Book of the Week: LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose is one of the most highly anticipated novels of the year—and rightly so. In Erdrich’s much lauded career she has won a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award and The Dayton Peace Prize. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American Fiction and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

 LaRose sees this major American writer working at height of her powers. It completes an ambitious three-book meditation on the idea of justice. All three books (The Plague of Doves and The Round House are the other two) explore the lives of different generations of the same Ojibwe, white, and mixed families, living in fictional North Dakota landscape Erdrich has written about since her first novel, Love Medicine.

The NYT review of The Round House hit something true about all of Erdrich’s work — that “[b]y boring deeply into one person’s darkest episode, Erdrich hits the bedrock truth about a whole community.”

 The storyline in LaRose is shocking and immediately draws one in. Claire Kirch did an interview with Erdrich for PW that really does the book justice. This brief section sets the story up:

The premise of LaRose began with a kernel of truth. In her acknowledgements, Erdrich thanks her mother for mentioning a story of parents on the reservation who were responsible for the death of a child and who subsequently allowed the victim’s family to adopt their own child. ‘That one germ of a story is all I can point to that really happened in this book,’ Erdrich explains. ‘I don’t know the people involved, I don’t know anything more about it. The rest is all imagination.’ The story evolved, she says, as she reflected on the impact that such a situation would have on the members of the families, especially the siblings of both children.

“‘What about the kids? What happens to them when something of this sort happens?’ Erdrich, who is the mother of four daughters, recalls asking herself. ‘How do people make their lives work—or not work—as this goes along?’

“Emphasizing how much she enjoyed writing about the relationship that develops between Dusty’s older sister, Maggie, and LaRose, Erdrich laughs as she insists that writing about the rebellious Maggie convinced her to persist in weaving a tale that moves backward and forward in time and place, with key scenes set in such places as an isolated Ojibwe trading post, a 19th-century sanitarium for tuberculosis patients overlooking the Mississippi River, a turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania boarding school, a 1970s-era downtown Minneapolis squatters’ encampment, and a small-town school gym during a fiercely waged girls’ volleyball game….”
PW Interview, “A Child for a Child”

And here is Erdrich discussing the book herself:

You can expect pretty much every major review outlet to cover this. And Erdrich will be doing a lot of interviews, starting with a feature in the NYT and an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered.

 “Erdrich spins a powerful, resonant story with masterly finesse. As in The Round House, she explores the quest for justice and the thirst for retribution. Again, the setting—a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation and a nearby town—adds complexity to the plot. Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwe man, accidentally shoots and kills the five-year-old son of his best friend, farmer Peter Ravich, who is not a member of the tribe. After a wrenching session with his Catholic priest, Father Travis, and a soul-searching prayer in a sweat lodge, Landreaux gives his own five-year-old son, LaRose, to grieving Peter and his wife, Nola, who is half-sister to Landreaux’s own wife, Emmaline. In the years that follow, LaRose becomes a bridge between his two families….Erdrich raises suspense by introducing another, related act of retribution, culminating in a memorable and satisfying ending.”
Publishers Weekly (starred pick of the week)

 “…[a] meditative, profoundly humane story…Electric, nimble, and perceptive, this novel is about ‘the phosphorous of grief’ but also, more essentially, about the emotions men need, but rarely get, from one another.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The radiance of this many-faceted novel is generated by Erdrich’s tenderness for her characters.…[M]agnificent…a brilliantly imagined and constructed saga of empathy, elegy, spirituality, resilience, wit, wonder, and hope that will stand as a defining master work of American literature for generations to come.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Erdrich is one of my very favorite novelists. Her characters are among the most complex I’ve ever met, and her newest novel only adds to the community of characters about whom I’ve come to care so deeply throughout her previous books. In LaRose, Erdrich returns to the ideas of justice and atonement with a cast of multifaceted characters who must navigate the meaning of family and community in the wake of tragedy. I look to Erdrich to deepen my sense that there is always more to a person and their motivations than meets the eye, and LaRose does not disappoint.
— Kelsey O’Rourke, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

LaRose (9780062277022) by Louise Erdrich. 27.99 hardcover. 5/10/16 one day laydown.


New Fiction: Mongrels – Stephen Graham Jones

I loved this book, loved it to pieces. While I am not really a big fan of genre fiction per se, I do fall in with many readers these days in a fascination with genre tropes as a way of exploring more literary themes.

