Summer Lead Read: Bearskin – James A. McLaughlin

Bearskin (9780062742797) by James A. McLaughlin. Ecco. $26.99 hardcover. 

  • ARC Available: November 2017
  • On Sale: June 12, 2018

This debut surprised me. It’s not often that I read a book that is equal parts beautiful prose and tense, propulsive writing. I was torn between racing through it and lingering over the insight and observant turn of phrase. But if I didn’t have a day job I think I would have read it in one sitting.

Bearskin is the story of a field biologist who is drawn into a web of criminality. Rice Moore is running from the Sinaloa Cartel, hiding out as the caretaker of a forest preserve in Virginian Appalachia. But when poachers start slaughtering bears on the preserve Rice again finds himself at odds with some pretty scary guys.

While suspense and violence are the everyday drivers of American bestsellers, what made this book unique is the handling of character. Rice Moore was a research biologist when he got caught in the snare of the Cartel. He’s a thoughtful, haunted man, at home with and in tune with the natural world. He’s also been forged by circumstance and experience into a predator and a survivor–a kind of Darwinian response to the violence of the Cartel.

Like our hero, this book spans two worlds: a natural ecosystem of enormous grace, beauty and violence–and a man-made culture of gangs, casual criminality and an even starker violence. It makes for a rare page turner.

This ARC has been around for a while but because it’s a Lead Read (Harper’s favorite read crowdsourcing program) there has been extensive distribution. If you haven’t  read it, booksellers are likely to find a copy on the shelves in your back room. And of course, booksellers can also download it as a digital ARC in Edelweiss.

 

Squeezed – Alissa Quart

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (9780062412256) by Alissa Quart. Ecco. $27.99 hardcover. 

  • ARC: February 2018
  • On Sale: June 26, 2018

This is social issues nonfiction that reads like a long magazine article—and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s filled with well-drawn, compelling stories that pull the reader along as Quart builds a case about American middle class families struggling to keep their heads above water.

Chapter by chapter she lays out the increasing pressures that drive families to the edge of poverty: college debt, daycare, housing, wage stagnation, underemployment, automation. And behind it all is American breadwinners’ collective feeling that they themselves are to blame for “bad choices.”

Long on compelling stories, this absorbing read felt sketchy when it came to solutions. In that way it reminded me of the uber text of this sort of social issues narrative: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed (and indeed Ehrenreich blurbs this book). That book was similarly frustrating on a policy and action level. But at the end of the day, the picture Ehrenreich drew of the systemic plight of the working class woke up America. Quart’s stories of everyday Americans struggling and looking for solutions is likewise bracingly vivid—and hopefully as eye-opening as Ehrenreich almost two decades ago.

Book of the Week: Census – Jesse Ball

We read for lots of reasons—to learn, to distract, to entertain ourselves. But the richest reason we read is to experience the fullness of our humanity. In a culture that more and more uses communication in service of the quick jolt, reductive emotion and brutish hair-trigger reaction, books like Census are an antidote for a kind of emotional ADD.

Readers familiar with Ball will recognize the world of Census­–a landscape at once mysterious and quotidian. In it, a dying widower decides to spend his last days traveling with his grown son, a young man with Down syndrome. The father quits his job as a doctor and takes a position as a census taker, a job that will allow him and his son to travel from the center of the country they live (“A”) outward to the farthest province of “Z”.

That’s it plot-wise. The father reports to us of their travels; he remembers his marriage and his family life; he observes how people interact with one another. This slightly dystopic country and the vaguely ominous census are only the scaffolding of the book, not the point. Ball explains the point in his moving introduction: He writes that he wanted to illuminate the love he felt for his deceased brother, who had Down syndrome. Of that love, he says, “It is not like what you would expect, and it is not like it is ordinarily portrayed and explained. It is something else, different than that.” Indeed. By showing us the journey of these two, how the people along the way react to them, something remarkable happens. Parnassus bookseller Halley Parry captured it in her Indie Next nomination:

Sentences inspire double takes, characters jump from the page to life, and a transformative journey is undertaken for both the reader and the characters. As the end of the alphabet approaches, the landscape becomes more haunting, and the reader learns more about love and death than I thought was possible in a single book.”

Along with being chosen as an Indie Next Pick, Census received three starred advance reviews, was selected as a book of the month by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, the BBC and LitHub—and there was a lovely interview with Ball on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.

