New Fiction Coming in February 2020


Check out some of the exciting new fiction coming to our shelves this winter. Whether you are looking for a literary fiction read, a historical page-turner, or biographical fiction, we have something for you!



02/04: The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata – Decades after a 1929 Dominican immigrant writer passes away believing her final manuscript was destroyed, a Chicago lawyer discovers the book and endeavors to learn the woman’s remarkable story against a backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.

02/11: Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen – When a twist of fate lands her in Queen Victoria’s kitchen, a talented young chef is selected to accompany a royal retinue only to be wrongly implicated in a murder. By the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and The Victory Garden.



02/18: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin – When a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with one of the men originally suspected of killing her sister, Claire, hoping to gain his trust and learn the truth, forms an unlikely attachment with this man whose life is forever marked by the same tragedy.

02/18: The Other Mrs. by Mary Kubica – Unnerved by her husband’s inheritance of a decrepit coastal property and the presence of a disturbed relative, community newcomer Sadie uncovers harrowing facts about her family’s possible role in a neighbor’s murder. By the New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl.




02/25: Apeirogon by Colum McCann – Two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, navigate the physical and emotional checkpoints of their conflicted world before devastating losses compel them to work together to use their grief as a weapon for peace. By the best-selling author of Transatlantic.

02/25: The Lost Diary of M by Paul Wolfe – A re-imagining of the life of Georgetown socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer traces her marriage to a CIA chief, presidential affair and LSD experiments before her baffling murder a year after JFK’s assassination.


What we're reading so far….

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is a story of siblings, Danny and Maeve Conroy, their obsessive connection with the iconic family house they lived in as young children and how their lives unfolded over the years.  The story is told through the eyes of Danny, younger of the two siblings.  We, as readers, watch Danny realize his life is peculiar, his childhood home is extraordinary, and the rooms and people of his childhood are more complex than he thought.  At times, the story resembles a fairy tale, with stepchildren and evil step mother, however, author, Ann Patchett, with such great compassion and wit, brings the story so alive that one can’t help but get hooked.  Get yourself on the holds list for this right now.  It was my favorite book of 2019.  In the meantime, treat yourself with any other book by Ann Patchett. Mary

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer quickly became one of my favorite authors after I read his amazing Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) so I began reading Borne with high expectations. I’m happy to report that Borne does not disappoint and delivers more of the weird, literary, dark, dystopian science fiction that I had hoped for. In a destroyed city that is never named, readers meet the smart and resourceful scavenger Rachel. She tries her best to survive in the city with her partner Wick, gathering relics from abandoned buildings, rebuilding biotech, and trying to evade the gigantic, monstrous bear, named Mord. Mord enjoys flying above the city, eating whatever and whomever he pleases, and generally destroying all in his path. Mord is the creation of the evil and ominous Company, who appear to be responsible for not only Mord’s terrible presence but also the general collapse of the city and all of the terrifying and strange creatures who live there. Rachel finds a curious blob-like creature entangled in Mord’s fur one day while scavenging, and quickly discovers the blob is intelligent, talks, and is also growing at a rapid rate. She names the now tentacled discovery Borne, and things only get weirder from there. Nicole

That Darkness by Lisa Black

That Darkness by Lisa Black

That Darkness is the first in the Gardiner and Renner series. Maggie Gardiner is a forensic investigator for the Cleveland Police Department. Jack Renner is a homicide detective working a series of murders with the same cause of death but no other obvious connection. The more Maggie pores over the evidence, the more she suspects a vigilante killer who possibly has ties to the police department. When the evidence finally points to Jack, Maggie is confronted with a moral dilemma. Will she reveal Jack’s secret? Lisa Black is a former trace evidence specialist for the Cuyahoga County coroner and current CSI in Florida, and the crime scene details of the book are meticulously written and described. Jack’s vigilante serial killer story is introduced but not completely explained. Readers will have to continue the series for more details! I did, in fact, binge the series in it’s current entirety and it definitely gets better as they go along. Maggie and Jack tackle cases involving the murders of journalists, corrupt politicians, and teens living in a county facility. As they cover different cases they have to navigate the huge secret that defines their relationship. I look forward to more stories of fictional Cleveland crimes from Lisa Black.  Megan