Mongrels is terrific “literary horror.” It’s fast-paced, funny and bloody–a satisfying genre story on its own terms. But the author is up to a whole lot more. It’s also a coming of age story as well a tale about how family stories make us who we are.

Here’s the plot: A boy is waiting to see if he will inherit his dead mother’s werewolf blood and “turn.” (Some in werewolf families don’t). In the meantime his werewolf uncle and aunt raise him. But life as a werewolf is pretty difficult. It’s hard to keep a job, it’s hard not to draw attention. So they are itinerant workers and thieves, staying on the move and under the radar, at the fringes of the “normal” (read middle class) world.

Pretty quickly the reader comes to see that aside from the great werewolf mythology and plotting, this is also a story about what it’s like to be uneducated and poor, about the fierce loyalty of families, about how an accrual of stories results in a family mythology and a sense of self. It’s really smart, really imaginative, really fun—my favorite combination.

This was a bookseller favorite in my territory. And as you’ll see from the reviews, also much admired by fellow literary writers working in genre.

 “[D]elicately portrays the coming of age of a young boy growing up in a family of werewolves. Throughout the novel, the unnamed narrator and his aunt, Libby, and uncle, Darren, both werewolves, wander the present-day American South working low-wage jobs while always wary of the dangers of staying in one place for too long and being recognized for what they really are. The narrator’s voice is heartfelt and absorbing as he learns the rules of being a werewolf while always wondering whether he will become one himself, a question that drives the story to its moving conclusion….[A] moving portrait of a family struggling to survive in a world that ‘wants us to be monsters.’”
Publishers Weekly

 A love letter to the American South…Jones’ portrayals of rural America ring true in many ways. Horror enthusiasts will also dig the graphic mythology…A Holden Caulfield analogue dropped into an old horror movie with a soundtrack by Warren Zevon.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“Stephen Graham Jones has written a wondrous shapeshifter of a novel. Mongrels exists somewhere in the borderlands of literary and genre fiction, full of horror and humor and heart, at once a nightmarish road trip and a moving story about a broken family leashed together by their fierce love and loyalty. A bloody great read.”
— Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“You know how you once wished you were a werewolf? How you stood in front of the mirror and wanted to see a transformation? Mongrels takes you by the hand, guides you down that road, finally, to that change…Stephen Graham Jones is as powerful as the monsters herein.”
— Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box

Mongrels left me speechless. Or breathless. Certainly without my dew claw. I mean, this book, it’s so smart, original, thrilling, horrifying, and human. A story about a broken family of werewolves on the run, never fitting in anywhere, trekking into the poorest parts of the southern US. And there’s that final, painful transformation, when they become your messed up werewolf family too, and you don’t ever feel poor or like a misfit. Not once.”
— Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts

A werewolf hunter, a challenge from another family of werewolves, an angry mob with torches and pitchforks—[while all these horror story elements] are in Mongrels, they aren’t treated like horror.  The werewolf hunter is a sad scientist, the challenging werewolf family is all bark and no bite, and the angry mob — complete with pitchforks — was hunting Bigfoot.  Mongrels is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of monsters, and weaved so the audience doesn’t empathize with the monster but know the monster.

“Instead of manipulating our fear, Jones wields our nostalgia and the love of our families to give his story depth.  Opening with the stories of a grandfather, Jones alternates chapters between the present and vignettes of everyday life — at least, everyday life when you’re a werewolf.  Shopping for groceries, eating at a diner, parent-teacher conferences, everything a young person experiences growing up is there, told from a werewolf’s perspective.  But the great sense of familiarity is there as well.  It isn’t so much ‘werewolves are people too’ as it is reminding us reaching maturity is a universal thing, and there is joy and pain and love and heartbreak.