Major reviews have landed in the NYT, Washington Post, LA Times and LA Review of Books. It’s interesting to read them all—you can hear how affected reviewers are by the read. While they come to the story in a variety of ways, I think most would agree with author David Mitchell’s assessment: “Census is a vital testament to selfless love; a psalm to commonplace miracles; and a mysterious evolving metaphor. So kind, it aches.” You’ll be glad you took the journey.

[Comparisons] do Census an injustice. It’s a transcendent, consummately strange sketching of the human condition. Traveling his path, Ball takes you from A to Z (literally: the alphabet’s 26 letters are what each visited town is called); but even so, there are few time markers, no character names — only a window into one man’s goodbye tour. The enveloping sense of decay risks overwhelming Census, but in the end, it’s balanced out by the sheer wonder of inspecting what is not easily understood. Explore with Ball, fall into his quirky rhythms, and you’ll discover a burning plea for empathy. It will break your heart.”
Entertainment Weekly

“This point — about the beautiful varieties of perception, of experience — made without sentimentality, burns at the core of the book, and of much of Ball’s work, which rails against the tedium of consensus, the cruelty of conformity. In one home, the father and son come across a couple whose daughter had Down syndrome. “I can see from the way you are with him that you see — you see what we saw, that they experience the world just as we do, and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light,” the woman says. I can think of no higher praise for this novel than to echo what this woman tells the father for traveling with his son, for letting the world experience his gift: ‘I think you cannot know the good you do.’”
The New York Times

“The novel’s twin themes, the limits of empathy and language, are explored from every angle in living room census interviews that more closely resemble religious confessions than a bureaucratic process…. Though Census reads, at times, like a protracted parable, it eschews tidy lessons. The result is an understated feat, a book that says more than enough simply by saying, ‘Look, this is how some people are.’”
The Washington Post

While Ball is willing to stick his neck out and write a narrative as plainly sincere as a medieval morality play, he also makes space for complexity, the flux of things, the slipperiness of truth and knowledge. Case in point: the novel’s central hollow, which both allows Ball to write about his brother without diminishing his memory with words, and forces readers to participate in imagining him. The hollow is rich and generative, a lacuna of a kind Ball has mastered.”
The Los Angeles Times

“This is a novel about how compassion and love move far beyond familial duty…Ball does an excellent job of revealing his [narrator’s] experience of life’s aches and joys…Ball provides a finish suitably heartbreaking and redeeming…An odd, poignant, vitalizing novel well worth the journey.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Ball’s latest is an intensely moving and dazzlingly imagined journey…This novel is a devastatingly powerful call for understanding and compassion.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Ball here offers a quietly epic work. … Focusing on how to protect our own after we are gone in the face of ignorance, cruelty, and disregard, this work combines a travel adventure with a meditation on human kindness to create a deeply perceptive work of essential truths. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Ball takes a matter-of-fact approach to surreal situations, which he deepens with finely rendered and realistic thoughts and emotions. His latest mysterious, mesmerizing, and insightful fairy tale is an imaginative and tender tribute to his late brother…. Ball’s mind-bending, gorgeously well told, and profoundly moving fable celebrates a father’s love for his son, whose quintessence is to inspire people to be their better selves.”
Booklist (starred review)

Census (9780062676139) by Jesse Ball. $25.99 hardcover. 3.6.18 on sale.

 

Book of the Week: The Witches of New York – Ami McKay

Here’s a satisfying sleeper you can put into the hands of fiction lovers who like their genres stirred into a potent, bracing brew—and their escapism underpinned with some substance.

The Witches of New York takes place in a beautifully realized Victorian New York—at a time when both science and spirituality were taking society by storm. The witches of this novel run a small tea shop that helps ladies find cures for many ills—from sleepless nights to bad marriages to unwanted pregnancies. Enter a young girl from the countryside who hires on as a shop girl—a girl who turns out to be a young witch unaware of her latent powers. Add in a powerful demon who works through a culture of men threatened by these self-sufficient, independent women and you have a summer entertainment whose themes couldn’t be more relevant today.