Loom by Sarah Gridley

Loom by Sarah Gridley

I’m reading a book of poetry, Loom, by Sarah Gridley, which came out in 2013.  I had Sarah as a poetry teacher when I was briefly a student at Case, and she was wonderful for many reasons, so I could be biased.  But sometimes I think Sarah’s poetry is a kind of well-kept secret, not only in CLE but elsewhere as well, and that she deserves a wider audience.  Like other poets I love, including John Ashbery and Anne Carson, Sarah’s poetry gets pegged as “difficult,” but in a pejorative way – it’s too weird, people say, too interior, too lacking in narrative maybe, customary guideposts, something like that. But that’s exactly why I love Sarah’s poetry.  It is a kind of startling confrontation, because it forces you to trust your intuition, your heart, your own senses and your own mind, and encounter the poem without any preconceptions about what a poem should do, think, imagine or be.  Sarah’s poems are profoundly intelligent, open, spacious, deeply feeling-full, generous, fun, imaginative, and creative.  And the music of her poetry is her own – funny, wondering, modestly immodest, intimate. Check out Loom from RRPL, if you’re interested, and stay alert – her latest book of poems, Insofar, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press, chosen by Forest Gander, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry last year, is coming out later this year in April.  Andrew

Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula K. Le Guin

Recently I decided to take advantage of our large collection of digital audiobooks through ClevNet Overdrive to listen to audio versions of fantasy novels I haven’t yet read. I began with the iconic Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin. I am 4 books in and have enjoyed listening to each one immensely. Already being a fan of audio books, I have found this digital format very convenient as I am able to switch from device to device and pickup where I left off. Audio books have allowed me the chance to catch-up on books that I have been meaning to read. Would high recommend this series and this format. Greg

The Furies by Katie Lowe

The Furies by Katie Lowe

Violet begins the fall term as the new girl at Elm Hollow Academy, the site of witch hangings in the 17th century and the mysterious death of a student years later. Her home life has been unhappy since her father and sister died in a car crash, and her mother never mentally recovered from the tragedy. She expects to be a loner, like she has been since the accident, but is immediately taken under the wing of a wild and charming girl and her group of friends. They are part of an advanced study group with a teacher who studies ancient history and mythology as well as the rites and spells of the witches from long ago. Taught as history not practice, the girls nevertheless are drawn towards the idea of powerful women and powerful magic. They become increasingly wild and reckless as they learn the secrets of the women who came before them and begin to feel the power these women held. When one of the girls is violated, they swear revenge, and Violet is no longer sure of what is real, what is make believe, and what is magic. Sara

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

Journalist Lulu Randolph heads to Nassau in 1941 to investigate the governor, actually the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for a popular New York magazine. Soon Lulu falls in love with Benedict Thorpe, a British scientist who is captured by the Nazis. Told in alternating chapters, It’s also the story of Benedict’s parents, Elfriede and Wilfred decades earlier. This is an exceptional historical novel full of romance, spies, intrigue, racial tension and murder. Emma

Collection Spotlight: the 300s

This is the first post in a series that wishes to highlight important aspects of a public library’s collection that might go unnoticed. (You can read the introductory post here.)  But before we start…. 

