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STARRED REVIEW

September 15, 2021

Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month

From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinx people in the United States—and what better way to celebrate than with a book? Check out these 17 great reads for all ages by Latinx authors who are breaking new ground in American literature.
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Carolina De Robertis’ conversational fifth novel is as much about storytelling as it is about José “Pepe” Mujica. The former Uruguayan leader is known as the “world’s poorest president,” as he donated nearly 90% of his presidential salary to charity. Without ever naming him outright, The President and the Frog takes Mujica’s stranger-than-fiction life story and imbues it with a quirky, mystical grace.

De Robertis’ Mujica is an old man at the tail end of his political career. After surviving well over a decade as a political prisoner and then serving as president, he now lives as a humble flower farmer “in a near-forgotten country.” On a November afternoon, he entertains the questions of a prying Norwegian journalist. He endeavors to hide the reality of his past from her, but his mind cannot help but drift back to the years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and the reader is transported back in time with him. We discover that he survived those difficult years through the help of a talking frog.

This premise calls to mind Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the president uses (deep, hilarious, tangential) conversation to survive the literal and figurative darkness of incarceration. De Robertis also breaks up this darkness by describing the president’s present-day surroundings, a lush landscape that is reflective of his passion for making things grow. He is a charming man who pours endless cups of yerba mate to share with anyone who cares to take a sip, and the novel that surrounds him is similarly inviting.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: In The President and the Frog, Carolina De Robertis explores the socio-political transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country: “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”


La novela del dictador—“the dictator novel”—is a staple of Latin American literature that explores the political and psychological implications of authoritarian governments. Think Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). As the novel’s gaze turns toward contemporary North America, however, De Robertis goes a step further by remixing the genre. In North America rather than Latin America, a celebrity “dictator” has risen to power. This political leader is never named outright as Donald Trump, just as De Robertis’ protagonist is never dubbed Pepe Mujica—yet there is no room for doubt. Despite this grand statement, De Robertis is ultimately less concerned with critiquing political systems than with unveiling how survival might be achieved within them.

While De Robertis’ choice not to name the people and places of her novel may be viewed as stylistic bandwagoning, it allows her to remain engaged with the “once upon a time” dreaminess with which her novel kicks off. Yet it is perhaps because the novel is inspired by a real man’s life that it ultimately succeeds. The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Like Burgos herself as a child, the narrator must share a bedroom—and her big sister snores!—so she’s jealous of her family’s overnight guests and the attention they receive. “It would be so much fun to have the whole living room to myself!” she declares, not fully grasping that for children like Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices, or Edgardo, whose mother plays music gigs that last until the wee hours of the morning, it’s not that simple.

Being separated from their families and sleeping on the unfamiliar cot affects each overnight guest differently. Raquel asks to keep the light on, while Edgardo discovers that the narrator’s mother doesn’t know his favorite lullaby. The narrator nonetheless maintains that the situation is unfair until one night when the cot isn’t occupied and she sleeps on it herself. Suddenly, she realizes how scary it is to try to fall asleep in a strange, dark room, and her newfound empathy helps her to come up with a creative way to comfort Raquel the next time she comes to stay.

Gaby D’Alessandro’s warm illustrations depict the family’s home as a safe and welcoming place. City buildings appear through the windows and on blocks of the colorful quilt that’s depicted on the book’s bright, decorative endpapers. Both Burgos and D’Alessandro are Dominican American, and D’Alessandro incorporates subtle cultural details, such as floral paintings and a Carnival mask displayed on the family’s living room walls.

Burgos, author of the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (2018), writes in spare, evocative prose that makes the narrator’s journey of personal growth feel natural and genuine. Text and art work in harmony to create a portrait of a close-knit community where neighbors help one another through small but meaningful acts and where hard work is a way of life. The Cot in the Living Room beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

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Through her popular historical novels, bestselling author Chanel Cleeton offers a fresh glimpse into Cuba’s tumultuous past. Her latest, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, as the island country is ravaged by conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish military.

The story unfolds through the eyes of three women: Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful socialite who finds herself in the infamous Recogidas prison after rebuffing the advances of a Spanish military official; Marina Perez, who along with her husband is aiding the revolutionaries while living in deplorable conditions at a reconcentration camp; and Grace Harrington, a cub reporter trying to make her mark at William Randolph Hearst’s New York newspaper.

The women all come from wealthy families yet have chosen their own paths as they seek more than the comfort provided by their privilege. This is a recurring theme in Cleeton’s work: women turning their lives upside down to fight for what they believe in. For Evangelina and Marina, they’re fighting for the dream of a liberated Cuba. For Grace, it’s a career as a serious journalist in an era when few women (aside from Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells) could imagine working for a newspaper. Their fates intersect when Hearst places Grace on the Cuba beat, reporting from the front lines.

The heart of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is ostensibly Evangelina, who is the title character and based on a real person. And indeed, her story is fascinating. She was briefly the most famous woman in New York after a daring rescue landed her stateside to advocate for Cuban independence. But Cleeton’s examination of the state of journalism at the turn of the century is an equally compelling part of this engrossing book. The battle of Hearst versus Joseph Pulitzer for the biggest circulation is fascinating. Both of their newspapers used the discord in Cuba to bolster their sales and arguably influenced the conflict more than was appropriate for a supposedly neutral press.

Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

Chanel Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.
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For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. 

When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families—the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made—to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be.

Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. 

Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Laekan Zea Kemp reflects on the role that hunger has played in her own life as well as in her first book.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

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Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.
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Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless?

In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary.

The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep.

While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough?

After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel.

In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale—a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified—into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window.
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The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. 

Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter, Jeanette, with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. 

Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own.

Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each woman’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance—or not.

Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives—perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”

In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature.
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Set in the tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, Jamie Figueroa’s debut novel centers on two bereaved half siblings, Rufina and Rafa, as they navigate their palpable grief. Four months after their mother’s death, they are still reeling from her crushing loss, which Figueroa captures in vivid, evocative prose: “Grief waited at the edges, sniffing the boundaries of their bodies, waiting to be let in.” The ghost of their mother literally hovers nearby as the siblings try to reckon with her death.

Rufina, desperate to help her disconsolate brother, decides they will take to the streets to perform for white tourists. Perhaps if they make enough money over the weekend, they can move away and escape their misery.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer combines folklore with magical realism in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Along with ghosts who appear as recurring characters, the prose is cut with imagery and metaphor in rhythmic patterns, adding another otherworldly element to the story.

Figueroa addresses important issues, including depression, suicide and personal and generational loss, with nuanced insight. She also skewers the tendency of white Americans to exoticize people with darker skin, portraying the impact of this prejudice in a deeply stirring manner. A lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is an exquisitely woven story about resilience and trauma.

Ghosts hover over Jamie Figueroa’s debut, a lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past.

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is a 21st-century odyssey about a Colombian family bifurcated by immigration rules. It’s an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Escaping poverty in Colombia, the family initially arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas that later expired. They remained together until the father, Mauro, was briefly imprisoned and then deported. Unable to bring infant Talia to her minimum-wage jobs, mother Elena sent the child, the youngest of three, to live with Talia’s grandmother in Bogotá. 

The story opens as Talia, now a nervy 15-year-old, breaks out of a Catholic reform school where she was sent after an impulsive, violent act. One of the novel’s multiple storylines follows Talia as she hitches rides back to Bogotá, where Mauro waits with a plane ticket to the United States, offering the possibility of a long-delayed family reunion.

Another major storyline follows Elena, who tries to make a life for herself in New Jersey with her two older children. She is mistreated by one employer in a restaurant and disrespected by another. She finally lands a job with a wealthy family, taking care of a son who forms a stronger bond with Elena than with his own mother.

Infinite Country joins a growing category of fiction about the U.S. and its attitude toward Latinx immigrants, and Engel stands out as an especially gifted storyteller who elevates this saga through the use of Andean folk tales. She also heightens our interest by shifting the novel’s perspective to Talia’s sister in New Jersey more than midway through the book, and her voice adds a new dimension to the tale.

Engel does a marvelous job of rendering these characters as individuals, each with a unique story. Mauro’s journey is illuminated by his visits to the sacred Lake Guatavita outside Bogotá, where gods of wisdom reside, and where the birds above the lake mirror the family’s mantra: “We are all migrants here on earth.”

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

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“My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims,” writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. “They were subordinate and had no resources or voice. . . . My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever.”

Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was rejected by Chile’s macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel García Márquez, she’s also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today.

Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy.

Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.

 

In The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende describes the experiences that imbued her with the feminist grit and tenacity that define her today.

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STARRED REVIEW September 15, 2021 Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinx people in the United States—and what better way to celebrate than with a book? Check out these 17 great reads for all ages by Latinx authors who are […]
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STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far

Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest.

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Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.
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“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.
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When Alexander Lobrano arrived at a Paris bistro one evening, the maitre d’ led him to a table where an older woman sat sipping a glass of white wine. Eventually, with “an avalanche of awe,” Lobrano realized his companion was none other than Julia Child. After confessing that he hoped to someday become a food writer, she replied, “That’s a good boy. But you don’t want to get too big for your britches.”