In this weighty, wonderful novel, McKay takes a sidelong glance at misogyny through a veil of witches, ghosts, and other mystical entities in 1880 New York…. McKay seamlessly combines several plots and juggles a large cast with grace. Skillful worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and a suspenseful plot make McKay’s novel an enchanting, can’t-put-down delight. The door is left open for a sequel, and readers will hope McKay takes Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice on further adventures of witchery and self-determination.”
—  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With a remarkable cast of characters… McKay has crafted a stunning work that bridges the gap between historical and contemporary women’s issues. The novel is ambitious in its scope yet still delves deep into the thoughts and motivations of characters who normally exist on society’s outskirts—or even beyond the earthly realm…. McKay’s elegant prose bridges the gap between the real world and the spiritual realm with skill and compassion.”
Kirkus (starred review)

The Witches of New York (9780062359926) by Ami KcKay. $15.99 trade paper original. 7/11/17 on sale.

New Fiction: The Almost Sisters – Joshilyn Jackson

Here’s another writer who is a master at serving up serious themes inside of confection of wit, pathos and heart. In The Almost Sisters, bestseller Jackson tells the story of a graphic novelist who has a one-night stand with a mysterious Batman she meets at a FanCon. She later discovers that she is pregnant and finds herself looking forward to the prospect of motherhood.

But add that her son will be a biracial boy born into a conventional Old South family, a grandmother with dementia, and a family secret in that has been hidden in her attic since the Civil War–and you’ve something a lot more substantial and satisfying than the typical summer beach read.

If you’re a fan of women’s fiction, you’ll love this story of family and relationships. If you’re not a fan of women’s fiction, come for the humor and insight. As one reviewer said of her work, it’s “Flannery O’Connor meets Dave Barry.”

“Jackson has written another spirited page-turner …There’s a whiff of Southern Gothic here and plenty of sex, lies, and family secrets…. But Jackson is bighearted and, in the end, optimistic. She writes vivid, funny characters, and her voice is distinctive and authentic.… A satisfying, entertaining read from an admired writer who deserves to be a household name.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Jackson has packed in all the drama needed for a fast-paced summer read, but this isn’t your average beach book. Dark secrets and racism plague Grandma Birchie’s seemingly charming southern town, and Leia will soon find that real-life villains aren’t as easy to identify as the ones in her comic books.”
Publishers Weekly

Leia, a self-proclaimed superhero-comics dork, narrates this light-dark Southern story of family, race, and belonging with affection, humor, and well-timed profanity, bound to please fans of the best-selling author’s six previous novels.… Both literary and women’s fiction readers will appreciate Leia’s smart/sassy narrative.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Joshilyn Jackson is an amazing storyteller who somehow keeps getting better and better with every novel. Unforgettable characters, constant action and a deft hand with social issues makes The Almost Sisters her best yet…. Jackson’s ear for language makes her work sing; her characters’ fierce family loyalties make you cheer for them; and the humor in her work balances her often-dark subject matter. I adored The Almost Sisters!
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, MI

The Almost Sisters (9780062105714) by Joshilyn Jackson. $26.99 hardcover. 7/11/17 on sale.

 

New Fiction: Made for Love – Alissa Nutting

Nutting likes to push boundaries—and buttons. Her first novel, Tampa, was a dark satire about an eighth-grade teacher’s affair with a student. It was a high-wire performance that repelled some readers and made others fans for life.

This new novel, while less polarizing, is no less a daring satire. It’s the story of an aimless young woman trying to escape her marriage to the founder and sinister CEO of a far-reaching tech company. (It’s hard not to think Google when the company is named “Gogol.”)

Having literally escaped her husband’s high security compound, she arrives at the door of her elderly father’s Florida trailer where he has taken up residence with a life-size blow-up doll in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Then things get weirder.

There’s a secondary plot about a handsome con man who gets his sexual wires crossed after being molested by a dolphin. (Yes, I said that.) Eventually his story intertwines with Hazel’s and results in an absurdist romp about technology, the mind and free will.  It’s bracing, laugh out loud social satire in the vein of Nell Zink.

Nutting deftly exploits the comic potential of perverse attachments, here to sex dolls, aquatic mammals, and technological devices…. The story begins after a woman, Hazel, has fled her controlling husband, Byron, a cold-blooded, germaphobic, and distinctly un-Byronic tech titan who treated his electronics like lesser wives.’ Hazel takes refuge in her father’s trailer park home, vastly different from her former lodging, ‘the Hub,’ Byron’s sterile compound that is at once a prison, spa, and hospital. Living with her father and his recently purchased sex doll, Hazel hopes to avoid Byron’s near-omniscient gaze and forge a new, unsurveilled, and thrillingly unhygienic life…. [A] witty portrait of a woman desperate to reconnect with her humanity.
Publishers Weekly, “Best Summer Books of 2017”

“[O]ne of the funniest, most absurd books you’ll read this summer…. Hilarious, clever, and strikingly original, Made for Love speaks to the absurdity of our societal obsessions with technology and wealth.”
   — Buzzfeed

“There is no one who negotiates the absurd as vigorously yet poignantly as Alissa Nutting. In her second novel, Made For Love, Nutting explores the loneliness of a future overly mediated by technology through a tremendous romp involving Hazel, trying to leave her tech mogul husband Byron even though his reach knows no bounds. There are sex dolls and a senior citizen trailer park and brain chips and a con man who loves dolphins and still, the story makes sense like a motherfucker. Brilliant, dense, hilarious writing that hurtles toward an ending that is both satisfying and unexpected.”
— Roxane Gay

“Oh god I just love every page. It’s fantastic.”
— Lynda Barry

“After devouring Nutting’s deliciously dysfunctional debut, Tampa, I consider myself a devotee to her particular brand of cringe-worthy absurdity. Nutting masterfully navigated the sticky complexities of human sexuality once before so I trusted her, implicitly, to take me there again. She, as expected, did not disappoint…. Equal parts sinister and hilarious, eccentric and affecting, Nutting manages to craft an arresting and outrageous puzzle that is far more than the sum of its parts.”
— Tara Bagnola, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Made for Love (9780062280558) by Alissa Nutting. $26.99 hardcover. 7/4/17 on sale.

Book of the Week: River Under the Road – Scott Spencer

Spencer will likely always be remembered for this 1979 classic, Endless Love. And that’s a shame because good as that book was, Spencer followed that early success with one terrific book after another. Two of his more recent novels remain among my favorites—A Ship Made of Paper and Man in the Woods. To that I happily add this new book.

While the plots of his books are wide-ranging, there is a through-line to his themes. It seems to me that all his books are concerned with how one’s reaction in a moment of strong emotion can tear apart what proves to be the relatively thin scrim of civilization.

Told from alternating points of view over many years, River Under the Road is the story of a marriage—two marriages really–against the backdrop of declining opportunities for the working class and the lottery-like luck that leads a small number of Americans to live lives of luxury while telling themselves they have earned that outsized luck.

The story plays out poignantly on the small canvas of a handful of people’s lives from their early choices to their dawning awareness of their compromises, betrayals and failures. And in a subtle but ultimately devastating way, we see how they stand in for America’s choices over the last fifty years.

What Janet Maslin said of A Ship Made of Paper in the NYT is true for this book, too:

Richly intelligent prose and vivid characters, set against the backdrop of American race relations [in this case substitute “class”]. Here are real people confronting real emotions, whether it’s the electric thrill of illicit love, seething anger over a betrayal or the white-knuckle terror of genuine mortal danger… [the] slowly escalating catastrophe that wrecks buildings and lives – will rattle your bones.”

The best book titles offer and “ah ha” moment and a clue about the writer’s intent. The title for this book comes when two screenwriters are talking at a Hollywood party: “’You want to know what I know, chum?… Eagles can tell how much food is going to be available in their habitat over the next six months and if they see it’s going to be slim pickings they break a couple of their own eggs so there won’t be too many mouths to feed. We’re connected to our environment, too. We’re aware of what’s going on with our species, with our whole world, we can feel it like you can feel a river under a road.’”

Coverage starts with New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post where it was already included as one of most anticipated book of the spring.

“Rich, provocative . . . . Since Endless Love (1979) . . . Spencer’s specialty has been the ache of unrequited (or lost) love. His prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship. . . . River Under the Road is wry and insightful.”
— Washington Post

“The story of two couples, recounted across 14 years through the lens of a dozen parties…. At the center of the action are Thaddeus, a screenwriter, and his wife, Grace, an artist who drifts away from her art as the pair moves from bohemia into the bourgeoisie…. Money is an issue throughout the novel—who has it and who doesn’t, what one must do to get it, what happens when it goes away. More to the point, however, this is a book about the vicissitudes of love…”
Kirkus Reviews

River Under the Road (9780062660053) by Scott Spencer. $27.99 hardcover. 6/27/17 on sale.