A public library doesn’t just have books, let’s be honest.  It has music, often in the form of CDs or digital tracks we can stream or even download through a streaming service like Hoopla.  It has movies, blueray and DVDs, often categorized by genres like drama, action, documentary, and comedy (but see our movie collection here at River, which also has a wonderful and unique foreign film section; and also definitely check out Kanopy, a free film streaming service offered by many public libraries (including River), which has an astonishingly high quality selection of films, especially in the documentary genre).  Public libraries have magazines and newspapers, concerning a variety of interesting topics – everything from culture to technology to books to the arts to politics to psychology to business to cars to philosophy and beyond – and these are resources that are unfortunately often very expensive to subscribe to, but can be read at your local public library for free.  And they have audiobooks and e-books and e-audio books and playaways, etc.

Now there is of course a very understandable emphasis nowadays in the public library world on digital collections – ebooks, e-audio books, e-magazines, film and music streaming, etc.  And that’s fine and good – I know I sometimes feel I need a book very quickly, and the Internet (via libraries, Amazon, but most especially, for me at least, the wonderful, fabulous Internet Archive) gives it to me, lickety-split. But sometimes we forget that public libraries are also gathering places, in the physical world, where you can slow down, disconnect from the admittedly rather frightening, time-devouring monster-tentacles of social media, turn the pages of an actual book, and sit next to a neighbor who is also reading something. I mean, where you can actually see your neighbor, give him or her or they a nod – and maybe strike up a conversation about something you share in common, or (better yet?) something you don’t, but which he or she or they might find interesting, anyways. Everyone has heard about how so many social institutions in our country are being eroded – social clubs, unions, families, government, places of worship – and how this erosion frays the threads that bind us together as a community, culture and country.  And that is troubling, no doubt about it, and we need to talk about this. But public libraries are places where we can practice each day to keep these threads tight and taut, and in doing so “talk about it.” Because, yes, of course it’s great and convenient to download a book on a Kindle.  But it’s also great, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out over and over, just to see and talk to actual human beings.


In today’s post, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not going to focus on music, movies, newspapers or magazines, but on books, which are still (and I think should be) the bread and butter, the heart, of a library’s collection. And I’m going to focus on one of my favorite sections in the library, the 300s, which I’m guessing many people might not be totally aware of. What does “the 300s” refer to?

The 300s is a Dewey Decimal Number that stands for a very large category called the “social sciences.”  In that sense, the 300s are exactly what they sound like – they are the numbers on the spines of books that start with 300 and end with 399. (When you look for a book in an online library catalog, the “call number,” which is the Dewey Decimal Number for most public libraries, will be what you use to find the book on the shelf.)  Every single book in the 300s will be about the social sciences.  Okay, so what are the social sciences?

Well, look at the phrase – “social sciences.” The social sciences are a bunch of different ways or lenses (“science” means “knowledge” in Latin) for thinking about and looking at society (“social”).  Are they sciences, like hard physical sciences – physics, chemistry, astronomy?  Well, not really. Are they like the humanities – literature, poetry, fiction, visual art, film, music, where people “make stuff up” and are super imaginative, we could say?  Well, no, they’re not like that either. So what the heck are they?

The social sciences are more squishy that the hard sciences and harder than the humanities, let’s say.  Or we could say, more philosophically (and probably contentiously), if the humanities are primarily concerned with beauty, the self, and subjectivity, and science is concerned with truth, nature and objectivity, the social sciences are considered with ethics, culture and inter-subjectivity.  (The threads that bind us together.)  But all this is too abstract.  Here are the main topics within the 300s:




Political Science



Military Science

True Crime/Criminology



Customs and Etiquette



Okay, now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at actual particular physical (and of course digital, since we are writing and reading this online) examples.  But first, look at this:

What do you see?

This is a view of some shelves here at River. But that sticker on the shelf on the left – that shows us what call numbers can be found all down that row, starting with the 280s (religions) all the way through the 300s, ending at the 330s (economics).  So what books can be found in the 300s?

Well, let’s look at one example (talk about pressure!).  Here’s our example:

The first picture is the cover – and book covers I think are always fun to look at and wonder about, though bestseller covers (Patterson, Danielle Steele, etc.) can, let’s be honest, be kind of homogeneous and uninspiring – along with the title, author’s name, and the name of the author who wrote the foreword.