“Werewolf stories inspire terror in people; but as Mongrels reminds us, inside of each werewolf is a wolf and a person.  Many horror stories only see the wolf.  Mongrels gives us the story of the person.  Not a human person, mind you, but a story that will tug your heartstrings nonetheless.”
— Dylan Tucker, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Crestview Hills, KY

“Mongrels is a great, gritty take on a classic fantasy trope. Readers will feel like they could be living next door to these fugitive werewolves, unaware of their unique problems with lupine lifespans and other innovative issues that Stephen Jones brings to light. Highly recommended!”
–Allison Chesbro, Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, MI

 “What a totally unique take on the classic werewolf coming of age story. Our storyteller provides his life experiences of growing up on the fringes of society. Poor, on the run and an outsider in his own family-we see how he is shaped into who he desperately wants to be through the stories that are passed down to him.”
— Cassie Bell, Assistant General Manager, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

“On the surface, Mongrels is a werewolf coming of age story rich with werewolf lore.  And for the reader looking for a well-done, somewhat cheeky horror story, this is the book for them.  However, Jones’ novel really engages when you read it as a very insightful social satire about the plight of subcultures within a larger society….Jones has written a witty, clever, and probing novel….”
— Amanda Kothe, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Mongrels (9780062412690) by Stephen Graham Jones.  $24.99 hardcover. 5/10/16 on sale.

New Fiction: And After the Fire – Lauren Belfer

Back in the day, Belfer had a major bestseller with her debut, City of Light—a historical novel I still think about thanks to her deft, detailed, you-are-there portrayal of the electrification of 19th century Buffalo. She married that setting to a suspenseful story of murder, politics and industrialization which prefigured the now hugely popular subgenre of historical novels where plot propels the reader along but a ground level view of real history is part of the payoff.

The NYT called City of Light, “Impressive. . . . A stereopticon of a novel, sepia-tinged at the edges, yet bursting with color at its center…[with a] vivid sense of the time and place…. [A] powerfully atmospheric book.”

Belfer’s next book, A Fierce Radiance, captured America’s race to develop life-saving antibiotics coupled with a story of blackmail, espionage, and murder. It was again well reviewed, with the NYT commenting that it was “similarly ambitious, combining medical and military history with commercial rivalry, espionage and thwarted love. Belfer clearly knows her scientific material. She also knows how to turn esoteric information into an adventure story, and how to tell that story very well.”

Now we’re treated to a third barn burner of a story that traces the journey of a long-lost Bach cantata through time, trauma, war, and the legacy of anti-Semitism. Again the fictional plot is grounded in real contexts, characters and circumstances. And again the research is first rate, making for a crash-course in Bach’s complex musical legacy.

Advance reviews are great:

In Belfer’s compelling third novel, an American soldier in 1945 Germany unknowingly purloins a controversial unpublished cantata by the great Johann Sebastian Bach, and it ends up in the hands of the soldier’s niece, Susanna Kessler, upon his death. The journey of this manuscript, with lyrics based on one of Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish screeds…is interspersed with Susanna’s own inner trajectory to finding normalcy and love in her life after being raped. The author’s strengths lie in the historical passages, starting with the 1780s….Belfer’s comprehensive research brings depth and veracity to the novel….[T]his is an immersive, page-turning story emboldened by historical fact and a rich imagination.”
Publishers Weekly

“A remarkably suspenseful story, a literary thriller in the tradition of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] compelling blend of fact and fiction.… Based on impressive research, this remarkable novel spans centuries and continents, touching finally on the Holocaust and serving as a paean to Bach’s music while acknowledging the composer’s expressed hatred of Jews.”
Booklist (starred review)

And After the Fire (9780062428516) by Lauren Belfer. $26.99 hardcover. 5/3/16 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: Life on Purpose – Victor J. Strecher

This short book intertwines personal narrative with scientific research on how finding purpose in life is directly related to improved health and happiness. It’s both useful and rewarding reading.

To get a sense of the approach, you can watch Strecher, a professor of at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, present a very entertaining overview of his work at a TEDx talk. (As a side note, the visuals in this talk are from a graphic novel version he did of this story titled On Purpose. It’s pretty cool.)

“Victor Strecher has written what I would best describe as a ‘gift.’ For too many of us, resilience and growth are fueled by tragedy and loss. Victor, set on a relentless pursuit of clarity during the illness and loss of his daughter Julia, teaches us about what a life on purpose is all about, and how it differs from simply finding meaning. He also gifts us the ability to define our purpose and immediately start instilling into our own lives. Make no mistake, understanding this concept is not only good for your health — it is good for the whole world. And, there is an added benefit: it will take your life and completely transform it from black and white to Technicolor.”
— Sanjay Gupta, New York Times bestselling author and Chief Medical Correspondent CNN

“Triggered by a tragic personal loss that left him feeling bereft, Strecher decided to examine the role and importance of purpose with the hope of regaining his own along the way. And while the book presents an interesting overview of the topic, it is Strecher’s personal journey to rekindle his own purpose that I found most engaging, relatable and instructive. Strecher joins others who believe a life lived with purpose and self-transcending goals is a healthier, happier, more satisfying one.”
— Sharon Gambin, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything (9780062409607) by Victor J. Strecher. $25.99 hardcover. 5/10/16 on sale.