That memorable scene epitomizes Lobrano’s memoir, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. It’s a scrumptious, humor-filled love letter to Paris and its food, written by a James Beard Award-winning writer who is the first to admit that his life’s trajectory sounds highly improbable: “suburban Connecticut guy becomes a restaurant critic of a leading French newspaper.”

Lobrano’s childhood memories are rich, although laced with sadness, loneliness and sexual abuse. His father worried that Lobrano was “a bit of a fruit loop” and sent him off to a two-month “Adventure Camp” in hopes of transforming him into a “regular boy.” Gradually, food became Lobrano’s savior: “my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world and finding my place at the table.”

By happenstance, as a young man in 1986, he landed an editorial position at Women’s Wear Daily in Paris to write about menswear, a topic he found “excruciatingly dull.” His slow, steady attempts to transition to food writing are fascinating fun, and Lobrano’s nonstop curiosity and enthusiasm are particularly engaging—especially when they lead him to a dinner with Princess Caroline of Monaco and several encounters with Yves Saint Laurent.

Lobrano’s culinary heritage is hardly sophisticated; in fact, his mother was a Drake of Drake’s Cakes fame. (Remember Ring Dings and Devil Dogs?) At one hilariously recounted dinner with renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, Lobrano’s mother told her, “Andy’s favorite foods when he was little were Cheez Doodles and Sara Lee German Chocolate Cake.” But by the end of Lobrano’s transformation into a cosmopolitan restaurant critic, readers will find themselves longing to be seated at a Parisian table alongside him. (If this can’t be achieved, his memoir contains the next best thing: Lobrano’s list of his 30 favorite restaurants in Paris, with descriptions.)

Lobrano concludes that “gastronomic expertise is dull and can be irritating unless it’s leavened by humility, humor, and emotion.” Rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in My Place at the Table. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

There’s never a dull moment in Alexander Lobrano’s memoir of becoming a food writer in Paris. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

In one of the most disturbing and tender scenes in Somebody’s Daughter, a middle-aged Black woman lights a match and sets a snake nest ablaze. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people,” Billie Coles explains as her granddaughter, the author Ashley C. Ford, looks on. Coles is attempting to demonstrate how families shouldn’t abandon each other, but Ford’s memoir offers an alternative survival strategy—one that sometimes depends on a person leaving.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford’s father was jailed shortly after her birth, and her mother’s quests for new love often ended in frustration, which she unleashed on her eldest child. Their relationship was so volatile that after an adult kissed Ford when she was a child, and later when her first love sexually assaulted her, it took decades for her to reveal the truth to her mother.

In the meantime, she coped with her pain through daydreaming, dissociation and wandering the halls of her local high school, a precursor to the peripatetic life that would lead her away from her family in Indiana. It’s tempting to view Ford’s mother antagonistically throughout this book, but the author’s familial bonds aren’t that simple. Ford’s contentious relationships with her parents—a mother who often withheld affection and a father who was physically unavailable to express it—loom large, and it’s fitting that the book begins with a phone call from one parent and ends with a reunion with the other.

This book’s title is deceptively simple. In African American Vernacular English, it can be a euphemism for a woman in danger; but when Ford reunites with her father, it becomes a revelation of the author’s self. Finally, it makes clear that the life one builds in the aftermath of a tragedy can, in time, coexist with the life left behind.

After returning to her hometown near the end of the book, Ford writes, “However complicated, I could exist in both [New York and Indiana], as me, fully me.” Perhaps the greatest lesson of Somebody’s Daughter is that a Black child marked by poverty and sexual violence can create multiple spaces in which to thrive—and that anybody’s child can do the same.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration.
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In Danielle Henderson’s memoir, The Ugly Cry, she renders her family with searing honesty and wit. There’s the brother whose greatest gift is flouting all the rules and surviving the damage; the abused mother who cannot protect her children or herself; and the mother’s boyfriend, the malevolent Luke, who ravaged the family with verbal and physical abuse.

And then there’s Grandma—foulmouthed, hardworking and loyal, whose favorite television show is “The Walking Dead.” She delivers frequent smacks to the head alongside gusts of equally fierce unconditional love. She also advises 9-year-old Henderson that she “should never get married, but . . . sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” This is the family that, in the tumultuous 1970s, Henderson somehow survived. Now she brings them to life with her indefatigable sense of humor, which is as quick and sharp as the violence she lived with as a child.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.


The author of the popular book and Tumblr Feminist Ryan Gosling, Henderson grew up poor, mostly motherless and often left to figure things out on her own, in a small New York town that made it difficult to be different—and Black. But Henderson opts for mirth over pathos, and the results are often shocking and funny simultaneously.

Her unflinchingly honest voice especially shines through when treading softly around the sexual abuse she endured. Luke, her abuser, is villainous, too mean to even share a single takeout French fry while a hungry child watches. As she lays out the details of their relationship, Henderson uses understatement so masterfully that her pain acquires the force of a snowball careening downhill. When she finally reveals how Luke has treated her, Grandma says, “I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to kill your mother, okay? . . . Good. Can I give you a hug?”

Henderson survived a terrible childhood, and it’s her resilience that comes to define her. She has girlfriends who know her better than she knows herself and an aunt who teaches her how to nurture and display her differences. And Grandma hangs on no matter what, steadfastly following, if not leading, Henderson toward something better.

Danielle Henderson brings her family to life using humor as quick and sharp as the violence she survived as a child.
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When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.

Trent Preszler’s memoir, Little and Often, opens with a phone call. It’s from his dad, Leon, from whom Trent has been estranged for years, inviting him to come home to South Dakota for Thanksgiving. At 37, Trent is at a high point professionally. He’s the CEO of a Long Island vineyard, he mingles with celebrities and his house has an idyllic view of Peconic Bay. But his personal life tells a different story: Divorced after a brief marriage, he’s working too much, drinking too much and has distanced himself from his friends.

As Trent makes the long drive home, he contemplates his years growing up in flyover country. His parents eked out a marginal existence raising cattle on a South Dakota ranch, 145 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. Leon was always the strong one, a former rodeo champion whose favorite book of the Bible was Job. Long ago, Leon made it clear that he didn’t accept Trent’s sexuality as a gay man—but during this visit, Leon surprises Trent by asking about his ex. Not long after this, Leon dies from cancer, and Trent loses his chance to reconnect.

Leon has left Trent two items, his toolbox and a taxidermied duck. As he ponders his dad’s tools, Trent makes an odd decision: He will build a canoe. The remainder of the memoir details Trent’s quixotic project as he teaches himself about different kinds of wood, power-tool skills and the patience to fail and try again. “Little and often makes much,” he remembers his dad saying, coaching teenage Trent through a difficult project. Throughout the book, the narrative returns to such father-son episodes, evoking ranch life with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides, cattle auctions and rodeos.

The writing in Little and Often is lucid and sometimes lyrical, building on unexpected connections, such as the geological links between South Dakota and Long Island. As the narrative walks the reader through the process of hand-building a canoe, we see Trent reconsidering his parents’ lives and his own, and finding calm and trust in himself.

This lucid, lyrical memoir recalls father-son episodes in South Dakota, with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides and rodeos.

In West African Igbo mythology, an ogbanje spirit is a troublesome entity temporarily housed in a human body. Akwaeke Emezi’s stunning debut novel, Freshwater (2018), uses this element of “Igbo ontology” to tell a story of what it’s like to grow up ogbanje, death-haunted and multiple. Subsequently, Emezi has written about identifying as trans and as ogbanje themself—as something other than human.

Emezi’s brilliant Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir develops their ideas about identity and art through a sequence of letters to friends, lovers, students, writers and deities. This book tells of growing up in Aba, Nigeria, witnessing casual violence and injury, and of a childhood shaped by the works of literature brought home by Emezi’s parents. Emezi recounts writing Freshwater, having a breakdown during the ensuing book tour and pursuing surgeries that would free them from a gendered human body. These surgeries, which Emezi accepts as “mutilations,” are how the “spirit customiz[es] the vessel” and have as much to do with being ogbanje as being trans.

Perhaps Emezi’s greatest achievement with this memoir is their insistence on centering Igbo ontology within their story rather than reaching for tired Western metaphors about psychiatric conditions like trauma, PTSD or disassociation. Emezi’s work reminds us that these diagnoses are limiting boxes, shaped by colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions. Dear Senthuran explodes these human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

Each letter in Dear Senthuran is hypnotic and poetic, but the letters to Nonso, which read like letters to a student or a “baby writer,” are particularly powerful. These letters discuss “worldbending” with reference to Octavia Butler’s fiction. Writers make worlds exist from nothing—a godlike power available to anyone willing to “face their work.”

In Dear Senthuran, Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring writers and artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of making, loving and being.

In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi explodes human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.
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“I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies,” writes Lilly Dancyger. “Both of these things are true.” Her father, Joe Schactman, was not a famous artist, but he was prolific and left deep impressions on those who knew him. His sudden death when Dancyger was 12 threw her into a tailspin but also cemented Schactman as an artistic idol in her mind.

In her memoir, Negative Space, Dancyger carries us back to New York City’s gritty East Village in the 1980s as she investigates Schactman’s tumultuous life. She pages through her father’s old notebooks that she saved after his death. She studies his often strange artwork (depicted throughout the book) made from found objects and roadkill. And she interviews Schactman’s friends, colleagues and even her own mother to learn how and why he descended into heroin addiction.

Dancyger’s struggle to escape the need to prove herself to everyone, including her dead father, is moving. Mourning is not linear, and she skillfully shows how grief mutates during different stages of life. The phantasm of closure stalks all of us who have experienced loss, as both Dancyger’s writing and Schactman’s artwork make clear.

The strongest portions of Negative Space explore Dancyger’s experience as the child of addicts. She largely parented herself, and when she builds a more stable adulthood than the one modeled by her parents, it’s a hard-won victory. Other children of addicts who experienced difficult transitions into adulthood will find much to relate to here.

To this end, Dancyger’s bravery in the face of negative revelations about her dad is admirable. She wants the whole truth, no matter how painful it is to reopen these wounds. Dancyger knew little about Schactman’s addiction when she was young, and she knew nothing about his sometimes abusive relationships with women. But in Negative Space, Dancyger allows her father to be an imperfect and much loved person—her idol still, but a troubled and complicated one.

Lilly Dancyger sets out to uncover the whole truth about her late father’s art, relationships and addiction, no matter how painful.

“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” From the moment we read the opening sentence of Michelle Zauner’s poignant memoir, Crying in H Mart, we’re hooked. It’s a rare gift; Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

The daughter of a white father and Korean mother in a rural area outside of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner felt closest to her mother when shopping for and eating food together. She shares fond memories of them prowling the aisles of H Mart, the Asian grocery store and food court where she discovered kimchi, rice cakes and tteokguk, a beef and rice cake soup. Growing up, Zauner found that her mother could be distant, but she soon learned that “food was how my mother expressed her love.”

As a girl, Zauner traveled with her mother to Seoul, South Korea, where Zauner met her aunts and grandmother and celebrated life and family with hearty meals. When Zauner was in her 20s, she moved from Philadelphia back home to Oregon to take care of her mother as she died of cancer. As Zauner recounts her mother’s slow, painful decline, she recalls the highs and lows of their life together, often in stories of meals shared with friends and family. After her mother’s death in 2014, Zauner struggled to accept it. She writes, “Maybe we hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t believed enough, hadn’t force-fed her enough blue-green algae.”

Crying in H Mart hardly ends in defeat, however. As difficult as her grief is, Zauner celebrates her mother in the very place they shared their most intimate joys, losses and pleasures: H Mart.

Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.
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“In every era, it takes a bus of change to lead the way. . . . Thankfully, a change bus is always a comin’.” So says Charles Person in his inspiring account of the 1961 Freedom Ride, Buses Are a Comin’. Person began taking notes when he got on his change bus at age 18. He would later lose those notes during a savage beating by a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama, but he still recalls it all vividly now that he’s in his 80s.

Growing up in the Bottom, a poor Black neighborhood in Atlanta, Person was unaware of racism’s reach. But when he was refused admission to Georgia Tech in 1960, despite an outstanding academic record that was good enough for MIT, he grew enraged. His grandfather prodded, “Do something!” But what could a teenager do?

Soon he knew. As a freshman at Morehouse College, Person witnessed his classmates’ participation in nonviolent sit-ins at Atlanta stores that refused service to Black people. He joined in, was arrested and served 10 days in solitary confinement because he sang protest songs too loudly. 

By the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was recruiting people for nonviolent tests of two recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting segregation on interstate buses and trains. Person applied, after assuring his parents he would be safe, and received nonviolence training in Washington, D.C. He admired his cohorts, including a young John Lewis, but was skeptical of their concerns about the trouble they might encounter en route. Before embarking on two weeks of Trailways and Greyhound bus rides to New Orleans, they were encouraged to write their wills. Person declined.

What happened on that trip almost killed these 13 riders, but their horrifying experiences brought global attention to the escalating U.S. civil rights movement. Four hundred more Freedom Riders would join them that summer, and the South would be forever changed. Person tells it all in riveting detail, with help from his friend, historian Richard Rooker.

And why tell this story now? Person writes, “Nothing will change if you, my reader, my friend, my fellow American, do not take Papa’s advice and ‘do something.’ What change needs to happen? Get on the bus. Make it happen.”

A bus ride to New Orleans in 1961 almost killed 13 Freedom Riders, but changed the South forever.
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Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

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STARRED REVIEW September 29, 2021 The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest. Share this Article: Share on […]
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STARRED REVIEW

August 01, 2021

The best debut novels of 2021—so far

Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels in your TBR, but these books deserve a spot at the top. After all, they are the best debut novels so far in 2021!

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Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

The story centers on three people: Reese, a mid-30s transgender woman; her ex, Amy, now Ames, who detransitioned following their breakup three years ago; and Ames’ superior at work, Katrina, a cisgender woman. Ames’ clandestine hookups with Katrina have resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. Now, faced with the question of parenthood and what fatherhood would mean for his identity, Ames reaches out to Reese. If Reese could co-parent with them, maybe he could feel confident about his own role.

Navigating a pending shared parenthood isn’t simple, and Peters takes the reader on a vivid trip through the characters’ backstories to show how they have arrived here, adding intricate layers to every moment. She displays a masterful control over this story, offering a psychological deep dive that is still entertaining thanks to the potency of Reese, Ames and Katrina. The vivid supporting cast is equally as endearing, as not one side character seems to understand that they are not the lead.

Devastating, hilarious, touching, timely and studded with fun pop culture references and celebrity cameos, this is an acutely intelligent story about womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie within.

Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.
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Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace.

Like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Robert Jones Jr. gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling.

Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced.

Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century.

Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse.

These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry.

This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.

Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

At the end of the 19th century in London, Swansby House is a place of high hopes and bustling industriousness. There, Peter Winceworth writes the letter “S” entries for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He’s also in a pickle of his own making: From childhood, he has affected a lisp as a means to get special treatment, and the stress of maintaining the ruse ensures an undercurrent of discomfiture in his every interaction. Combine that with his irritatingly extroverted co-workers and an unrequited crush on a colleague’s fiancée, and he needs a release—which comes in the form of false entries (or mountweazels) that he secretly inserts in the dictionary as an act of quiet, clever rebellion.

In the present day, intern Mallory is the sole employee of Swansby family descendant David, who is determined to complete the dictionary after a century of lying fallow. Production was halted by the onset of World War I, during which the staff perished and the printing presses were melted down for munitions. David wants to give the dictionary new life by digitizing it, but first Mallory must suss out and remove the mountweazels that pepper its pages. She’s also assigned to phone-answering duty, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds: Every day, a stranger threatens violence because the definition of marriage is changing. These calls are particularly distressing because Mallory is struggling with coming out.

Williams ushers readers back and forth in time as Peter and Mallory wrangle with capricious office politics, unresolved romantic feelings and the assorted indignities of being human, often to hilarious effect. The author has a gift for writing set pieces and inner monologues that at first seem quotidian and then gradually spiral—or soar—into delightful absurdity.

In The Liar’s Dictionary, Williams has created a supremely entertaining and edifying meditation on how language records and reflects how we see the world, and what we wish it could be.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Eley Williams shares how her relationship to language has changed, plus a deeper look at her charming debut novel.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

Congratulations on your first Ellery Lloyd novel! How did you decide on your collective pseudonym? Did you also come up with the idea for the book together?
Collette: We should probably have a better answer for this, but after toying around with various combinations of our own names, we decided to just go with something we liked the sound of. Long first names and short second names sound good we think, and we wanted something unisex that wasn’t just initials—so then it was just googling and playing around with it. We only remembered after settling on Ellery Lloyd that Ellery Queen was the pseudonym for a pair of crime fiction writers in the 1930s!

Your novel takes us into the minds of Emmy, a famous “mumfluencer,” her conflicted husband, Dan, and an unnamed person who wants to destroy Emmy. Did you each take a character? Did you do anything to inhabit those points of view?
Paul: We did start off writing separate characters, but actually by the time it came to the second draft, we both wrote and rewrote all of it—and we can’t now tell who did what.

Collette: There are parts Paul is especially proud of that I am pretty sure I wrote, and vice versa! In terms of research and inhabiting the parts, well, we had a young child, and I personally—and not with the novel in mind, just as a new mum whiling away hours stuck on the sofa under a baby who fed constantly and wouldn’t sleep—fell down an Instagram scroll hole. So I felt quite immersed in that world!

"We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her."

People Like Her certainly captures the joy, pain and occasional grossness of parenthood. Did you look back on your lives together for inspiration?
Collette: The grossness, definitely. There were a lot of exploding nappies in the Ellery Lloyd household! Something a friend said before our daughter was even born really lit a spark in my mind for the novel: If you find it all easy, if you’ve had a good birth and your baby is a dream, doesn’t cry, feeds well, sleeps through—don’t tell other parents, because they will either think you’re lying or hate you. We didn’t have that baby (she didn’t sleep pretty much ever), but I thought that was so interesting, and we definitely riffed on that with Emmy and Dan.