The second picture is the call number – 305.800973.  And the 305’s are….”social groups.”  Okay, so what’s this book about? Well, here’s an excerpt from a review from the NY Times.  (Book reviews published by good sources of information, like the NY Times, for the most part, are great ways, probably the best ways, to help us make decisions about what to read and therefore what to spend our valuable time on and with; this particular review was written by a journalist from the Times named Lauretta Charlton, who is also an editor and music columnist):

In the essays, written between 1994 and 2018, Pinckney reports from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. He traces the ways in which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons nearly derailed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He charts, block by block, the gentrification of Harlem, and visits a recovering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where he tells the story of the ham.

In “How I Got Over,” he reflects on black expatriates — from Richard Wright to James Baldwin, Pinckney’s lodestar — who left for Europe to escape Jim Crow, only to witness racism by another name: Islamophobia.

But what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member. Pinckney grew up in a middle-class family, in the 1960s, when being black and middle class often meant being accused of “trying to act white,” he writes. His mother and father were civil rights foot soldiers who in their spare time would do things like sue their hometown police department to force it to desegregate. His father “hawked N.A.A.C.P. memberships in airport men’s rooms.” His mother’s cousin was lynched in 1931, while a student at Atlanta University.


This blog post is not exactly about the content of books, so much as just making one hopefully more aware that important content such as this is not only available, but free with a library card.  But I should say that Pinckney is a novelist, playwright and essayist, and that I personally enjoy Pinckney’s writing, and sometimes read his essays in a magazine called The New York Review of Books.  But also, and more importantly, the book has gotten good reviews, and would therefore not be a bad place to start if one wishes to explore the social sciences, race relations, racial discrimination, and African American culture.

Well, that’s our collection spotlight post for today. But just think about how many examples there are out there – many of which have received good book reviews from people who are experts in their respective fields – from all the various branches of the social sciences – politics, economics, law, education, true crime, criminology, military science, anthropology, folklore, etiquette, commerce, customs, statistics, sociology.  I mean, basically, the sky is the limit. And public libraries are avenues, which cost no money at all, for rocketing right up there into the illuminating blue.



Collection Spotlight: Introduction

In the next few weeks, I’m hoping to write a few blog posts that spotlight different sections of the library’s collection that patrons seem to be less aware of, but that are just as worth checking out as the bestsellers (no offense to the bestsellers!).  Libraries have so much, but sometimes we need someone just to point to these things, to say “hey, look at this!,” so we can become aware of things we haven’t noticed yet, or weren’t even aware existed.  William Jamesone of the greatest, most original, perceptive and creative psychologists who ever walked the earth, pointed out a long time ago that all human beings have blindspots.  This series will be an attempt to point things out we might have missed because of our natural human blindspots. In order to jumpstart this series, here is an introductory post. 


Maybe it’s a cliche, but I’ve always taken seriously the idea that the best way to know if a book is any good is whether or not it passes the rereading test.  What’s the rereading test?  Just what it sounds like, really – if you read a book for the second time, does it still hold up?  Has it “grown with you”?  Does it still help you to learn, think, grow?  Or is it, alas, juvenile, dogmatic, immature?  In other words, when we read a great work of literature as an adolescent, say – Jane Austen, or Dickens, or “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Whitman – and then read it as an adult, we find that we have completely different interpretations of said work.  In that sense, the work has grown with us, changed with us.  The best works of literature are always a step ahead of us.  What we experience from Don Quixote in our thirties will be very different from what we experience in our sixties – I’ve actually heard it said by one reader that Quixote read in old age is a much sadder book.

