was quoted about Du Bois in a piece in Publishers Weekly (by journalist Lauren LeBlanc.) LeBlanc writes,
Jeffers says Du Bois’s constant presence [in the novel] echoes the experience of “Black folks who grew up in all-Black spaces and went to HBCUs,” where he is taught across the disciplines. His belief that Black people are capable of far more than white society expects is a running thread in the novel.
“W.E.B. Du Bois is the most important Black intellectual of the late 19th and most of the 20th century,” Jeffers says. “But the thing about him is that he really loved Black Southerners. They had a special place in his heart. As a Black Southerner, I’m also a part of a community that he imagined and that he tried to save. That’s why they’re the love songs — because these are the people whom he loved.”
This is a key to the size and shape and “staggering” ambitions of the book — the story arcs, the seeming digressions and plot lines of the extended family — are love songs; Ms LeBlanc in her reflections calls them “bittersweet love songs.”
It seems to me that this is, in deed, a theme of the book: in looking at the graces and horrors of Black life in America, the “beauty and the pain”, we learn something ultimately necessary for us all. Love.
Here is a quote by the fiesty and fabulous short story writer Deesha Philyaw (of Pittsburgh PA, I might add):
From our earliest roots, African and Indigenous, to our present-day realities weighed down by inequity and injustice, Jeffers writes about all of us with such tenderness and deep knowing. Hers is the gorgeous prose one expects from a gifted, accomplished poet, masterful and stunning, as she explores both the bountiful resilience of Black folks and the insidious depravity wrought by white supremacy. These Love Songs make for a frank, feminist, and unforgettable read. — Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Here this from Angie Thomas of the must-read YA novel The Hate U Give:
As one of the most prolific poets of our time, Jeffers has penned a family saga that is just as brilliant as it is necessary, just as intimate as it is expansive. An outstanding portrait of an American family and in turn, an outstanding portrait of America. — Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give.
Is Stephanie Powell Watts right, in the blurb below, saying that such a powerful book only comes around once or twice a generation? Perhaps more than that, but still. I hope this remarkable endorsement inspires you to consider this, to spread the word, to help us sell a few of this book that is, as Watts says, “Not merely a good novel but a great and important one.”
In this dazzling debut, generations of high yellow and brown ‘skin-ded’ women in one Georgia family explore the complexities of kin, the legacies of trauma, with all the sharp corners and blind alleys of real life. Wise, funny, deeply moving, I can’t tell you how much I love this book. A few times a generation a book comes along that gathers you up with its force, its insights, its sound and fury, its lyrical beauty. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is one of those books. Not merely a good novel, but a great and important one. — Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming to Save Us
AND ONE MORE THAT IS NOT A NOVEL, BUT ABOUT READING STORIES.
Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls Mitali Perkins (Broadleaf) $24.99. OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
Only the most careful BookNotes readers will recall that we’ve promoted the amazing YA novels of Mitali Perkins. Her last one was Forward Me Back to You (Square Fish; $10.99.) She writes multi-ethnic and socially aware stuff, delightful and engaging — she seemed aware of Christian faith and church life which is quietly woven into some of her work. (Duh, we later found out she was, in fact, an outspoken, clear-headed woman of faith.) Anyway, our admiration for her has only grown and we are glad for her lovely voice in the YA space.
This book is not for youth (although I think sharp teens would appreciate it) and it is — in the theme of this BookNotes column — a work of fiction. But it is lit crit, as they way, which is almost just as good when it is done well. What book lover doesn’t like book love? What fan of good writing doesn’t like writing about writing? We have a section of “books about books” in our shop and it’s a personal favorite browsing place for me.
Well, this one is simply a must-read for parents, teachers, youth pastors, children’s ministers, church librarians and, I’d hope, public libraries. This is not about “religious” books as such, but about the values and worldviews and imaginations that are nurtured by reading good children’s books. This has been done before (from great mainstream writers like Katherine Paterson and Madeline L’Engle or by evangelical cheerleaders for books ) but not a star of the younger generation of contemporary fiction. Mitali is, in our view, exactly the sort of person to offer this perspective. Steeped in Stories is going to be a modern-day classic, I think.
Impressive figures in the world of children’s books have raved. It isn’t every day we see a blurb from the Editor of The Horn Book. Or words like this from the granddaughter of Madeline L’Engle, who says, “This book is a pure delight and a fierce testament to the power of stories to instruct and beguile.” Rita Williams-García, New York Times-bestselling author and three-time National Book Award finalist says, “Beautifully crafted, carefully researched, Steeped in Stories is a requisite immersion for all who enter the domain of children’s literature.”
Do you recall how the great Karen Swallow Prior did On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books? Of course. Well, this new one by Perkins could be seen, loosely, perhaps, as a parallel or companion book about children’s and teen books. In fact, the book encourages us to see the “transformative practices” of reading this genre of writing and follows the format, then, of “seven books and seven virtues.”
Karen Swallow Prior herself has said this about it:
Steeped in Stories is a timely exploration of timeless classics, clear-eyed about cultural blind spots, yet still enchanted by the wisdom, beauty, and wonder of these marvelous stories. This is one of the most brilliant guides to children’s literature I’ve read. — Karen Swallow Prior, professor and author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
“One of the most brilliant guides to children’s literature I’ve read.”
Here is how the publisher describes this wonderful and beautifully rendered project:
Award-winning children’s author Mitali Perkins grew up steeped in stories–escaping into her books on the fire escape of a Flushing apartment building and, later, finding solace in them as she navigated between the cultures of her suburban California school and her Bengali heritage at home. Now Perkins invites us to explore the promise of seven timeless children’s novels for adults living in uncertain times: stories that provide mirrors to our innermost selves and open windows to other worlds.
Blending personal narrative, accessible literary criticism, and spiritual and moral formation, Perkins delves into novels by Louisa May Alcott, C. S. Lewis, L. M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other literary “uncles” and “aunts” that illuminate the virtuous, abundant life we still desire. These novels are not perfect, and Perkins honestly assesses their critical frailties and flaws related to race, culture, and power. Yet reading or rereading these books as adults can help us build virtue, unmask our vices, and restore our hope.”
As it says on the front flap:
Reconnecting with these stories from childhood isn’t merely nostalgia. In an era of uncertainty and despair, they lighten our load and bring us much-needed hope.
Three big cheers for Steeped in Stories and for Mitali Perkins. Kudos to Broadleaf for, again, being one of the most interesting recent publishers doing great, great work.
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