Collette, you’re a journalist and editor, and Paul, you’re a novelist and professor. How did your backgrounds inform your writing? Did either of you get veto power over any aspects?
Paul: We’ve both spent our careers giving people feedback or editing others’ work. It would be a bit churlish to complain about someone else editing our own—especially someone you’ve been married to for a decade. Practically, we work in a Google Doc and so can see when one is tinkering with the other’s sections, and honestly it’s never caused an issue, but we do need a watertight chapter plan from the outset, or it ends up like a game of Consequences!

What is your relationship with social media?
Paul: I don’t use it really, apart from Twitter occasionally.

Collette: I used it far, far too much when our daughter was little, and perhaps that was why I wanted to place it at the heart of our first novel, so that at least I could chalk all those hours up as research! I didn’t use it in an especially healthy way if I’m honest—I never interacted, only scrolled, because I was shy, I think—but I was also conscious that some people do find real community and connection there. We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her.

Your approach to Emmy is so clever: an Instagram influencer who draws a million-plus followers by making her life seem worse, not better, than it is. Do you think people will reevaluate those they follow on social media, and why they follow them, after reading your book?
Collette: None of us presents an exact replica of our true selves on social media, and anyone who uses Instagram hopefully knows that. So no, I’d be surprised if it made anyone reevaluate who they follow or why. I hope it might make people question why women especially have to belittle their own achievements to seem relatable, and therefore likable, though.

The business acumen of Emmy and her agent, Irene, is impressive, whether dealing with endorsements or reacting to a crisis. Was it important to show the savvy and strategy behind the selfies—and to explore the conflict between what gets followers vs. what’s morally sound?
Collette: They are both smart, ambitious and intelligent, two young women who have thrown themselves into the influencer industry and are really, really good at it. Yes, sometimes they make bad—terrible, even—decisions, but those decisions are based on what they know works. They’d both probably argue that it’s the audience’s fault they’re driven to those lengths to keep their business going. Whether or not you’d agree with them is another matter, of course.

What sorts of patterns did you see as you researched influencers?
Collette: The biggest pattern I saw is that only the people who take it seriously actually succeed and make money. You don’t become an influencer by accident. What I think will be interesting, and we explored this with Emmy, is how this very new career path pans out in the long term. Because the one constant with this sort of technology is that it will change, and that is something even the biggest influencers can’t influence.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of People Like Her.


How have you been celebrating the release thus far? What’s next for you?
Paul: Well, given the pandemic, we have mainly been celebrating by sitting at home and writing our second book, which is set in the world of celebrity private members’ clubs. We are hugely excited by all the positive reviews of People Like Her, and we can’t wait for it to reach a wider audience. It would, of course, be amazing to see Emmy and Dan on screen. We have offered our services to play them but weirdly haven’t heard anything back. . .

 

Author photo by Annick Wolfers.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

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It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie, addressing issues of race, class, privilege and upward mobility.

Ganton, Indiana, is a town whose “very soul was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of.” One of the lucky few who managed to escape this dying factory town is Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman who headed to Yale, became a successful chemical engineer and now lives in Chicago with her equally successful, charismatic husband, Xavier.

The world seems their oyster as they celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008, but that bubble bursts when Xavier mentions he is ready to start a family. Ruth has a secret that she finally reveals to Xavier: At age 17, before graduating high school, she gave birth to a son who was whisked away and given up for adoption by her grandmother, who raised her. When Ruth returns to Ganton to search for her son, she encounters an 11-year-old white boy, nicknamed Midnight, the grandson of Lena, a close family friend.

Ruth and Midnight trade narration between chapters as their lives become increasing intertwined. Midnight’s mother died in childbirth—as did his sister—and Midnight and Ruth are lonely, heartbroken souls struggling to find their way forward. With beautifully crafted prose and a gift for dialog, Johnson takes readers on an action-packed ride toward a dramatic, revelatory conclusion. As Ruth’s grandmother warns, “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day. And it’s going to bite you. Real hard.”

A fictional callback to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, The Kindest Lie also brings to mind Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, in which another young Black woman returns to her hometown to try to reconcile her past, present and future. Don’t miss this powerful debut.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nancy Johnson shares her journey to publication and the inspiration behind The Kindest Lie.

It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie.
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The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition. As their world crumbles, Saeedah abducts their daughter and disappears. The novel only gets better from this setup, transforming into a family saga that spans from 1970 to 2018.

This ambitious tale moves between Saudi Arabia and the United States, touching on the Gulf War, 9/11, increased Islamophobia in the U.S., the beginning of women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and other moments of social and cultural upheaval. Through it all, the secrets, desires and fears of Muneer, Saeedah and their daughter compose a complex picture of how society and the individual shape and inform each other. When society’s expectations render certain decisions impossible, how can an individual choose to live? This question shapes the novel, from Saeedah’s choice to run away with their daughter and Muneer’s search for her, to considerations of journalistic integrity and how familial ties bind and dissolve over time.

Impressive, too, is the sense of place, the ways that bodies of water connect characters to each other. The details of each country are so richly and vividly imagined that as characters travel, so does the reader.

Structurally and syntactically, Bride of the Sea is a gem. The shift from the opening in 2018 to the events in 1970 is abrupt, and these moments fuse again as the novel concludes. Quotah structures these connections to maintain the reader’s sense of wonder, to keep you reading through the loop as you learn of each character’s identity and fate, their secrets and stories.

The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition.

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Recent Features

STARRED REVIEW August 01, 2021 The best debut novels of 2021—so far Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels in your TBR, but these books deserve a spot at the top. After all, they are the best debut novels so far in 2021! Share this Article: Share on facebook Share on twitter Share […]
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September 27, 2021

6 amazing audiobooks under 6 hours

Want a quick listen, perfect for a weekend road trip to visit your folks a few states over? Check out these six audiobooks, each clocking in under six hours.

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If you think minimalism is a one-size-fits-all lifestyle and aesthetic, you clearly haven’t encountered Christine Platt, known on social media as the Afrominimalist. In her clearly written, approachable guide, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less (5.5 hours), Platt traces her journey—including plenty of initial resistance and more than a few missteps—toward deliberately choosing to live with fewer objects. The author’s calm, careful narration is both relatable and ressuring, and it’s punctuated by real-life, sometimes humorous anecdotes delivered by a cast of additional narrators. 

Platt’s guidance is enriched by sections titled “For the Culture,” in which she acknowledges how the history of racial oppression and systemic racism has, in many ways, made Black and other historically marginalized people of color more vulnerable to overconsumption and conspicuous consumption. She also notes that the Scandinavian aesthetic that permeates most mainstream minimalist guidebooks doesn’t come close to representing everybody. Platt’s friendly, flexible approach urges listeners to embrace a minimalism that celebrates cultural heritage and comes in all colors.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of print edition of The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less.

Afrominimalist Christine Platt’s calm, careful narration of her journey toward living with less is both relatable and reassuring.

​​You know those motivational posters that hang in your place of work? The ones with the simple messages about teamwork, friendship, success and excellence? Carry On (2.5 hours), the new audiobook from late, great civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, is like that—only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.

Actor Don Cheadle narrates each of Lewis’ 43 short essays with clarity and passion, knowing just where to put the right amount of emphasis. While Lewis was unable to record the audiobook himself, Cheadle more than succeeds in embodying the congressman’s message of hope.

Ruminating on topics that range from justice and conscience to hobbies and humor, Lewis has blessed us with a timeless collection of wisdom and knowledge from a lifetime of “good trouble” in his nonviolent quest for equality. “A good day,” Lewis tells us, “is waking up and being alive.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the print edition of Carry On.

While John Lewis was unable to record his essays himself, Don Cheadle more than succeeds in embodying the congressman’s message of hope.

Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife and Southern Lady Code, once again unleashes her irreverent outlook on life in a warm and funny collection of essays. In Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light (3 hours), 40-something Ellis’ exuberant narration is cheeky and comedic, powered by a Southern drawl that adds charm to even her most unabashed discussions of sex and toilet habits, as well as her observations on meds, marriage and menopause.

Packed into these 12 essays on living, aging, food and fashion is a lifetime’s worth of lessons on resilience and gratitude. While Ellis' reflections are often outrageous and punchy, they also have a down-to-earth quality that is relatable and touching, especially when describing her longtime, tightknit friendships with women who have unreservedly shouldered each other’s weighty, deeply private experiences, including cancer treatment. 

Ellis’ embracing, uplifting and energetic performance delivers a perfect listening experience for readers who enjoyed How Y’all Doing? by Leslie Jordan and Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling.

Helen Ellis’ energetic narration offers a perfect listening experience for readers who have enjoyed the audiobooks of Leslie Jordan and Mindy Kaling.
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Emmy Award winner Leslie Jordan is making the most of his sudden internet superstardom with his new book, How Y’all Doing? Misadventures and Mischief From a Life Well Lived (4 hours). After decades as an underappreciated character actor on a long list of sitcoms, Jordan is coming to terms with his newfound celebrity status and the opportunities it has presented, including achieving his lifelong dream of recording a duet with Dolly Parton.

In the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine, Jordan began posting very funny videos to his Instagram account, gossiping into the camera, coining memorable catchphrases, telling stories about his Mama and gaining millions of new fans. His knack for storytelling transfers beautifully to this new audiobook. He discusses growing up as a gay child on a Southern horse farm and shares juicy Hollywood gossip, from his experience of working with Lady Gaga to how actor Debbie Reynolds convinced his Mama not to worry so much about what he gets up to in California. 

Jordan’s twangy Tennessee drawl adds so much personality to the audiobook; you can really hear the laughter and joy in his voice as he reads some of his funnier stories.

You can hear the laughter and joy in Leslie Jordan’s voice as he reads the funniest stories in his new audiobook.
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From the veteran author of such uplifting books as Help, Thanks, Wow and Hallelujah Anyway comes Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage (4 hours), a collection of essays addressing hope in a time of unrest. Touching on topics that range from climate change and political divisiveness to the COVID-19 pandemic and her own recent marriage, Anne Lamott concerns herself less with offering solutions than with pointing to the earth’s dependable rhythms for signs of hope.

Lamott narrates the audiobook, and her gently warbling voice pairs well with the vibrant words she uses, such as sag, plop and love, to create a comforting aural atmosphere. She describes reaching out to friends during times of trouble, and her voice is like that of a friend, warm and supportive and slightly melancholic. Her essays are humorous, with metaphors of Life Saver candies and junk food, as well as profound, as when she reaches into biblical narratives and her own experiences to cull ageless wisdom and provide sage encouragement for future generations. This audiobook is the soundtrack for feeling better in the midst of a troubled landscape.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Anne Lamott shares some ideas for how to get by when the world seems especially dark.

Anne Lamott’s narration of Dusk, Night, Dawn is the soundtrack for feeling better in the midst of a troubled landscape.
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A magician never reveals their tricks, but fortunately for us, Derek DelGaudio doesn’t consider himself a magician. A sleight-of-hand master whose hit one-man Broadway show, In & of Itself, is now a movie (streaming on Hulu), DelGaudio offers a memoir like no other in AMORALMAN: A True Story and Other Lies (5.5 hours), because no one has lived a life quite like his.

DelGaudio traces his interest in deception back to childhood, when he concealed his true self to avoid being bullied at school. As a teenager he wowed legendary magicians, winning their trust and gleaning what he could from their knowledge. DelGaudio eventually mastered card moves that even his mentor couldn’t pull off, and he began using his extraordinary skills to control a weekly high-stakes poker game.

As both author and narrator, DelGaudio is a captivating storyteller who brings the weight of his experiences to every moment as he grapples with morality and makes questionable decisions amid the dubious world of con artists. 

A magician never reveals their tricks, but fortunately for us, Derek DelGaudio doesn’t consider himself a magician.

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STARRED REVIEW September 27, 2021 6 amazing audiobooks under 6 hours Want a quick listen, perfect for a weekend road trip to visit your folks a few states over? Check out these six audiobooks, each clocking in under six hours. Share this Article: Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on pinterest Share on email […]
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STARRED REVIEW

June 2021

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The best literary adaptations preserve what we love while elaborating on unanswered questions. These 2021 novels add deeper dimension to some of our favorite literary classics.
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It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick. One of Smith’s most compelling insights is that many of the high-flying men partying through the Roaring ’20s, as depicted in Fitzgerald’s great novel, had only recently returned from the harrowing trench warfare of the First World War. “Shell shock,” “battle fatigue” and PTSD were poorly understood at that time and often simply dismissed as cowardice. In previous novels, Smith has written eloquently and sometimes in excruciating detail about masculine brutality and trauma. He does so again in Nick.

The novel opens with Nick at a cafe in Paris on leave from the war. When he meets and falls in love with a destitute artist, he debates going AWOL and staying with his beloved, but he is Minnesota born, the son of a small-town hardware store owner and a deeply depressed mother, and he knows where his duty lies. His return to the trenches is vividly depicted: Smith’s descriptions of warfare are cinematic, chilling and unforgettable.

At war’s end, Nick searches Paris for his love but is unable to find her. He is among the last soldiers to return to America, clearly traumatized and unable to go back to Minnesota. Instead he travels to New Orleans and winds up in the city’s notorious red-light district, where a bond with a fellow scarred soldier offers enough redemption for Nick to return home to recover, then travel on to East Egg and his meeting with Gatsby.

This is just an outline of a deeper investigation of war and its consequences. In style and theme, this Nick will remind readers of another Nick: the character Nick Adams of Ernest Hemingway’s best short stories.

It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick.
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Such is Jane Austen’s brilliance that our obsession with Pride and Prejudice has hardly ceased over the two centuries since its publication. Along with Austen’s ahead-of-her-time ingenuity in creating characters, some might say that her mastery of subplots is what has kept readers talking and wondering for centuries.

Take, for instance, the mystery around Mr. Darcy’s cousin Anne de Bourgh. What we know about her from Austen’s novel is that she was sickly, had an ungodly inheritance and (much to our relief) never ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, as had been arranged since their births. But isn’t there so much more we have wished to know about her?

Enter Molly Greeley’s novel The Heiress, an entertaining elaboration to satisfy generations of readers who have wondered and theorized about Anne. In perfectly Austenesque style, Greeley reveals the backstory of the Rosings Park heiress and just what made her so sickly, so interesting and so complicated.

Anne begins life as a colicky baby, and with a doctor’s recommendation, her mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, gives baby Anne opium-heavy laudanum to calm her down. This leads to an addiction that weakens Anne and leaves her in a constant daze, as readers will remember in Pride and Prejudice. But Anne comes to a rare moment of clarity in her late 20s when she questions if her fragility and illness are truly real. Desperate to find out, she flees to London to stay with her cousin Colonel John Fitzwilliam. It’s a move so bold that it paves the path for other bold and unexpected decisions to follow.

Keen observations about society and strong supporting characters make The Heiress a perfectly joyful read.

Enter Molly Greeley’s novel The Heiress, an entertaining elaboration to satisfy generations of readers who have wondered and theorized about Anne de Bourgh. In perfectly Austenesque style, Greeley reveals the backstory of the Rosings Park heiress and just what made her so sickly, so interesting and so complicated.

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Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens.

Adler notes in her introduction that “to say Shakespeare did not do marginalized people any favors is an understatement; many of us still live with the effects of his caricatures and common story lines today.” With this anthology, she intends to correct that imbalance. The bestselling and award-winning YA authors gathered here “have deconstructed and reconstructed an inarguably brilliant but very white and very straight canon,” giving Shakespeare the same treatment Edgar Allan Poe received in Adler’s previous anthology, His Hideous Heart.

Some stories include an accompanying note that illuminates the author’s approach. Patrice Caldwell explains that Hamlet’s gothic overtones led her to recast Hamlet as female (and Hamlet’s uncle as a vampire), while Adler’s own story seeks to reclaim the figure of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitism. Caldwell isn’t the only writer to give her story a bit of supernatural flair either; Lindsay Smith’s exploration of Julius Caesar incorporates witchcraft and dark sacrifices.

The contributors take varying liberties with their source material. A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy’s “Some Other Metal” is set in a theater, but their version of Much Ado About Nothing applies a queer, science fiction approach to the romance at its center. Kiersten White’s “Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow” recounts the plot of Romeo and Juliet through text messages but remains (for the most part) faithful to the spirit of the original. On the other hand, some stories—such as Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka’s “Severe Weather Warning”—conceal their Shakespearean roots so deeply as to be almost unrecognizable without the aid of context and some winking allusions. (Their story contains a cat named Ariel.)

The majority of the stories stand capably on their own merits but will be enriched by familiarity with—or better yet, reading alongside—Shakespeare’s original plays and sonnets. Budding writers may even be inspired to put their own spins on the Bard of Avon’s timeless tales. 

Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens.

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Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar.

Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker—here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter—the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season


Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her. 

For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nghi Vo on the dangers of Hemingway.


In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.

Nghi Vo perfectly balances the new and the familiar in her magical adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

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STARRED REVIEW June 2021 Canon fire The best literary adaptations preserve what we love while elaborating on unanswered questions. These 2021 novels add deeper dimension to some of our favorite literary classics. Share this Article: Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on pinterest Share on email Sign Up Sign up to receive reading recommendations […]
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June 2021

14 unexpected book club picks

Is your book club in a rut? Liven things up with one of these eminently discussable titles that aren’t your typical reading group picks.
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It’s hard to know where an artist’s persona ends and her art begins, and this has never been truer than in the case of the mysteriously disappeared Kim Lord, the central figure in Maria Hummel’s spellbinding new novel, Still Lives. It’s also somewhat true of Hummel herself: The award-winning poet (her collection House and Fire won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2013 for best first book) worked at the perpetually cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and her novel’s protagonist, Maggie Richter, finds herself in a similar job at a similarly underfunded museum.

When Lord goes missing on the biggest night of her life—an A-list museum opening featuring her photographs, in which she portrays famous murder victims—speculation runs wild. Is it a publicity stunt? Or are more serious forces at foot? When Maggie’s ex-boyfriend (now Lord’s lover) falls under suspicion, Maggie’s journalistic instincts kick in, taking her places the cops can’t go and unwittingly putting her life in peril.

No doubt comparisons to Raymond Chandler’s best work will rain down upon Still Lives, dotted as it is with trenchant observations of LA and the human condition. Like Chandler, Hummel is capable of limning out a ripping yarn replete with high fashion, high finance and high society. These are the mean streets through which our heroine travels, though slightly removed from the glitter and the nastiness. And not unlike another master of the mystery, Erle Stanley Gardner, Hummel includes an intellectually satisfying Perry Mason moment that also provides an interesting twist.

It would be damning with faint praise to call Still Lives a contender for best beach read of the year—like calling Pablo Picasso a really good painter—but Still Lives is both that and so much more.

Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and is a member in good standing at several American and international museums.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Comparisons to Raymond Chandler’s best work will rain down upon Still Lives, dotted as it is with trenchant observations of LA and the human condition.
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The Russian émigré is not uncommon in modern fiction. Generally, said immigrant comes to the states and cultural misunderstandings abound—plus feelings of displacement, pathos, yada yada—until a reckoning in which America and the émigré come to terms with each other and are both better for it. But what do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.

Thirty-three-year-old Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His life is small, his New York City sublet is smaller, and he was just dumped by his girlfriend at a Starbucks. So when Andrei’s shady older brother, an aspiring kleptocrat living in Moscow, asks Andrei to return to the land of his birth and take care of their ailing grandmother, he agrees.

But Andrei, who left Russia when he was 8, is surprised to find himself in Putin’s Russia, where espressos are outrageously priced, the KGB has merely changed initials, and everyone is grasping for riches with both hands.

So Andrei cares for his grandmother, plays pickup hockey games and teaches online courses while waiting to go back to the U.S. It’s a lonely, hermetic existence—his lone attempt to experience the Moscow nightlife ends with a pistol whipping—until he meets Yulia, who is attractive, mysterious and a communist. Drawn into Yulia’s world of clandestine meetings and anti-government protests, Andrei grows closer to both her and Russia, and decides he will stay in the country. But taking on Putin’s government becomes all too real, and Andrei discovers the hard way that his choices affect not just his life but also those of his new friends.

Gessen is the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men and an editor of popular literary magazine n+1. Like his protagonist, he moved to the United States from Russia as a child. His first novel in 10 years is a compassionate, soulful read that avoids dourness by being surprisingly funny. A Terrible Country shows us that while you certainly can go home again, it often turns out to be a lousy idea.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.
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It seems that more and more books, films and TV shows feature relationships between mothers and children who despise each other and seek each other’s slow death. In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, you can’t blame put-upon Suzette Jensen for wanting to be free from her monstrous daughter, Hanna. Indeed, by page five you’re praying for the little horror to eat it in the worst way possible.

What’s less clear is why Hanna hates her mother so much. What could Suzette have possibly done to Hanna, 7 years old when our tale opens, to fill her with such psychotic rage? On top of this, Hanna’s dad, Alex, is so love-blinded that he refuses to see how utterly atrocious Hanna is.

Soon enough, it becomes clear there is no answer, for Stage’s real subject is the conundrum of evil itself. There’s simply no reason for loving, gentle, organic veggie-eating, granola-crunching progressive parents who live in an eco-friendly house to produce something like Hanna. For these two benighted bobos to wonder where they went wrong as parents is as ridiculous as Cesar Millan wondering why he can’t bring the werewolves in Tolkien’s Silmarillion to heel. It’s sad and frustrating to watch the Jensens rush from pillar to post, trying to get other good-hearted folk to help their daughter, when it’s clear there is no hope.

Yet what else can they do with this child whose one and only goal is to kill her mother? What can the reader do? Hanna’s chapters conjure a sickened incredulousness in the reader. Hanna is not so much a character as an abyss; her mind is so warped and inhuman that you even fear for her big, cuddly Swedish bear of a dad. Because of this, her parents’ ultimate solution can be only temporary, as are all “victories” over evil. Don’t be surprised if there’s a sequel to Baby Teeth before long.

It seems that more and more books, films and TV shows feature relationships between mothers and children who despise each other and seek each other’s slow death. In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, you can’t blame put-upon Suzette Jensen for wanting to be free from her monstrous daughter, Hanna. Indeed, by page five you’re praying for the little horror to eat it in the worst way possible.

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Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

She has nice qualities, too—she gives money to charities and the homeless—but she’s also likely to leave for a ski holiday in Vail rather than contact the authorities when she discovers that her husband, a ruthless litigator, has died of cardiac arrest.

The tabloid scandal caused by her indifference hasn’t stopped her from living an extravagant Manhattan lifestyle since her husband’s death 20 years ago. But enforced austerity is about to begin. Her financial adviser tells her that the money she inherited has run out. Sell everything that isn’t nailed down, he tells her, and begin again.

When an old friend offers her the use of a Paris apartment, Frances reluctantly accepts. Soon, she’s sailing across the Atlantic with Malcolm, her 32-year-old kleptomaniacal “lugubrious toddler” of a son, and Small Frank, an elderly cat she is convinced houses the spirit of her late husband.

Patrick deWitt has great fun with this premise. He populates the story with such characters as Susan, the fiancée Malcolm leaves behind in New York; Madeleine, a medium who can tell when someone is about to die because they look green; and Madame Reynard, an American widow who befriends the Prices because of her fascination with the tabloid scandal.

If French Exit doesn’t always reach the zany heights it strives for, it’s still an entertaining portrait of people who are obsessed with the looming specter of death and who don’t quite feel part of the time they were born into.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

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Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed, leaving her abandoned on a world whose people speak in poetic allusions; name themselves after flowers, abstract concepts and sometimes vehicles or appliances; are dealing with a looming war of succession; and want her dead more frequently than is, strictly speaking, healthy. Mahit must navigate this lethal maze and maintain her independence while choosing the right allies to keep her home from being devoured by the ever-hungry Teixcalaanli fleet. And all while searching for a way to regain her connection to Yskandr’s knowledge and guidance without of course, telling anyone she’d ever had such access.

A Memory Called Empire is a political thriller inspired by the Byzantine Empire and featuring plot points reminiscent of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”’s Trill symbionts and the linguistic games of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star. It is science fiction, and is certainly operatic in scope, but calling it a space opera seems like cheating somehow, as if there’s something being left out. Arkady Martine’s prose is an incisive, self-aware blend of tense action and delightful humor. Scenes extolling the virtues of alcohol when forced to praise bad poetry and mocking an otherwise irrelevant character that named themselves after a snowmobile are sprinkled liberally amongst the murder attempts and diplomatic machinations. A Memory Called Empire is dense, packed full of ulterior motives and subplots and beautifully realized characters, but its variety makes it eminently readable.

But the most memorable aspect of Martine’s debut may be the society she has crafted. Teixcalaan is utterly fascinating, its libertine self-image and obsession with art and style mixed with an almost superstitious fear of the human mind. Its veneer of gentility, elegance and enlightenment is profoundly fragile, and all the more precious for it. Smiling with one’s mouth is gauche, but it is also deeply personal. Mastery of allusion and subtext are such clear markers of social and political power that only the highest and the lowest in Teixcalaanli society dare speak plainly. The empire is the center of civilization, surrounded by barbarians who live on space stations and burn and recycle their dead, and yet in times of civil war, its inhabitants commit ritual suicide to earn the favor of gods they don’t quite believe in. They fear the depths of the human psyche, yet live in a city and under the protection of a police force that are both controlled by an artificial intelligence.

Imperial Teixcalaan is a brilliantly realized world of contradictions, and A Memory Called Empire is filled with poets, politicians, spies, soldiers and a thousand degrees of moral ambiguity. Oh, and some of the best names in all of science fiction.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGERead our Q&A with Arkady Martine about A Memory Called Empire.

Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed.

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The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is hardly a typical biography; it’s more like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, narrated not only by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose but also by a host of colorful experts whom the author tracks down.

Posnanski says he was drawn to the legendary escape artist because he “sparks so much wonder in the world, even today.” Modern magicians seem to concur that, technically speaking, Houdini wasn’t a particularly good magician. However, crowds were mesmerized by his escapes and were convinced he could do the impossible. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt was so gobsmacked that she asked if Houdini could restore her missing leg.

The truth of the matter is that Houdini was a charismatic, brilliant entertainer who was obsessed with fame. This publicity genius was ruthless against critics and competitors and could not for the life of him ignore an insult. He loved making money but wore tattered clothes, preferring to spend his money on self-promotion, magic books and paraphernalia.

Even today, Houdini “lives on because people will not let him die,” Posnanski writes. He introduces readers to a variety of Houdini’s modern disciples, such as Kristen Johnson, “Lady Houdini,” who says that after she tried her first rope escape, “she felt alive in a whole different way.” Magician David Copperfield takes Posnanski on a tour of his private museum in Las Vegas, discussing his predecessor’s influence. Australian magician Paul Cosentino admits, “I guess . . . he saved my life. Little boys like me, we need Houdini, you know? He’s a symbol of hope.” As Posnanski concludes, “Houdini is not a figure of the past. He is a living, breathing, and modern phenomenon.”

When a talented writer like Posnanski tackles a subject as endlessly fascinating as Harry Houdini, the results are, quite simply, pure magic.

Hardly a typical biography, this book feels like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, as told by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose and through the voices of a host of colorful experts he tracks down.

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STARRED REVIEW June 2021 14 unexpected book club picks Is your book club in a rut? Liven things up with one of these eminently discussable titles that aren’t your typical reading group picks. Share this Article: Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on pinterest Share on email Sign Up Sign up to receive reading […]
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Short stories are often the vehicle of choice for young writers seeking to make their mark on the literary world, so it’s refreshing when established authors choose to work in the genre. These collections display the skills of three well-known writers from diverse backgrounds, each with a unique take on contemporary life. 

Perspectives on Native American life
In War Dances, his fourth collection (which features a dozen poems along with its 11 stories), National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie enhances his stature as a multitalented writer and an astute observer of life among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

In the title story, a middle-aged Spokane Indian confronts the tension between traditional tribal culture and modern life as he watches over his alcoholic and diabetic father in the hospital while undergoing his own health crisis. “Breaking and Entering” tells the heartbreaking tale of a Native American film editor who commits an act of fatal violence in self-defense and must live with the consequences. And “Salt,” the story that ends the volume, is the moving portrait of teenage boy from the reservation who learns about life and death when he’s called on in his summer job at the local newspaper to write the obituary of the paper’s obituary editor.

Not all of the stories feature Native-American protagonists. “The Senator’s Son” is a modern morality play, as the son of United States senator is involved in an incident of violence against a gay friend, in the process exposing his father’s expedient ethical judgment. In “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” the narrator is a seller of vintage clothes, a lover of pop music and a serial philanderer, “a small and lonely man made smaller and lonelier by my unspoken fears,” a status he shares with several of Alexie’s male characters in this edgy and frequently surprising collection.

The eternal appeal of music
Best known for novels like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro offers a collection of five pensive tales in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, that succeed in expressing music’s seductive power.

In “Crooner,” a chance meeting in Venice between an itinerant guitarist (a talent Ishiguro shares with his creation) and an aging Tony Bennett-like singer leads to an emotional encounter with the crooner’s wife as he offers a swan song for their marriage. That woman, Lindy, resurfaces in the story “Nocturne,” a meditation on the vagaries of fame, where she and a jazz saxophonist named Steve share a bizarre recuperation in a Beverly Hills hotel after plastic surgery at the hands of a celebrity doctor.

Ishiguro skillfully blends humor and melancholy in “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Its narrator, Ray, visits college friends in London whose relationship is imploding. The story veers wildly from broad comedy to pathos as Ray struggles to save his friends’ marriage. “Malvern Hills,” the story of a singer-songwriter and his encounter with two fellow musicians in the English countryside, and “Cellists,” the tale of an unorthodox music teacher and her enigmatic student, round out the collection.

Women and their discontents
Jill McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes concentrates on the plight of mostly middle-aged women struggling with the consequences of their flawed relationships. McCorkle is an acute observer of the foibles of domestic life, and in stories like the title tale, in which a woman is yoked to her dying mother as a caretaker while her younger sisters carp at her from a distance, or “Surrender,” where a grandmother must suffer the childish cruelty of her late son’s five-year-old daughter, she blends empathy for her characters’ predicaments with an unsparing take on those grim circumstances. 

Still, McCorkle’s stories don’t lack for humor, as in “Midnight Clear,” where a single mother gets a new outlook on life from a septic tank philosopher who answers her distress call on Christmas Eve, or “PS,” a sardonic farewell letter from a woman to her family therapist. 

The collection builds to a powerful climax in “Driving to the Moon,” as former lovers reunite while one faces death from cancer, and “Magic Words,” which features interwoven narratives of a married woman about to embark on an affair, a troubled teenage girl and a retired school teacher. Both stories are impressive demonstrations of McCorkle’s ability to infuse short fiction with an almost novelistic scope.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Short stories are often the vehicle of choice for young writers seeking to make their mark on the literary world, so it’s refreshing when established authors choose to work in the genre. These collections display the skills of three well-known writers from diverse backgrounds, each with a unique take on contemporary life.  Perspectives on Native […]
Behind the Book by

Three Wishes is the story of three best friends who transformed their lives by taking motherhood into their own hands. Carey, Beth, and Pam had succeeded at work but failed at romance, and each resolved to have a baby before time ran out. Just one problem: no men.

Carey took the first bold step towards single motherhood, searching anonymous donor banks until she found the perfect match. What she found was not a father in a vial, but a sort of magic potion. She met a man, fell in love, and got pregnant the old-fashioned way. She passed the vials to Beth, and it happened again. Beth met man, Beth got pregnant. Beth passed the vials to Pam, and the magic struck again. They had setbacks and disappointments, but three women became three families, reveling in the shared joy of love, friendship and never losing hope.

Below, each of them shares their experience of deciding to write the book.
 
Carey
When I turned 39 and made the decision to become a single mother, I started keeping a "Baby Journal" to help me work through all the complex emotions the whole process evoked. In the back of my mind, I thought it might turn into a book one day, but really, I was thinking of it more as a legacy to the child I hoped to have. At one point I even wrote: "If you are a future child of mine reading this, I just want you to know that I really, really tried, in the months and years before making you fatherless, to find you a dad." Later, after Beth and Pam and I shared such amazing luck, I thought: "This is an incredible story. We have to tell it." They say you write the book you need to read; I was doing that, writing just what I would have liked to read as a single woman facing a harsh biological deadline, looking for role models and inspiration.     
 
Beth
When I was 35, my husband left me for a much younger woman, and we were divorced. Suddenly, I found myself losing the future I thought I’d have.  Then I rallied, and made my life better than it had been. But, like Carey, I saw myself turning 40 without a child, and I didn’t want that to happen. It didn’t, but my child didn’t arrived in the way I’d anticipated. My life has had some bumps, but I (generally) remained optimistic, believing that if I was true to myself, pursued my dreams, and had fun, that even the harsh stuff would have a way of tempering itself. Turned out I was right. I wanted to write this book not only because it’s a great story, but because it’s hopeful. I want our story to be read, and shared, and for people to pass it on, saying, "Read this, I found a part of myself in it, and it reminded me that while things aren’t always easy, the hard parts shouldn’t stop me from following my dreams."
 
Pam
Countless times, I told a woman our story and she opened up and shared hers, or said that a girlfriend was in the same situation as we had been: older, alone, desiring love and family. I wished I could talk to that friend, to encourage her to go after what she wanted, on her own, even if there were no guarantees. I personally believed that taking control of my life and preparing for single motherhood was not a zero-sum game where I was forever giving up my chance to fall in love and have a mate, even marry. I had heard all the gloom and doom news and the scary myth that my odds of getting hitched at 40 were slimmer than being in a terrorist attack. Not only was that false, but I had been in one in the Middle East and survived. That had to count for something. As more and more women rooted for us to write a book, I began to appreciate how telling our stories could shine a meaningful light on how friendship and being true to your desires in the face of convention can bring unexpected joy. 

 

Three Wishes is the story of three best friends who transformed their lives by taking motherhood into their own hands. Carey, Beth, and Pam had succeeded at work but failed at romance, and each resolved to have a baby before time ran out. Just one problem: no men. Carey took the first bold step towards […]
Behind the Book by

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.
—Katharine Hepburn

Sheila Lukins and I have always thought cooking should be about love, laughter and fun in the kitchen. And 25 years ago, that’s what we had in the kitchen of The Silver Palate, our small takeout food shop in Manhattan. We were up to our necks in excitement making food, catering, creating condiments and selling them to stores across the country. When an editor from Workman Publishing suggested that we write a cookbook, it seemed a wonderful way to tell everyone who we were. Our friends and clients thought we were crazy, that if we put our recipes into a book it would be the end of our takeout food business, and no one would come to the shop to buy our food. Our instincts told us they would, and we knew we had a few more recipe ideas up our sleeves. We had no idea how to write a cookbook, but this was the book we had always dreamed of writing. We wanted everyone to share our insatiable curiosity about cooking, and to feel as though they were invited to the parties we were giving.

The Silver Palate Cookbook was considered pretty unorthodox when it was first published in 1982. Instead of traditional chapters, we organized it around ingredients and our excitement about seasonal arrivals. We wanted an explosion of asparagus recipes and we wanted to celebrate tomatoes and apples, and berries too. We wanted everyone to revel in our chocolate recipes and we thought pasta deserved its own chapter (remember, this was 25 years ago!).

We were cooking our way, with the big flavors we craved. We wanted to share our recipes, even if they didn’t always follow classical conventions. We felt that Chicken Marbella, nutted wild rice, blanquette de veau, charcroute, pate maison (we could go on and on here) and decadent chocolate mousse could become favorites countrywide, not just on the Upper West Side of New York. We were part of the food renaissance in America and we wanted to share every bit of that fun with everyone who would listen.

To push the envelope even further, we wanted our book to be chatty, filled with stories about our experiences at our little shop. We added quotes because sometimes someone else had already said it best. Why not bring them into the party, too? Then we added kitchen tips, menus, ingredient lore and we topped it all off with Sheila’s charming drawings. Who could afford photography? Most of all we wanted people to feel our passion for cooking.

We had no idea whether anyone would like such a cookbook. But, about three months after it was published, we heard that it was being used for dinner parties all around Lake Tahoe. The word was spreading! Indeed, it became wonderfully popular. The Silver Palate Cookbook has been published all over the world: France, Japan, Germany, Holland, Australia and England. It’s in the James Beard Hall of Fame and, most importantly, in kitchens everywhere.

Now, 25 years later, we have The Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition with dazzling color photos. Our recipes have suddenly come alive and nothing could be more fun than to see our familiar cookbook anew! And, in this new edition, we have the added joy of being able to reflect on all that has happened in food a whole new reason to celebrate.

Little did we know so many years ago that sharing our recipes would bring us such joy. Whether we’re at home or traveling, we always bump into people anxious to tell us about a Silver Palate recipe they’ve made, and we get letters saying how much they enjoy reading our book in bed. So many of you have become our pals instant friends along the way. Who would have thought that our lives would become so enriched, day after day, for so many years, just because we wrote a cookbook? It’s been a great ride! Thank you. Let’s all have a ball with this new edition for many years to come.

Julee Rosso is the co-author, with Sheila Lukins, of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and the owner of the acclaimed Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck, Michigan.

 

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun. —Katharine Hepburn Sheila Lukins and I have always thought cooking should be about love, laughter and fun in the kitchen. And 25 years ago, that’s what we had in the kitchen of The Silver Palate, our small takeout food shop in Manhattan. We were […]
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I never planned to write a breast cancer memoir. Never planned to get the cancer that would inspire it. But in January 2006, my first novel was on submission and hadn’t sold yet. In the meantime I’d written a second novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and thinks she might have breast cancer and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life. I sent it off to my then-agent and went in for my annual mammogram and was told it was “suspicious.” A week later I was having surgery and while I was waiting for my own results, I received an e-mail from my agent (who didn’t know about my health scare) that said something like, I don’t really like the breast cancer novel. I’m not sure I care whether that woman has breast cancer or not. Ouch!

But the writing disappointment was a minor blip compared to how the diagnosis rocked my world and shattered my sense of self. I was about the healthiest person I knew. I never got sick. No aches or pains. I ran. I practiced yoga. I ate mostly vegetarian, whole grain and organic. I was the person others consulted for health and anti-aging tips.

I felt like a fake, a fraud. Even after I was told I had the “good” cancer, it was non-invasive and they got it all out, I felt panicked and paralyzed. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything other than stare out the window at my garden not yet in bloom and Google health sites and obsess about recurrence rates. And make homemade batches of organic facial creams with stuff like shea butter and jojoba oil. I thought about starting an organic facial cream company for vain hypochondriacs like me. I asked my husband to bring home an electro magnetic field measurer (I’m still waiting for that… do those even exist?). I suggested we move to Utah and live off the land (even though I don’t know the first thing about gardening or farming, my husband reminded me).

Finally, after weeks and weeks of this, my husband pressed a journal into my hands and said, “You have to write this down.” I shook my head. I was not a journal keeper, never had been and I did not want to write any of this down. But one day I picked up the journal and a pen and without even thinking, I wrote: “I’m sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day. Cancer is a Bitch.”

Once I started writing, the words flooded out. I shook and wept and fell asleep and woke up and wrote some more. The ironic thing is, as I poured those raw, intimate thoughts out, I thought, I will never EVER show those words to anyone. I thought writing them down was a way I didn’t have to burden my friends and family with my crazy thoughts. (And now you can go buy them in hardcover or my newly released paperback and I hope you will!) Eventually, I wrote those thoughts into an essay I called "Cancer Is a Bitch" and sent it to some trusted writer friends who said it was powerful and I should do something with it. But what was it? What would I do with it?

Soon after that, I read that Literary Mama was looking for columnists and on a whim I pitched the idea of a breast cancer mama column and they said yes and I started writing “Bare-breasted Mama.” To be honest, it was painful to write and I felt naked, like I was exposing myself both physically and emotionally. But the responses from readers were so soulful and many hadn’t even had cancer but they either knew someone who had or were just responding to the midlife issues about motherhood and marriage and career that I wrote about. They thanked me for making them laugh (because believe it or not the book is funny!) and cry and think. Their words gave me the courage to keep writing and opening up and eventually to leave my then agent and pitch the idea of a breast cancer memoir to a new agent.

Next thing I knew I had a new agent, a new book, a new lease on life.

That was three-and-a-half years ago and my life has changed dramatically since then. I have not only launched my writing career, but also have launched two daughters off to college, watched my son turn into a skateboarding teen, run two half marathons, am in training for my first full marathon (in a few weeks!). I have also become a professional speaker and college and medical school lecturer. Plus I feel stronger and healthier, and more sure of who I am and where I am headed, than ever before in my life.

And in the midst of all this life hurtling forward, I made more discoveries. I discovered I could get up in front of other people and share my story with strangers and stand with survivors in solidarity and hold their hands in mine and hope I could give them hope. More significantly, the beauty and wisdom and raw truth I saw in their eyes filled me with hope and a newfound respect for the courage of the human condition and fueled me to not be afraid to share more of myself and be the person I meant to be and live the life I meant to live.

For me that means running my first marathon in a few weeks (oy!), the release of the paperback version of Cancer Is a Bitch, and more speaking and lecturing and a new book in the works and fewer whys and more why nots. And taking more time to gather family and friends around my old pine harvest dining room table overflowing with vases of hydrangeas from the garden still in bloom and good food and stories and hearty laughter and the gratitude and joy of being.

Gail Konop Baker writes from her home in Madison, Wisconsin. Her memoir, Cancer Is a Bitch, is available in paperback this month.

I never planned to write a breast cancer memoir. Never planned to get the cancer that would inspire it. But in January 2006, my first novel was on submission and hadn’t sold yet. In the meantime I’d written a second novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and thinks she might […]
Behind the Book by

My new book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them, is an affectionate memoir of my experience as a single mother. The book spans the 18 years I spent raising my daughter, Emily, with the help of my family.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, however. My intention was to write a how-to book, full of tips, hints and useful information. Because I’m a syndicated advice columnist, I’m used to telling people “how to”—how to cure a heartache, how to confront a friend or how to manage an obnoxious mother-in-law. Due to the success of my column, writing an advice book seemed like a natural fit. My agent and various editors referred to the advice book project as a “slam dunk.”
I was pondering the challenges of writing my how-to book during a trip I took from my home in Chicago to visit family in Freeville, the little farming village in upstate New York where generations of my family have grown up and grown old.

While there, I went to the village school—the same one I attended as a child—to watch my niece’s kindergarten play. On the very same creaky wooden stage where I poured out my own pint-sized aspirations as a kindergartner, I watched my niece and her classmates act out and reflect the story of our lives in this small community. The kids were dressed as chickens, pigs and Holstein cows. They sang and danced in a make-believe barnyard.
It was adorable.
I looked around. The audience was populated with people, many of whom I’ve known all my life. I sat in my folding chair, flanked by my daughter, sister and mother in the old auditorium my grandfather and other men in the village had helped to build.
Given my surroundings, I couldn’t help but think about the arc of my own life. My how-to book idea went away in that moment and I decided instead to write my own story.

In my work as an advice columnist, people often challenge me by asking how I know what I know. I’m not a counselor. I don’t have an advanced degree. I got here the hard way, by living my life and making my share of mistakes. I took the back roads of life, through marriage and divorce and raising my daughter as a single parent. I got here with the help and support of the people in my little world.

My agent was skeptical when I told her I wanted to write about my daughter, aunts and cousins, my sisters and mother. We are ordinary people whose lives, nonetheless, have been blessed with incident. I told her I wanted to write about people and livestock and the little community I come from. 
My agent asked me to write a chapter. She said, “I want to see if there is any there there.”

The first chapter I wrote detailed the loss and longing I felt when my own father abandoned our family farm, leaving his four children to run our failing dairy. And then I wrote another chapter, about the fumbling hilarity of coping with the livestock he had left behind. As I was writing the book, Emily graduated from high school in Chicago and I made the decision to move back to Freeville permanently. Once again, I was surrounded by my family—the women Emily refers to as “the Mighty Queens.”

I wrote about blind dates and my work life. I wrote about my faith and personal failings. I wrote about sending Emily to college and saying goodbye to the person I had raised and was now launching into adulthood. I wrote about “the Mighty Queens,” those women who had supported us, championed our successes and wept with us during our difficult times.

During the course of working on the book, my dear aunt Lena died and we buried her in our family plot in Freeville. I reconnected with the people in my hometown who are all characters in my life story. I fell in love with a man I had known since childhood. And finally, my story felt complete.
 In my work giving advice to other people, I often feel that the two hardest questions for any of us to answer are, “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” I’ve struggled with those questions myself—but finally, through telling my own story, I found the answers.

Amy Dickinson succeeded the legendary Ann Landers as the advice columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 2003. Her column, “Ask Amy,” is now syndicated in 200 newspapers. She is also a regular panelist on the NPR quiz show, “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me.”

My new book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them, is an affectionate memoir of my experience as a single mother. The book spans the 18 years I spent raising my daughter, Emily, with the help of my family. I didn’t set out to write a memoir, […]

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