Fiction Short Take: A Perfect Life – Eileen Pollack

Pollack is on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s MFA writing program. Her nonfiction book on women in science, The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, was published late last year and serves as an interesting background to this new novel about a young scientist studying a neurodegenerative disorder which killed her mother and might also kill her and her sister.

Andrea Barrett endorses it saying, “Like Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations and Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, Eileen Pollack’s compelling novel offers an intimate portrait of scientists engaged in research with the potential to change all our lives–and equally engaged in relationships that change their own lives.”

Good advance reviews with coverage already slated in the NYTBR.

“What knowledge should we have, what knowledge do we really want, and how should that knowledge shape the choices we make in our lives? Pollack expertly and sensitively focuses on the nuances of ambivalence and on the human dilemma of what to do in the complex ethical situations that arise from genetic research.”
Kirkus Reviews

“In her third novel, Pollack delivers an absorbing genetic mystery that is couched in a complicated love story and a tale of survival. Jane Weiss, a researcher at MIT, is on a tireless hunt after the genetic marker for a neurodegenerative disease (a thinly veiled fictionalization of Huntington’s disease called Valentine’s chorea) that killed her mother and now looms over her own life and that of her sister. Fear and dread drive her relentless work so that there’s little time for romance-until she crosses paths with a man who also happens to be at risk for the disease….When she’s surprised by love–and certain discoveries in the lab–she must grapple with what it means to live and love fully in the face of risk and loss.”
— Publishers Weekly

A Perfect Life (9780062419170) by Eileen Pollack. $26.99 hardcover. $26.99 hardcover. 5/10/16 on sale.

Fiction Short Take: The Vagrant – Peter Newman

I have to think that the bad-ass cover of this book is what led a number of booksellers to pick up this dystopian fantasy epic which the Voyager team calls “Mad Max meets The Gunslinger and The Book of Eli.” (Definitely a case of “one picture is worth a thousand words”…)

The genre fiction buyer at Schuler Books & Music put it on my radar and I subsequently heard from other booksellers who enjoyed the ride.

 The mute protagonist of The Vagrant travels across a ruined landscape populated with demons and the remaining humans who will do anything they can to survive. With him is a baby, a goat, and a mystical sword he must return to the gods who virtually abandoned his world. Though he says nothing, in Peter Newman’s hands, The Vagrant is marvelously realized. There is enough horror and gore here to satisfy any fan of the Walking Dead, but the general reader will find enough humor and beauty to make this book well worth the read. Peter Newman is an author to watch.”
— Kim Fox, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI

The Vagrant was wild. I love that even though the main character doesn’t speak, you still care deeply for him and feel his emotions through his facial expressions and especially through is care for the baby.  Neither of them can speak, but the emotion is palpable. I liked the blend of post-apocalyptic wasteland and fantasy creatures. The descriptions are vivid and rather nightmare-inducing. I think fans of Stephen King will enjoy this, as well as the post-apocalyptic crowd.”
— Kate Schreffler, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

The Vagrant (9780008163303) by Peter Newman. $16.99 trade paper original. 5/10/16 on sale.

New in Paperback: Speak – Louisa Hall

The paperback of this remarkable novel gets a second tour on the Indie Next list next month. It was named to NPR’s Best Books of 2015 as well as a number of other end-of-the-year lists. Put this hypnotic, gorgeously written book in the hands of fans of Stephen Mitchell, Emily St. John Mandel, Michael Cunningham and Margaret Atwood—writers who have used speculative fiction to investigate at the deepest intricacies of what it is to be human. You can catch my original review here.

Speak is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.”
— Emily St. John Mandel

“The structure of Hall’s second novel-six narratives scattered across four centuries-has already drawn obvious comparisons to Cloud Atlas. But Hall’s voices are more earthbound than David Mitchell’s; explorers of all kinds are overheard speaking into the void, ruminating on lost memories, missed connections, and the fatal flaws of men and their machines.”
New York

Speak (9780062391209) by Louisa Hall.  $15.99 trade paper. 5/3/16 on sale.