I wanted to start this blog post with the analogy of how, as we age, we notice entirely new things about books we reread, because if we really think about it, the same can be true about our experience of space itself, of the physical, perceptible world.  How do I mean?  Well, have you ever heard the idea that you can never step into the same river twice?  It’s really a wonderfully incisive insight.  Why?  Because if you think about it, it’s really true – if you walk to a gas station at 9am, say, and visit the same gas station at 9:45am, in a way it will not be the same store.  There will be different people, different conversations.  Less coffee in one dispenser, more coffee in another.  Different music playing.  The light itself in the place will be different, in accordance with the different time.  It might seem like the same store – the cardboard box holding the Three Musketeer candy bars is still there, and it looks like the same amount of Three Musketeers are there as well – but in a way it’s really not. (I’m not a big science guy, but I’m sure we’ve heard of the idea, in a similar way, that our bodies themselves are constantly changing.)

Okay, that was quite a detour!  Why am I talking about this stuff?

In the same way in which our experience of ourselves and the physical world is constantly growing and changing, the same can be said for our experience of libraries, as well as the stuff inside libraries, i.e. books, among other things. In other words, I’m not sure people see libraries as places that are so utterly ripe for discovery, in the same sense in which a walk in nature can be, or reading a great book.  And I wonder if this is because many people don’t realize what libraries have and/or offer.  And, among many important and beautiful and life-giving things, libraries have books: good books, books that are important and can change how one sees the world.  And these books are free.  Which, for me at least, never gets old.


So the question then arises, what kinds of books can be found at libraries?  Because the library doesn’t just have books in a big random pile!  No, we have books that are organized a certain way.  Here at RRPL, we organize our books according to the Dewey Decimal System.  There are other ways of doing this – many academic libraries use the Library of Congress organizational schema – but I want to focus today on Dewey. Well, what is Dewey? Here is the breakdown of the Dewey organization.  We might not have books on every category here at RRPL, but we are a part of CLEVNET, and CLEVNET has a staggering amount.

Did you look at it?  It’s kind of astonishing, honestly, isn’t it?  I mean, knowledge isn’t everything – I think who someone is matters more than what they know – but it’s still just sort of dumbfounding to look at and contemplate.  And, when we pause and think about it, we might conclude that, yes, we can’t help but have blindspots, considering how much there is to know, think about, wonder, discover, imagine, experience.  So, this series of blog posts aims at pointing out sections, categories, books, that we’re probably not aware of – not crazily obscure or outdated things, just hopefully interesting and alive things that might pique our curiosity and even, eventually or suddenly, broaden our reading, thinking and imagining lives, and make those blindspots slightly less blind, or oppressive, or just annoyingly in the way.

Happy Reading!





Nicole's Top Ten of 2019

It was such fun to look back on what I’ve read this past year and pick my favorites! Below you’ll find mostly adult fiction titles, including some standout graphic novels, as well as a stellar young adult novel (Wilder Girls!). 2019 was also the year I dabbled in reading outside my comfort zone of generally weird and spooky, venturing into the land of romantic fiction and true crime. Much to my surprise, I was so utterly charmed by a romance novel that it ended up on this list (I’m looking at you Chloe Brown). I hope that if you haven’t read one of these titles you will be inspired to stop by and check it out this winter. Maybe you will also find yourself pleasantly surprised by broadening your reading horizons *wink*. Wishing you a joyful holiday season and happy reading!

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

The Institute by Stephen King

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen by Marjorie M. Liu

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Trent’s Top 10 of 2019

I always enjoy making this year-end list as it provides me an opportunity to reflect on another year of reading, and reflection quickly turns into contemplating future reading. I highly recommend it.  It is highly satisfying to revisit titles you have enjoyed and to consider your plans for reading in the new year, be it more broadly, more deeply, or another goal.

Like many of my colleagues, I have struggled to keep my list to ten titles and included additional notables at the end.


10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

42983724Janina is, to be kind, a bit of an odd duck. She lives alone in rural Poland, and when one of her very few neighbors is found dead, Janina instinctively knows why. The animals, obviously, have sought revenge on the neighbor for his cruel hunting activities. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead makes the reader listen to someone we might be guilty of otherwise ignoring or marginalizing. Olga Tokarcruk was belatedly awarded the Noble Prize in Literature for 2018 in November 2019, and I am excited to read more of her translated work.


9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol 1: High School is Hell – Jordie Bellaire

indexThis is Buffy rebooted, and, much to my surprise, it starts off with a lot of promise. The last few seasons have been either lackluster with brief respites or terrible. So, I was interested but skeptical that rebooting the series by a new creative team back to Buffy’s first days at Sunnydale High would succeed. The comic does a nice job reinventing all the main characters but keeping them recognizable to fans that have continued to follow the series. Here’s hoping the good work continues.


8. Normal People – Sally Rooney

normalThough I posted a review of Normal People on “What We’re Reading Now…” in May, I still find myself occasionally thinking back to this book. It has made me, on occasion, consider things from a different perspective. While Normal People was generally rife with upsettingly poor decision making by everyone – it was at the same time believable and relatable. And, if I am still thinking about the book seven months later, then it’s bound to be on a top ten list.


7. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

index (1)I picked this up off an inn’s bookshelf six years ago when in Vermont for a wedding. By the time I had to go join the wedding festivities I had read a good third of the book and was really enjoying it. Though every few months I would remember that I had wanted to check out a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God and read it in its entirety, it took far too long to return to. Beautifully written and a work I should have been introduced to in high school.


6. The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

index (2)I included The Raven Tower in March’s “What We’re Reading Now…”  Leckie creates a fascinating world shown from an unexpected perspective.  I really enjoy how the author plays with language and perception.


5. The Real Cool Killers – Chester Himes

index (3)The Real Cool Killers is a classic 1950s hardboiled detective novel. Though instead of L.A., Marlowe, and femme fatales, it is Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed and in Harlem where the cynicism isn’t shrouded in glitz.

I did include the excellent A Rage in Harlem by Himes, which introduces Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed, in an earlier “What We’re Reading Now…


4. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: The Complete Series – Hayao Miyazaki

index (4)Set many years after biological warfare has destroyed most of the planet, opposing forces are set mustering for a war that may destroy what remains. Nausicaä, called to serve in her father’s place, has the unique ability to communicate with the fearsome creatures that inhabit the changed world. Using her abilities, Nausicaä must fight to preserve what is left of the world around her.  Miyazaki will leave you thinking deeply about how we interact with the world around us, environmentalism, war, and more. Not to mention the art is sublime.

3. A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

index (5).jpgI kept putting off reading A Gentleman in Moscow even though a coworker kept insisting I go read it immediately, because, honestly, how worth it could be to slog through 500 pages of some guy being sequestered in a hotel for decades? I saw no reason to suffer right along with Count Rostov. She was right, it is a wonderful book, and if you have not read it, you should go do so right now. You will not suffer, instead, you will find unexpected joy right alongside the Count.


2. Beware, Beware – Step Cha

index (6)Juniper Song is a devotee of Phillip Marlowe, and in her first appearance in Steph Cha’s excellent Follow Her Home Juniper’s only experience as a P.I. is from what she has learned in Chandler novels.  Juniper, now employed with a investigate firm as an understudy working towards becoming a licensed investigator, has some real-life experience under her belt when a case she’s asked to work quickly turns into a Hollywood murder scandal.  Juniper Song is the modern-day Marlowe we deserve.


1. Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

index (7)I read this a week or two after posting last year’s Top 10, and I have been eagerly waiting to put it on this list since. Keiko has a hard time relating to societal expectations and is uninterested in love and advancing her career. She struggles to hide her real interest in and dedication to her current role as a convenience store clerk, as she knows she won’t be understood and accept otherwise. A funny, quirky, and occasionally, heartbreaking novella. However, to be fair, I may be biased in part due to my love of Japanese 7-11 and Lawson convenience stores.


Honorable Mentions:

index (8) imc_9781632152855_270 index (9) index (10) index (11)

Tales From the Inner City – Shaun Tan

Lazarus: The First Collection – Greg Rucka, Michael Lark

The Long-Legged Fly – James Sallis

Silent City – Alex Segura

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life– Eric Klinenberg

Andrew’s Favorite Four Books for 2019

Dear Reader,

I don’t know about you, but I love writing these kinds of things. Why? For many reasons – but one is the chance to see how one’s reading tastes change over time.  Because after I scanned the books I mentioned last year, and compiled this list, I concluded that one big difference between the lists was that none of the books from last year were funny, at all – they were, instead, super serious.  That’s, of course, fine – we live in some weird, dark, dystopian times (was life ever not weird, dark and dystopian?), but sometimes seriousness doesn’t cut it, and laughter does. (But see Madame Bovary and, with some slight exceptions, Topeka School, below.)

My favorite books this year seemed to fully understand the insanity of our world, but they also did not exactly let the insanity “get them down,” or prevent them from being fabulous, subversive, uncanny, smart and creative.  Books that acknowledge and articulate the outrageous suffering at the heart of the world, but do not wallow in it; books that are clear-eyed and idiosyncratic, compassionate and dark, smart and funny.  Of course, not all the writers on this list are funny, nor are they all contemporary.  But I think, for me, writers like George Saunders and Chelsey Minnis flip a switch, let’s say, and help us to laugh, which the American comedian Milton Berle once called an “instant vacation,” and I guess I feel like Milton Berle would know?

Thus: here is my top-ten (okay, four, because I write way too much) list for this year.  It is hopefully satisfying like a good soup, or for that matter a Milton Berleian instant vacation – palm trees waving lazy green hellos, beach chairs with the backs at a good angle, hopefully some good pop music playing, cool breeze, glass of lemonade, book.

  1. Tenth of December by George Saunders

Image result for tenth of december

It seems like a mantra people chant: “Saunders is a necessary voice.”  “Have you read George Saunders? He is a necessary voice.”  But, when it comes down to it, that chant (I think) is admittedly true.  Saunders is a necessary voice, and a voice we need to hear – especially now, but also always.  Why?  Because Saunders – unlike politicians, Facebook, Google, the world – is not trying to sell you anything, except the idea that underneath all our political, religious, national, etc. layers is just (why do we forget this?)….a regular old human heart: foolish, hilarious, hopeful, dreaming, sad, longing, quixotic. For me, that’s the main reason.  But Saunders is also a master of the short story form.  For example, he is constantly doing fascinatingly innovative formal things with free indirect discourse, which is a fancy literary term that refers to how an omniscient narrator dips into and out of the consciousness of a character.  Saunders is also just amazing with things like story structure, dialogue, syntax, other things, too.  His characters talk and think like we do – the rhythm of their speech, the sound/feeling – at least that’s my perception of it – and that is easier said than done.   I cannot recommend this book enough (and, in particular, the stories “Victory Lap,” which opens the book, “Home,” near the end, about a soldier returning home with PTSD, and “Tenth of December,” the final story, which is a masterpiece).

2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not sure this is still happening (I’m guessing it is…?) but for awhile people were talking about the word “relatable” in the context of reading – it was a kind of buzzword used by readers who wanted literature to reflect themselves, to be relatable.  And if it wasn’t relatable, for whatever reason, then, well, it just kind of sucked.  Ira Glass, the usually smart and canny host of the NPR radio show “This American Life,” even at one point in 2014 claimed that King Lear “sucked” (?!), because it wasn’t…relatable. But of course, this criteria, at least to my mind, is ridiculous.  It is important to see ourselves reflected in the books we read, for sure.  But sometimes we should also stretch ourselves, leave what we are comfortable with, and relate to aspects of a book that are not immediately familiar, that question our assumptions, familiar concepts and understandings. Why am I saying this?  Well, I kind of suspect that many of the characters in Madame Bovary – a book which I fell in love with this year, when we read it for our Classics Book Club – would also latch onto the concept of relatability, and use it as a cudgel to exclude anything that hovered slightly beyond their worldviews. Madame Bovary itself is relatable, I guess, but it is also very subversive and therefore relevant – timely and timeless (Lear is, too).  Bovary exposes the hypocrisy of our conventional society – the tired mores and sayings we use to squelch what we actually think and feel; the oftentimes preposterousness of our attachments, blindspots, blueprints, groupthinks, denials. Madame Bovary is not really a funny book, like Tenth of December, but in other ways it does participate in much of what Tenth does well, though with more acerbity – showing us aspects of society that do not promote our actual freedom and creativity, in order to show us aspects that do. Emma Bovary, for example – I found her absolutely insufferable, a hard-to-empathize-with Quixote, ungrounded and without a modicum of common sense. But isn’t that the whole point? We care about these characters, even though they are ridiculous, because they are so representationally convincing. Flaubert for the win.

3. The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

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It’s a commonplace in psychoanalysis to say something like, “if you don’t become conscious of your parents – strengths and weaknesses – then you are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” In Ben Lerner’s Topeka School,  which is – I don’t even know what to call it without sounding redundant – an “autobiographical novel”(?), this adage is taken to a fascinating and far extreme.  How so? Lerner’s book, I would argue, is about ventriloquism, in a way – in the sense of both channeling and creating voices – but ventriloquism in the service of art, and therefore in the service of individuation.  Because what Lerner does is not only fictionalize his life, which is what we all do, whether on the written page or in the more private theater of our minds, but he actually speaks the voices of his (fictional) parents.  Meaning, there are sections of the book written in the first-person (“I), and the “I” that is speaking in those sections are either Lerner’s fictional Mom (Harriet Lerner in real life, a best-selling clinical psychologist) or fictional Dad (also a psychologist – both parents worked for the Menninger Foundation, a famous clinic, sanatorium, and school of psychiatry that was located in Topeka, Kansas).  This is, to my mind, is really really interesting to think about.  What does it mean to not only write in the voice of one’s Mom, but to actually do it well, to pull it off?  To me, it seems like the writer would need to have an almost preternaturally exquisite or fine-tuned ear, a very deep and subtle sense of the cognitive music of another human being’s way of talking, feeling and thinking.  And Lerner, if this needs to be said at this point, does.  When he writes in, through, within the voices of his parents, it is both a deep homage and, to be honest, a rather sly and interesting form of separation or individuation, by which I mean he is inhabiting their voices, exploring their reverberations and contours, but, of course, in reality inhabiting and creating his own, of which the novel is the fruit, the “earned achievement.” (The section written about Adam Gordon, Lerner’s fictional alter-ego, are written in the third person, which is also interesting for lots of reasons.*)

The Topeka School is the third novel in a trilogy of novels – Leaving the Atocha Station was published in 2011, and 10:04 in 2014 – all of which are challenging in interesting ways and also wonderful.  All three revolve around Adam Gordon at different periods and crises in his life (though the first two are written in the first person).  But Lerner is also a really talented poet – he published three books of poetry before turning to novel-writing – and I think it is the poet in him that is able to pull off this astonishing act of voice-channeling/creation.  The Topeka School is interesting for lots of other reasons as well – there are fascinating and really perceptive passages that explore the relationship between whiteness, adolescence, privilege and violence, and the book is bursting with marvelously interesting and creative experiments in language, meaning and structure.  Last but not least, (and this is a more personal reason for loving the book), Lerner not only writes poetry well, but he writes about poetry well.  There are really great passages in all three of his novels where Adam Gordon thinks about and explores the meaning of lots of great American poets in fun ways – