From the Shelf
Food, Race and American History
The best cookbooks are windows into other kitchens, other cultures, other countries--an invitation to step into someone else's food traditions and, in so doing, better understand the world around us and ourselves. That's why cookbooks will forever beat any Internet recipe collection in my world; I am as hungry for the stories and the photos cookbook authors prepare as I am for the dishes they promise I can make at home.
Like so many others, I currently find myself cooking more at home than ever before; amidst the long overdue racial reckoning we've seen after the murder of George Floyd, I've also been hunting for books that explore the history of race in America. These two pulls converged when I picked up Jubilee (Clarkson Potter, $35), which promises two centuries of African American cooking "that goes far beyond soul food." Author Toni Tipton-Martin delivers exactly that, drawing on decades of historical cookbooks by Black writers and chefs that represent "a gift of... culinary freedom." Alongside Tipton-Martin's recipes for gumbo and pureed parsnips and roast leg of lamb, fried chicken, lemon tea cake and sweet potato bread are snippets of these historical cookbooks, pulling recipes and notes from Black chefs dating back to the early 19th century.
I quickly snagged a copy of Tipton-Martin's earlier work, The Jemima Code (University of Texas Press, $45), a history of these centuries of cookbooks, to continue my reading. I also picked up The Cooking Gene (Amistad, $28.99), in which culinary historian and historical interpreter Michael Twitty embarks on a journey to follow the paths of his ancestors across the Old South, "a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they've been." I cannot imagine a better way to continue my own historical education than via those very stories. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
In this Issue...
by Elizabeth Wein
Three unlikely teenagers discover an Enigma machine in World War II Scotland and attempt to turn the tide of war.
by Virginia Woolf
Novelist Sheila Heti meditates on Virginia Woolf's powerful essay on the relationships between readers, reading and writers.
by David Diop
David Diop's English-language debut focuses on two 20-year-old Senegalese "more-than-brothers" who are conscripted during World War I by the colonizing French, with horrific results.
Review by Subjects:
11/30/2020 - 6:00PMWe are delighted to present this evening with one of the most accomplished fiction writers at work today, Charles Baxter. A master in the short-story, novel, and essay, and a revered teacher from long tenure at both the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, he visits virtually this evening with his much-awaited new novel, The Sun Collective (Pantheon). “Only the supremely talented Charles Baxter could write a novel that combines blistering social critique with humor,...
12/01/2020 - 7:30PMJoin us to celebrate the launch of Ijeoma Oluo’s new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Ijeoma Oluo will be in conversation with two-time World Cup champion and social activist Megan Rapinoe about the dangerous legacy of white male supremacy, and how we begin to dismantle it. This virtual event will be presented by Hachette Books, LANGSTON and the Elliott Bay Book Company and hosted on CROWDCAST. Links will be distributed before the event. Tickets ($33) include a...
12/01/2020 - 6:00PMBy the time this evening takes place, we will all know what has happened with the November 18 National Book Awards where Deesha Philyaw’s electrifying fiction debut, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press), is among the finalists. The nine stories that comprise this collection are a wonder to behold, individually and collectively. “Philyaw’s triumphant debut collection follows a series of Southern black women as they struggle for self-determination ... Philyaw’s...
Words of the Year
The Oxford English Dictionary decided not to name a word of the year, describing 2020 as "a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word," the Guardian reported. However, in a first, the OED named words of the year.
Mental Floss invited booklovers to see what the world's reading habits look like in 2020."
"Women are leaders: a booklist about women in government for kids & teens," compiled by the New York Public Library.
CrimeReads asked: After killing off Sherlock Holmes, why did Arthur Conan Doyle write a true crime story about a bloody mutiny?
Atlas Obscura explored a small sculpture in Edinburgh that honors a shuttered bookshop that was the site of a fiery act of protest.
At Night All Blood Is Black
by David Diop , trans. by Anna Moschovakis
Spare and devastating, At Night All Blood Is Black by French Senegalese author David Diop is a bone-chilling anti-war treatise. He chooses as backdrop a little-known chapter of World War I annals, when the French government drafted some 200,000 soldiers from its colonies, including Senegal. The unfolding tragedy, involving two 20-year-old "more-than-brothers" conscripted to kill strangers for incomprehensible reasons, resonates far beyond the geographic, political, racial and historical details.
Mademba Diop lies disemboweled on the battlefield. He knows survival is impossible, and begs Alfa Ndiaye, his best friend, to end his suffering. Unable to extinguish Mademba's life, Alfa bears witness to his excruciating death. Alfa's guilt-ridden retaliation turns brutal, as he regularly sneaks into enemy ranks and slaughters German soldiers--returning to the trenches each time with a German's severed hand. Whether foe or friend, Alfa quickly realizes, "At night, all blood is black."
Somehow, he stays safe: "Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets." His fellow soldiers are initially "very, very pleased" at his reckless audacity, but their reactions turn to fear by the appearance of the fourth hand. After the eighth mutilation, the captain sends Alfa to "the Rear" for a month-long "rest" where he reveals to the ironically monikered Doctor François an abusive childhood, his bond with Mademba, his first love--and, most desperately, his fraying connection to reality.
Making his English-language debut with his second title, Diop has an ideal translator in Anna Moschovakis, who renders his prose into a gorgeously disturbing devolution of humanity. Overlapping bildungsroman, fever dream, morality tale and historical record, Diop creates an outstandingly affecting, genre-defying nightmare. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: David Diop's English-language debut focuses on two 20-year-old Senegalese "more-than-brothers" who are conscripted during World War I by the colonizing French, with horrific results.
A Million Aunties
by Alecia McKenzie
Jamaican author Alecia McKenzie (Sweetheart) offers her readers delightful characters and thoughtful themes in A Million Aunties.
Chris seems to be running from something when he arrives in the Jamaican village of Port Segovia from New York City. In the opening chapter, "How to Paint Flowers," his grief is gradually revealed: a woman, Lidia, now gone; Chris's dark paintings; the impulse now toward light, as if to make up for what is lost. His friend and agent, Stephen, has sent him to Auntie Della in Port Segovia, promising, "You'll have anything and everything you want. The whole range of tropical beauties: hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea." Della owns a local nursery.
Just as readers settle into Chris's pain and paintings, McKenzie shifts the focus. Chapter two is told from the point of view of Chris's father, aging in Brooklyn. He worries about his son and their frayed relationship. Chris was born in the United States, to a Black man from Alabama and a Jamaican woman. His father remembers first meeting her, and noting "the arrogance and confidence of growing up as a majority. The shortsightedness of it."
Chris and Della are the heart of this story, but a kaleidoscope of other perspectives enriches it. The myriad characters offer a textured background to this central story. A Million Aunties is an exquisite novel about beauty and pain, and what binds us together. Through captivating character studies, quiet lovely writing and deceptively simple storytelling, McKenzie illuminates basic commonalities and rethinks what family and home mean. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: After a great loss, a man returns to his mother's homeland of Jamaica in this stunning novel of love, loss, grief, healing, art, identity, family and home.
by Cynan Jones
Cynan Jones (Everything I Found on the Beach; Cove) beautifully reprises his distinctive voice and poignant themes in Stillicide, a novel of climate change and human relationships. This novella-length meditation excels in its thoughtful considerations, quietly lyrical language and memorable lines and characters.
Water is rare and sought after. A water train has replaced the old pipeline to bring this commodity into cities, which are resented by people in the surrounding countryside. The train is armed, and in the opening chapter, a marksman stands by as additional security, life and death in his hands. Meanwhile, the authorities plan to replace the water train with a new and wider corridor, to drag an iceberg overland into the city. "A gash cut through the city," this will displace many residents; protestors gather.
