Doubleday Books: Pieces of Happiness by Anne Ostby

Blue Willow Bookshop Issue for Tuesday, August 8, 2017

From the Shelf

Browsing, Chapter 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my browsing adventures in three bookstores. I bought enough books to take me through a hard winter (or hot summer). Said winter would seem like the perfect time to read The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown. I knew Brown's writing from his later book, the deservedly lauded The Boys in the Boat, so was pleased to find this. Brown writes, "In many ways this book began one hot October afternoon in the fall of 2006 when I drove up the Napa Valley searching for bones." He finds them at the 1907 grave of his father's uncle, who traveled with the Donner party, and starts his engrossing story via the life of party member Sarah Graves. A different western history is Jenny Forrester's lyrical memoir, Narrow River, Wide Sky. It too begins in a cemetery, in western Colorado, as she and her brother consider where to bury their mother, "Her skin of rose cream and cold, calloused hands, her warm, soft heart, a cup of tea in a coffee place."

Switching gears, I found two sports books. Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field by Dr. David J. Leonard explores the centrality of race in sports culture. His discourse on "playing the game the right way," i.e., the "white" way, is incisive and troubling.

Mark Kingwell is a philosophy professor. In Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters, he brings his metaphysical sensibility to the game where "geometry becomes poetry." Baseball fans will relate: "Sometimes, the game means so much to me that I can't even watch it. It's too excruciating... the ridiculous difficulty of making anything happen." But "the constant renewal of tension out of pause, of action exploding from an apparent standstill, is an ever-recurring wonder." --Marilyn Dahl

Little Brown and Company: The Store by James Patterson

Vintage Books & Anchor Books: Reading Group Center Book Club Giveaway

Nation Books: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

In this Issue...

Reviews

Journalist and scholar Robert Wright offers a useful introduction to the practice of meditation and mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.

Read this review >>

A direct and approachable introduction to the life and works of Cuban poet and freedom fighter José Martí.

Read this review >>

All We Shall Know

by Donal Ryan

The memorable narrator of Donal Ryan's third novel is a fierce, sharp-tongued woman carrying her first child and searching for redemption.

Read this review >>

Review by Subjects:

Fiction Mystery & Thriller Science Fiction & Fantasy Food & Wine Biography & Memoir Essays & Criticism Psychology & Self-Help Children's & Young Adult

Matchup by Gayle Lynds

From Blue Willow Bookshop

Upcoming Events

Another Shade of Blue Book Club

08/19/2017 - 1:00PM

Another Shade of Blue is a monthly book club for middle school girls. This month, we'll discuss NIGHTBIRD byAlice Hoffman.

Little Golden Bus Tour

08/19/2017 - 1:00PM

Random House Children’s Books takes Little Golden Books on the road with its pop-up bookstore on wheels! Wrapped in the signature artwork and beloved characters from classic Little Golden Books, this interactive experience includes a walk-through exhibit of the history of the brand and kid-friendly activities including storytimes, a “Create Your Own Little Golden Book” activity, a visit and photo opt with the Poky Little Puppy, and more! Join us for a very fun afternoon.

Book Candy

Highbrow Beach Books

"Sun, sea, sand, text: the 10 hottest highbrow books for the beach" were unpacked by the Guardian.

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In search of the "most memorable chlorine castles ever dreamed up by humankind," Electric Lit took a plunge into 11 of literature's great swimming pools.

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What's the "funniest word in the English language?" Mental Floss shared the results of a new survey.

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"The best recurring joke on Game of Thrones is about grammar," Buzzfeed noted.

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Lit real estate: "Farm with barn that inspired Charlotte's Web hits the market at $3.7 million," the Los Angeles Times reported.

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Bustle considered "7 things people who use bookmarks will never understand about people who dog-ear books."

Melville House Publishing: The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Power Broker

Robert Moses (1888-1981) was one of the most powerful men in 20th-century New York. He was a "master builder" of the Metropolitan Area, spearheading billions of dollars in major infrastructure projects that transformed transportation in and around the city. At the height of his power, Moses simultaneously held 12 titles, including NYC Parks Commissioner--none of which were elected positions. He wielded enormous influence over city and state elected officials, and could bypass legislative bodies for funding by issuing bonds or using the millions of dollars generated through his public authority tolls. Moses's many successful projects came at the cost of mass displacements of people and the destruction of whole neighborhoods. Public backlash, political pressure and activists like Jane Jacobs eventually undermined Moses's power.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Moses and his legacy was delivered by Robert Caro's biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). Caro's 1,336-page colossus of original research, biographical information and wider history of New York City won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. It depicts Moses first as a young idealist, whose projects like the creation of Jones Beach and the New York State Parks system gave way to a love of power for power's sake, transforming Moses into a man who ran 13 expressways across the city with little regard for public opinion and made a concerted effort to keep black war veterans out of Stuyvesant Town. The Power Broker is a classic work of urban planning and political power. --Tobias Mutter

Counterpoint Press: A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The Writer's Life

Natasha Pulley: Discovering Magical Realism Within History

photo: Jonathan Ring

Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, studied English Literature at Oxford University. After stints working at Waterstones as a bookseller, then at Cambridge University Press as a publishing assistant in the astronomy and math departments, she obtained her Creative Writing MA from the University of East Anglia. She later studied in Tokyo, where she lived on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, and she is now a visiting lecturer at City University, London. The Bedlam Stacks (reviewed below) is her second novel.

The Bedlam Stacks invites the reader into a magical, mystical world--but one that resulted from some time you spent in Peru. Did that trip provide the inspiration for the novel, or did you travel to South America with this story in mind?

By then the book was nearly finished. It was a fact-checking mission mainly; I wanted to make sure that Merrick really could have learned decent Spanish in three months, that Quechua people really do point forwards when they talk about the past and to look around and get altitude sickness and make sure I had everything down properly.

You incorporate tremendous detail into The Bedlam Stacks on a range of subjects, from botany to religion to Incan customs. What did your research entail? How long did it take?

I usually start researching once I know roughly what the story is, and then it happens in bits and pieces throughout the whole writing process. I read a lot of newspapers from 1859, lots of books and articles about the East India Company, the quinine expeditions, cinchona, Incan religion, etc. Sometimes several journal articles go into one little aspect that only appears for a few lines in the finished book. I read loads about khipu (knot-writing), for example, even though it's only in the background. For me, a lot of research is about not making a horrible error--I'm not a historian, so usually I have no idea what might have happened or not--even more than it is about finding out something completely new.

Although The Bedlam Stacks isn't written specifically for children, it has an element of wonder found in many fantasy books for younger audiences. Did you enjoy reading this genre as a child or even as an adult? Which books and authors influenced you as a writer?

I grew up on fantasy. Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb featured in pretty healthy doses, and I read all of Brian Jacques's Redwall books when I was small. But also, I don't think everything written for adults has to be grim. Adult life has its grimy moments, but there's plenty of wonder for the over-18s too!

You've had an interesting career, including working in publishing and as a bookseller. What did those experiences teach you about writing and publishing that you were previously unaware of, or that most authors may not know? 

Mainly that it's people who sell books, just as much as Internet campaigns or posters. If a bookseller likes a book, they'll sell more of it than a book they don't know. A surprising number of people will walk into bookshops and just ask for a recommendation, so it matters what the booksellers on the shop floor think. From a publishing perspective, it also helped to know something about how much it costs to print hardbacks, and what contracts look like. It definitely kept my expectations low to realistic, and I knew what a publisher reasonably could and couldn't do.

In a historical notes at the end of The Bedlam Stacks, you share that one of the characters, Clem, is based on a real-life person. What intrigued you about this piece of history and this individual? How did you first learn of his existence? How much of the real-life Clem is infused into the fictional one?

I used to write blurbs for reprints of Victorian scientific monographs, and his book about traveling to Peru for cinchona was one that landed on my desk a few years ago. It was really interesting, so I stole his expedition. In real life, he lived a long and productive life, and wrote on a huge variety of things, from the character of Richard III to the loss of the Franklin expedition. As in the story, though, he was endlessly interested in Quechua and Peru, and he did lead the expedition, and he did travel with his wife, Minna.

Is your protagonist, Merrick, inspired by an actual person?

Merrick is completely fictional, and his friendship with Clem in the story doesn't have anything to do with real life.

One fun detail for your fans is that The Bedlam Stacks includes a cameo appearance by a character from your first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. How early in the story did you know that this character would be a part of this novel?

Always, because the first draft of Bedlam was written at the same time as Watchmaker. The plan was to make it more or less standalone, but link the two. I was a bit worried, because for people who haven't read the first book, the whole plot of Bedlam is moved by an arbitrarily introduced clairvoyant child, but I'm hoping that it's a nice Easter egg for people who have!

Toward the end there's what seems like a hint of a sequel. Do you anticipate another book connected to The Bedlam Stacks? What can your readers expect from you next?

Not at the moment. The next book, Pepperharrow, is much more closely linked to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, as those characters are off to Japan. The fourth book will be a complete standalone, about a playhouse in 1603. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com

Book Reviews

Fiction

All We Shall Know

by Donal Ryan

Defiantly carrying the child of a 17-year-old illiterate Traveller student, 33-year-old Melody Shee is an Irish Hester Prynne scorned by family, neighbors and the gypsy Traveller clans. All We Shall Know is the weekly diary of her adulterous pregnancy. It is filled with anger at her husband and marriage of 17 years, the father she rejected as a child and men in general ("I haven't met a man yet who isn't a sex offender"). Underlying her vitriolic outrage, however, is a strain of remorse that leads to niggling self-doubt. After abandoning her best friend to cruel schoolmates and ultimately suicide, she reflects: "I don't know why I am the way I am, or even why I am." Melody is a hard case with a troubled heart--until she meets the young Traveller Mary Crothery. Unexpectedly barren, Mary has been divorced from her husband and shunned by the closed tinker community. Despite this ostracism, she is a spunky optimist who attaches to fellow outcast Melody in a way no one has before.

Donal Ryan's third novel (after Booker longlisted The Spinning Years), All We Shall Know is a vivid portrait of a complex woman torn between the spark of new life she is carrying and the hard life she and those around her are living. The narrative is rich in the cadence of both the rural Irish vernacular and the Traveller mash-up of English and the Cant. It captures the turbulence of marriage, love, sex, class and violence--while leaving room for the big Irish heart that lies behind so much great literature in English. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The memorable narrator of Donal Ryan's third novel is a fierce, sharp-tongued woman carrying her first child and searching for redemption.

Penguin Books, $16, paperback, 192p., 9780143131045

Hum if You Don't Know the Words

by Bianca Marais

In her breathtaking debut, Bianca Marais explores humanity's potential for compassion and understanding in a world consumed by hate and injustice. Robin Conrad is Marais's white, nine-year-old, female narrator living in 1970s South Africa. Her story alternates with that of Beauty Mbali, an educated, black Xhosa mother.

Robin lives a comfortable life with her parents in Johannesburg, observing the apartheid laws that force her black maid to use separate bathroom facilities, eat from different dishes and carry a passbook to verify her work status. Meanwhile, Beauty, a widowed schoolteacher living in a small, rural village of the Transkei, struggles to raise her three children, the oldest of whom is living with her brother, Andile, and attending school in the suburb of Soweto. The two exist in their disconnected worlds until a tragedy strikes, and their spheres collide during an uprising in the city streets.

With humor, warmth and tenderness, Marais pulls her audience into this unlikely but heartwarming bond. The exquisiteness of Robin and Beauty's connection is enhanced by the contrast of apartheid's repulsiveness, both of which are forcefully illustrated. Marais injects hope and light into the darkness of hate with scenes such as Robin's realization that "Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room.... Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: 'friend.' "

Intense, powerful and moving, Hum if You Don't Know the Words is an exalting anthem of love, family and humanity. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: When a young white girl and a widowed black mother are brought together under traumatic circumstances in apartheid-era South Africa, each learns that more than blood can define family.

Putnam, $26, hardcover, 432p., 9780399575068

Mystery & Thriller

Murder in Mayfair

by D.M. Quincy

Historical novelist Diana Quincy spins an enjoyable, richly detailed Regency-era whodunit in Murder in Mayfair, her debut mystery as D.M. Quincy. As he travels on horseback from Bath to London, gentleman adventurer Atlas Catesby is appalled by a tableau at a country inn: a local woman being auctioned off by her husband. To prevent her being abused by another buyer, Atlas pays for the woman, intending to take her to London and leave her to pursue her own life, free and clear. But Lilliana Warwick, loath to be parted from her young sons, keeps returning to her former home, despite her comfortable new situation in Bloomsbury with Atlas's mathematician sister, Thea. When Lilliana's husband is found murdered, both she and Atlas become prime suspects, and he must work to clear both their names.

Quincy creates an engaging protagonist in Atlas, the youngest son of a baron, who cares little for society's arcane rules and still mourns the death of his oldest sister, Phoebe. Likewise, supporting characters like Thea, Lilliana and the Earl of Charlton (Atlas's best friend) are equally appealing. A sharp-eyed Bow Street runner named Endicott (a precursor to the London policemen of today) and a motley crew of servants, including an untrained valet and an ancient butler, round out the ensemble cast for a plot with a few satisfying twists. Anglophiles and mystery lovers are sure to enjoy this jaunt to 19th-century London, and can hope for future adventures (with a side of romance). --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: In this engaging historical mystery, Regency gentleman Atlas Catesby rescues a woman in distress and ends up solving a murder.

Crooked Lane Books, $26.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781683312253

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Bedlam Stacks

by Natasha Pulley

With The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street) has crafted an elaborate world of magic and mystery, one set in 19th-century Peru and providing readers with an abundance of surprises at every turn.

Merrick Tremayne, a smuggler whose lineage includes explorers and adventurers, is living at his brother's estate while recuperating from a leg injury. Strange happenings occur on the grounds--statues move, for starters--and soon he becomes desperate to leave. Such an opportunity presents itself through Merrick's friend Clem: malaria is reaching epidemic proportions in India and quinine, a substance found in the cinchona trees located in the Peruvian forests, is an effective treatment. The East India Company is offering a substantial sum for the two to travel to Peru and bring back seeds for planting. Initially uncertain, Merrick agrees to join Clem on the expedition.

Arriving in Peru, they meet Raphael, a priest with mystical qualities who serves as their guide. As they travel deeper into the forest, their journey becomes filled with increasing danger and mysterious forces--and the realization that Raphael's connection to Merrick spans generations and transcends time. "Forward for the past, back for the future" is a poetic, recurring phrase in The Bedlam Stacks that echoes and supports the novel's themes of discovering one's place in a familial legacy and how the experiences of our ancestors have relevance to our purpose in life.

Pulley is masterful at infusing The Bedlam Stacks with just the right amount of magical realism and mystery, making this story reminiscent of classic adventure tales of old while being relevant to today. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com.

Discover: An enchanting fantasy set amid a dangerous expedition in 19th-century Peru.

Bloomsbury, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9781620409671

Killing Is My Business

by Adam Christopher

Killing Is My Business is the fourth installment of Adam Christopher's Ray Electromatic series, a sparkling mash-up of Los Angeles noir and '60s sci-fi (with sublime cover art by the great Will Staehle). In it, the eponymous Ray--a sly nod to Raymond Chandler--is a private investigator moonlighting as a hit man, albeit a remarkably ineffective one. He is also a hulking metal robot with an expressionless faceplate, prone to sitting in his car with a cup of coffee, a sandwich he can't eat and a paperback novel he can't remember.

Christopher brilliantly sends up Chandler by channeling Steve Martin: "Emerson Ellis, it turned out, was some kind of real estate magnate, and I already didn't like him. I didn't like him because I was suspicious of alliterative names."

Ray's employer is the sassy mainframe, Ada, to whom he must report each night to clear his limited memory tapes. Each morning Ray "wakes up" to another beautiful day in Hollywood, and Ada brings him up to speed on current assignments. Ada is pure femme fatale: "she sounded like she was pulling on a cigarette which... I knew to be merely an echo in my circuits." And she might not be giving him the full download.

The story shares wiring with Memento, and randomly accesses The Big Lebowski: it hits the marks of a hardboiled potboiler while genially leaving its riddles unsolved. Summarizing the plot is pointless. It's a shaggy dog story and an utter joy to read. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

Discover: This is a wry, snort-inducing detective novel with very little actual killing, for fans of the Coen Brothers and Steve Martin.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 288p., 9780765379207

Gork, the Teenage Dragon

by Gabe Hudson

In a weird and wacky first novel, Gabe Hudson (Dear Mr. President) pits an anthropomorphized adolescent dragon against the forces of evil, the chief of which may be high school.

Gork the Terrible, grandson of the infamously cunning and ruthless Dr. Terrible, fails to live up to the family name. Orphaned straight out of the egg when his parents' spaceship crashed on Planet Earth, Gork survived in the wild for three years until his rescue by Dr. Terrible, who returned him to the dragon planet Blegwethia and raised him like his own son--which is to say, with plenty of psychological manipulation and belittlement. The action fast forwards to Gork's senior year of high school at WarWings Academy--where the mortality rate is off the charts and seniors must pass the final survival challenge on Crown Day, when each male dragon has to convince a female to wear his crown and lay his eggs. The alternatives, death or slavery and death, don't bear contemplating.

With the moral support of his cyborg dragonette pal Fribby and his talking spaceship, Athenos II, Gork aims to give his crown to the beautiful Runcita. Unfortunately, she ranks at MegaBeast on the school's "Will to Power Ranking Index" while Gork's rank is, sadly, Snacklicious. As Gork races against time to find his queen in the chaos of Crown Day, Dr. Terrible schemes in the background and a prophecy unfolds. In his search for true love, Gork strives to be terrible in a world that just might need a good guy. Big-hearted and gawky, Gork gives us a lovable loser sure to win the hearts of sci-fi readers and fans of offbeat comedies. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: In this quirky sci-fi comedy, a teenage dragon must find a dragonette willing to be his queen, or he'll graduate from high school into slavery.

Knopf, $24.95, hardcover, 400p., 9780375413964

Food & Wine

The Art of Flavor: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food

by Daniel Patterson , Mandy Aftel

Following on their 2004 collaboration, Aroma, chef and food writer Daniel Patterson and perfumer Mandy Aftel (Fragrant) have created a guide to creative cooking in The Art of Flavor.

"Good cooks, like good perfumers, learn to orchestrate ingredients into delicious combinations without thinking about it, let alone talking about it." Patterson and Aftel offer rules for building flavors with the particular ingredients you have, to please your personal tastes and desires. They also offer both amateurs and professional cooks ways to develop a personal vocabulary for discussing this process with others, whether in a home kitchen or a classroom. Although the authors provide more than 80 recipes to demonstrate their ideas, this is not a cookbook so much as it is an instruction manual, "designed to make you into someone who confidently adapts recipes to your needs and desires--ultimately into someone who does not even need a recipe."

The first chapter is a historical overview of flavor, the relationships among medicine, perfumery and cooking and the development of the flavor industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The authors explain how to select and understand ingredients, to be aware of how no two carrots or apples or vanilla beans are the same. A chapter on the "four directions of flavor" explains how to use spices, herbs, citruses and flowers. This is a technical book in many ways, complete with a bibliography for further reading, but it is also a friendly and accessible one for anyone with a serious interest in the art of cooking. Cooks at every level of experience are likely to find fresh clarity and new insights here. --Sara Catterall

Discover: A perfumer and a chef systematically explain the art of good cooking using simple ingredients in this guide to understanding and constructing flavor.

Riverhead, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9781594634307

Biography & Memoir

A Woman's Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers

by Hannah Kimberley

Annie Smith Peck was an ambitious and enterprising mountain climber, professor, writer, suffragist and promoter of Pan-Americanism. She was a member of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Woman Geographers and a founding member of the American Alpine Club. She left large archives of diaries, letters and photographs, some of which scholar Hannah Kimberley has brought to light for the first time to compose this comprehensive biography, A Woman's Place Is at the Top.

Annie Smith Peck was born in 1850 in Rhode Island. At 17, she attended a lecture by a charismatic suffragist and was entranced. She fought to pursue higher education, and enrolled at the University of Michigan at age 27, where she got degrees in Greek and Classical languages. She studied archeology and languages in Germany and Greece, and expanded her love of hiking into mountaineering. She did her most significant mountain climbing after the age of 45, mostly in South America, and continued to travel and hike until her death at 84. Her expeditions gave her material for writing and lectures, which in turn paid for her travel. She never married, had many close friendships and, Kimberley says, few regrets. Kimberley's prose is serviceable, but she has shaped an enormous mass of material into a well-organized and lively story in which her subject's voice dominates. Peck never let anyone discourage her ambitions. "Ever the competitor, to each no Annie answered, 'Yes, I can.' And then she proved it." --Sara Catterall

Discover: This is a comprehensive biography of an ambitious and enterprising mountain climber, lecturer, writer and suffragist of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 368p., 9781250084002

Essays & Criticism

This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflections from the Palestine Festival of Literature

by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton, editors

In This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflections from the Palestine Festival of Literature, an impressive, global team of writers reflect on their experiences traveling to the Palestinian Occupied Territories. They do so as participants in the literature festival, which was founded in 2008, despite security concerns and the controversy and "eyebrow-raising" that accompanies references to Palestine as separate and distinct from Israel.

Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif (The Map of Love) and the filmmaker and writer Omar Robert Hamilton (The City Always Wins) edited this collection, which rewards the reader with fascinating, intimate and brutally candid contributions from the likes of Henning Mankell, Michael Ondaatje, Claire Messud, Alice Walker, Jamal Mahjoub, Mohammed Hanif, J.M. Coetzee, Sabrina Mahfouz and Chinua Achebe, among others. Their writing expresses collective shock at the reality of occupation, the prison of Gaza and the devastating permanence of illegal settlements in the Palestinian landscape.

In her moving essay "Diary," Deborah Moggach (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) describes her "Kafkaesque journey into the West Bank... punctuated with checkpoints where teenage Israeli soldiers smoked in our face and disembodied Israeli voices ordered us through holding pens like cattle in an abattoir, where the high, hideous wall sliced through communities, cutting off farmers from their land and children from their schools...." The only way to cope, she concludes, "is through laughter, it's the only thing left."

The politics of the Middle East can be divisive, but This Is Not a Border transcends politics to reveal the common humanity of our world, to uncover optimism and hope in the most hopeless of places. Ultimately, the collection is a testament to the enduring power of art to unite people. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: This collection of stories and poetry by an esteemed group of writers depicts their experiences traveling to and presenting their work at the Palestine Festival of Literature.

Bloomsbury, $23, paperback, 352p., 9781632868848

Psychology & Self-Help

Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

by Robert Wright

Don't be put off by the fairly argumentative title of Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True. This fascinating book is not in any sense a polemic for the superiority of the Buddhist spiritual worldview over that of other faiths. Instead, it's a well-informed and thoughtful seeker's methodical and sometimes skeptical investigation of key aspects of Buddhist thought and practice--specifically meditation and mindfulness--and the value of those practices when illuminated by the insights of modern psychology and neuroscience.

Wright (journalist, scholar and author of Nonzero and The Evolution of God) first seriously encountered meditation at a one-week silent retreat in 2003. Since that time he's become a faithful practitioner, convinced of meditation's value as a "tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication."

Wright is at his most engaging and accessible when he's recounting his personal encounters with mindfulness practice. While this book is much more than a meditation "how-to" manual, Wright does offer practical advice to novice meditators. His description of some of his more challenging meditation experiences, like the one involving a snoring fellow meditator, display his dry wit.

Whether it's a deluge of smartphone apps, enthusiastic celebrity testimonials or the embrace by corporate leaders eager to improve employee productivity and satisfaction, meditation and mindfulness unquestionably are hot today. Regardless of their own religious or spiritual roots, many open-minded readers who accompany Wright on this journey can find insight here. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Journalist and scholar Robert Wright offers a useful introduction to the practice of meditation and mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.

Simon & Schuster, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9781439195451

Children's & Young Adult

Martí's Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad

by Emma Otheguy , trans. by Adriana Domínguez , illust. by Beatriz Vidal

Emma Otheguy's picture book debut tells (in side-by-side Spanish and English) the life story of José Martí (1853-1895), the Cuban political writer and poet who fought fiercely for Cuban independence from Spain. With excerpts from Martí's Versos sencillos (Simple Verses) sprinkled throughout, Otheguy's text follows the revolutionary from his childhood in his homeland to his last days, fighting a war for Cuba's freedom.

"When José was a young boy,/ his father took him to the countryside.../ José fell in love with his home island, Cuba." At a young age, José saw and understood the injustice of slavery and knew that, to help end the institution, he would have to help Cubans gain their independence from the Spanish. He became a political activist and was "taken away to jail." At 17, Martí was allowed his freedom if he agreed to leave the country. He spent many years traveling, eventually settling in New York where "he wrote verses/ about his love for the beauty of the Catskills/ and his longing for home." But after many years watching from afar as the Cubans sought freedom, Martí returned to Cuba to fight in a new war for independence; he died during the Battle of Two Rivers.

"I know the secret names/ Of the wild grasses and flowers,/ And yet I know too well,/ Deadly lies, and deepest pain." "Yo sé los nombres extraños,/ De las yerbas y las flores,/ Y de mortales engaños,/ Y de sublimes Dolores."

Otheguy's text (paired with the Spanish translations by author, editor and literary agent Adriana Domínguez) is clean and concise, direct and approachable. Beatriz Vidal's gouache illustrations burst with color and life, each illustration giving a strong sense of place and truly bringing Martí's Song for Freedom to life. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A direct and approachable introduction to the life and works of Cuban poet and freedom fighter José Martí.

Children's Book Press/Lee & Low, $17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 7-12, 9780892393756

Solo

by Kwame Alexander , Mary Rand Hess

Seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison is the son of a rich and famous rock star who is "too busy kissing his ego" to notice his son unless he's humiliating him in front of his entire graduating class. After screaming "I LOVE ROCK 'N ROLL" and crashing his motorcycle into the podium where Blade was about to give the salutatorian speech, Blade's dad, Rutherford, admits himself (yet again) to rehab. Blade's sister, Storm, is attempting to trace her own trajectory to fame while Blade scorns the privileged and paparazzi-pursued lifestyle he and his family have always led. Their mother died 10 years ago, leaving the family unmoored and still heartbroken.

After his calamitous graduation, dissatisfaction and discomfort with his life reach a peak. When Blade's sister blows her top and reveals an earth-shattering secret about him, Blade has finally had enough. Armed with nothing more than some searches about his newly mysterious heritage (and, presumably, a credit card), he hops a plane to Ghana. What follows is an epic hero's journey, interrupted by yet another unwelcome appearance by Rutherford and his stage crew and cameraman.

Newbery Medal-winning author and poet Kwame Alexander (The Crossover; Out of Wonder; Booked) works again with Mary Rand Hess (Animal Ark) who, as an author, poet, screenwriter and editor, has ample experience with high-profile celebrities. The two have woven an elaborate saga of overindulgence, regrets, identity and redemption. At its heart, this is a story about finding one's truest self within and in spite of one's first identity. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess's novel-in-verse explores the dark underside of the glittery world of being a rock-and-roll star's son.

Blink, $17.99, hardcover, 464p., ages 14-up, 9780310761839

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