The subsequent chapters focus on different characters and their perspectives. A construction worker for the new iceberg path wonders if his work is for good or ill. A young nurse contemplates an affair; an older nurse lies dying. A boy chases a stray dog through the streets. An elderly couple on the coast refuses to move inland even as they see the future approaching. These perspectives note where the natural world still gleams in a city increasingly dry and dusty.
Stillicide is a sobering consideration of a possible near future, and a moving work of fiction. Jones is easy to appreciate also for his writing, for the poetry in "the contained clatter of the runnelled rain." This is a quiet masterpiece of language, imagination and grim possibility. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: This minimalist meditation on climate change and human choices offers stark realism, haunting characters and lovely lyricism.
by Cecily von Ziegesar
Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl series, has created a delightfully absurd novel with Cobble Hill, about four quirky families who all live in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
First there are the Clarkes: Roy, a famous novelist; magazine editor Wendy; and their teenage daughter, Shy, who adores Latin but who is struggling through math. Shy is getting tutored by Liam, the geeky son of Greg, a kindergarten music teacher, and Peaches, the flirtatious elementary school nurse. Peaches is ecstatic to discover that one of the fourth-graders is the son of Stuart Little, former member of a famous band and now a second-rate music producer; his ex-model wife, Mandy, is faking multiple sclerosis because she can't deal with her boring life anymore. The last couple is Tupper and Elizabeth--an eclectic inventor and a truly bizarre artist, who enlist Roy and Peaches in the strange power plays they undertake in their marriage.
Funny, thoughtful and downright irresistible, Cobble Hill offers a glimpse into a rarefied world, and how everyone deals differently with affluence and influence. The misfit characters struggle through many disasters and funny social occasions, ultimately finding connection with each other and with readers through von Ziegesar's humorous prose. Sure to appeal to fans of Modern Lovers or That's What Frenemies Are For, Cobble Hill is a lighthearted look at modern family life among Brooklyn's upper crust. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: In this funny novel, a group of wealthy oddballs find connection with each other in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood.
The Living Is Easy
by Dorothy West
The late, great Dorothy West's trailblazing debut novel, The Living Is Easy, remains presciently relevant almost three-quarters of a century after its initial publication. Racial inequity, police brutality, Black incarceration all haunt West's biting narrative, ready to resonate with a new generation of contemporary readers. Set during the early years of the Great Migration, when African Americans left the rural South seeking opportunities especially in the Northeast and Midwest, West's fiction embedded elements of her own family's peripatetic rise out of Southern enslavement into well-off Black Boston.
As a young girl, Cleo Jericho's mother recognizes the danger of her light-skinned, oldest daughter's "wildness"--being outspoken, fearless--in the South, and sends her north with a "strict-looking spinster." At 18, Cleo marries "Black Banana King" Bart Judson, a wealthy Boston businessman 23 years her senior, and has a single daughter, Judy. As wife, mother, sister, employer, friend, her manipulations are never ending: she skims Bart's money, moves the family into a 10-room mansion, maneuvers her three sisters' relocation at the cost of their marriages, influences and destroys relationships--and eventually manufactures her own downfall. Judy bears witness to all.
As one of the youngest members of the Harlem Renaissance, West's pioneering literary legacy is overdue for a renewal. This enhanced new edition is bookended by an astutely contextualizing foreword by essayist Morgan Jerkins (Wandering in Strange Lands) and an afterword of warm memories and sharp insight from West's friend the late Professor Adelaide M. Cromwell. The living here--for West's characters, the Black community, herself--is hardly easy, but their "wildness" continues to provoke, embolden and inspire. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: Seven decades after its initial publication, The Living Is Easy is anything but for a fearless young Southern woman determined to take her place among Boston's elite Black society.
The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany
by Lori Nelson Spielman
Long-simmering resentments and buried secrets permeate The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany, a romantic, beautifully rendered, sweepingly complex family saga.
Emilia Antonelli, 29, of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, is a second-generation Italian American. She lives a simple, manageable life, resigned to remaining single forever, working in the family delicatessen and bakery, while also secretly pursuing a "little writing hobby." Emilia lives under the shadow of a family curse that goes back 200 years: all second-born daughters are cursed to live a life without love. After their mother died, Emilia and her older sister, Daria, were raised by their mild-mannered father and the domineering Nonna Rosa, their mother's mother and the surly, infinitely controlling backbone of the family. Nonna Rosa favors Daria, the first-born granddaughter, and belittles Emilia.
Emilia's life takes a drastic turn when she receives a letter from Paolina Fontana, her long-lost great-aunt, who lives in Philadelphia. "Aunt Poppy" is flamboyant, artsy and colorful. She is Nonna Rosa's younger sister, shunned by the family decades earlier. But Poppy writes to Emilia and Luciana, another second-born cousin, offering to treat them both to an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy to celebrate Poppy's 80th birthday. At the cathedral in the town of Ravello, Poppy intends to reunite with her one true love, with the intention of also breaking the family curse.
What ensues is an exciting excursion through Italy--its culture and fineries; romance and history--for the three women. Aunt Poppy proves warm, charming and wise. Lori Nelson Spielman (Sweet Forgiveness) provides first-rate storytelling and nuanced, clearly defined characters that will captivate readers right up to the surprising finale. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A delightful romantic story centered on three single women of an Italian family who set off to Italy to break a 200-year-old curse.
Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir
by Kao Kalia Yang
"The people in this book are people from your lives," Kao Kalia Yang writes to her three sleeping children in the final chapter of her affecting hybrid nonfiction collection, Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir. Minnesota--where Yang has lived for more than 32 years, since landing as a six-year-old Hmong refugee via Thailand--is the state with the most refugees per capita, with significant populations of Hmong, Tibetan, Somali, Karen, Burmese, Eritrean and Liberian transplants. "This much is known, but few know who we are or how we live."
In response, Yang presents 14 individuals' stories here. Irina, for example, escaped Belarus. Majra, from Bosnia, grows up to work with the American Refugee Committee to "help rebuild what wars had broken." As refugee families settle, generations pass and begin anew: Saymoukda examines her relationship with her dying Laotian mother; Mr. Truong enables his son Hai to reinvent the family's Vietnamese restaurant.
Following the award-winning success of Yang's memoirs, The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet, "Other refugees asked me to tell their stories, but I wasn't ready." The past few years changed that: "I could not fail to see an America... that seeks to define itself by casting its vulnerable immigrants and incoming refugees to the margins of society." An epilogue would have strengthened the work, providing a fuller overview for readers to invest further in each of the family and friends Yang introduces. That said, these voices are here, their stories are here, to provide an intimate window into once faraway lives, now intertwined together in a community they call home. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: Award-winning memoirist Kao Kalia Yang gives intimate voice to 14 refugees from around the world who, like Yang, call Minnesota home.
Psychology & Self-Help
The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention
by Simon Baron-Cohen
In The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention, Simon Baron-Cohen explores the intriguing cognitive link connecting the world's greatest innovators to those who exhibit the classic traits of autism. In doing so he invites readers to understand autism beyond its disability label and in an evolutionary context going back over thousands of years.
Baron-Cohen (Zero Degrees of Empathy; The Science of Evil) is a psychologist and director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England. In The Pattern Seekers, he introduces readers to the neurocognitive gene that led humans to diverge from all other animals and to conquer the earth. Describing the gene as a "systemizing mechanism" that seeks logical patterns in everyday surroundings, the author contends that brilliant minds, such as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, exhibit high levels of the gene, as do those on the autism spectrum--often at the expense of an ability to empathize with others and maneuver in the social world.
Baron-Cohen has devoted his career to studying autism and is careful to avoid romanticizing the autistic mind's capacity for extraordinary systemizing without paying regard to the real struggles facing those on the disability spectrum. One hypothesis he presents is that the systemizing mechanism turned up to an extreme level might manifest as a learning disability.
Offering insightful research on neurodiversity and making the case for more employment opportunities for those with disabilities, Baron-Cohen makes a persuasive case for allowing autistic people to focus on what they are good at instead of expecting them to perform tasks more suited to their neurotypical peers. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer
Discover: A leading British psychologist posits a compelling theory of human progress, linking the capacity for extraordinary innovation with the typical attributes of autism spectrum disorder.
Reference & Writing
How Should One Read a Book?
by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf's How Should One Read a Book? is an essay for both readers and writers, and this new edition is available as a standalone essay for the first time, framed with an introduction and afterword by Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?).
Woolf's text recalls the inherent joys of different kinds of reading--no matter what any critics might have to say on the matter. Woolf writes about the personal nature of reading, and how it can be done "to refresh and exercise our own creative powers" as well as to become acquainted with great literary works and those who create them. She notes that reading is not about a single text, but that the pleasure of reading is best understood through comparison of many texts, in order to reveal not only one's tastes but, through what readers choose what to read, to provide feedback about literary tastes to the authors who continue to write. Similarly, it is readers' personal reactions to literature that Woolf holds as more important, as "books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot" and thus, might be prone to mistakes in influence.
With lines like, "The shape of the book ends up being some alchemy between the shape the writer created and the shape of our life as we read it," Heti's introduction meditates on the core of Woolf's essay: the connections and spaces between authors and readers, built by readers, where meaning is made. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer
Discover: Novelist Sheila Heti meditates on Virginia Woolf's powerful essay on the relationships between readers, reading and writers.
Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!
by Claire McNear
With Answers in the Form of Questions, journalist Claire McNear goes backstage with one of the most beloved television game shows.
Jeopardy! has reigned as America's preeminent quiz show for decades. Launched with host Art Fleming in 1964, it avoided the scandals of the '50s (where contestants were given the answers) by flipping the script--the answers were the clue, and contestants had to respond in the form of a question. But it was the 1984 reboot with Alex Trebek as host that made the show iconic (the release of Trivial Pursuit a few years earlier and Weird Al Yankovic's parody "I Lost on Jeopardy" helped boost the show's popularity).
McNear, who writes about sports and culture for The Ringer, goes behind-the-scenes with Jeopardy! contestants and staff, including Trebek, the "sometimes mustachioed, sometimes prickly, always steady presence" who is far looser and more self-deprecating off screen. (Trebek died of pancreatic cancer at age 80, just before the book's publication.) Preparing for Jeopardy! means mastering two fundamentals: subject matter (children's books are ideal) and the buzzer (caffeine helps). Contestants who've made it to the show need to develop their strategy for selecting clues, placing wagers and, perhaps the most stressful of all, what personal tidbit to share with Trebek.
Readers will be delighted with loads of trivia: Jeopardy! contestants' comically clueless track record with sports; Saturday Night Live's take on the show with a surly Sean Connery; and the Greatest of All Time tournament, when multimillion-dollar-winning contestants Ken Jennings (who provides the book's foreword), James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter, battling for days, had to make an emergency run to Nordstrom for a collective wardrobe change. Budding contestants and humble viewers alike will feel like a part of the Jeopardy! family. --Frank Brasile, librarian
Discover: This endlessly entertaining look at Jeopardy! reveals why it has distinguished itself as a cherished game show and an integral part of American pop culture.
Children's & Young Adult
The Enigma Game
by Elizabeth Wein
Three teens in Scotland during World War II find an Enigma machine in Elizabeth Wein's riveting fourth historical YA novel in the Code Name Verity companion series, The Enigma Game.
In November 1940, 15-year-old Louisa Adair takes a job caring for an elderly German woman in the village neighboring the Windyedge Royal Air Force base. This is the closest she can come to her dreams of flying in the war effort since her gender and British-Jamaican heritage bar her from service. Ellen McEwen is an RAF volunteer at Windyedge, but she worries her peers will reject her if they discover her itinerant Traveller upbringing. And 19-year-old Flight Lieutenant Jamie Beaufort-Stewart is focused on seeking an advantage over German fighters as deaths from air battles mount. When a German spy hides a package at the village pub, Louisa finds inside a coveted Enigma machine used to translate German code. She tells Ellen and Jamie, and the three keep the machine a secret in hopes of using it to give their squadrons the upper hand. But nothing is straightforward in war, and the three young patriots discover there is little they can do that comes without consequence.
Elizabeth Wein has once again created a captivating and empathetic novel with The Enigma Game, a compelling and emotionally taut work of historical fiction told in alternating narrative chapters. Returning readers of the companion novels will find familiar faces (though previous reading isn't necessary to appreciate the story), and her new characters are vividly drawn, with deep emotional lives. Propelled as much by themes of racial, social and gender prejudice as by spies and air battles, Wein's story of unexpected friendship and empowerment during wartime is intelligent, compassionate and thrilling. --Jennifer Oleinik, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Three unlikely teenagers discover an Enigma machine in World War II Scotland and attempt to turn the tide of war.
Small History of a Disagreement
by Claudio Fuentes , trans. by Elisa Amado , illust. by Gabriela Lyon
This picture book by Chilean creators Claudio Fuentes and Gabriela Lyon is a necessary and accessible introduction to civics for young readers.
A group of Chilean students engages in animated, conscientious civic discourse when developers looking to improve their school (new classrooms and science labs) threaten to cut down an endangered monkey puzzle tree at the center of the yard. The millennial tree--so named because it reportedly lives for a thousand years--is part of a species indigenous to the area and is beloved by the children. Students who want to preserve the tree organize themselves into a group called the "Millennials" and begin protesting and advocating for the tree's existence; another group of students in favor of the renovation call themselves the "Developers." Demonstrations, posters, stumping and debates ensue.
Never didactic, the energetic prose expertly translated by Elisa Amado matter-of-factly presents the election process, beginning with forming a position and finishing with casting a final vote. When their election results in a tie, they come up with a compromise because "good ideas could come out of... disagreements." The bustling art pairs well with the student's passionate protests, and Lyon's limited palette of browns, blues and whites with pops of red give the work a classic feel reminiscent of the three-color printing process used in early picture books. Small details, like a sign by the voting booth stating, "Your vote is secret," pack a punch and add an extra layer of meaning. --Shelley M. Diaz, reviews editor, School Library Journal
Discover: An accomplished picture book that speaks volumes about conservation, activism and the power of the election process.
Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries
by Sarah Albee , illust. by Nathan Hackett
Happenstance redefines history as ordinary people unearth extraordinary finds in Sarah Albee's humorous and revealing survey of 18 impressive artifacts, Accidental Archeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries.
Albee (Why'd They Wear That?) contextualizes items by giving the year of each find and the piece's location, as well as a brief history of the culture that left the artifact behind and its historical significance. The author traces remarkable discoveries reaching back to 1709 and forward to one mystery still waiting to be unearthed, striking a delicate balance of droll humor and circumspection. Albee is careful to advise readers to remain aware of cultural biases, as when she cautions that the past will not change but "archaeologists and historians continually reinterpret and reframe their perspectives on human history."
Inquisitive middle-grade readers should connect with Albee's stories of people going about their everyday lives before making monumental discoveries. Some artifacts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or terracotta warriors, may be familiar to readers, while other findings (some obscure or macabre) will be brand new. Even saucy footnotes hold interest in quick chapters that bounce between continents with each discovery. Well-selected images and Nathan Hackett's black-and-white illustrations add both visual appeal and supportive background information.
Albee's engaging writing enhances archeology's attraction and approachability for her audience; abundant backmatter includes credit to a slew of librarians and researchers as well as a quick primer encouraging budding archeologists to research responsibly. With lingering questions prompting young readers to seek discoveries of their own, Albee's work celebrates curiosity and ethical consideration around STEM subjects--packaged in a way kids are sure to totally dig. --Kit Ballenger, youth librarian, Help Your Shelf
Discover: Everyday people unearth historical finds in a humorous survey of archeological adventures for middle-grade readers.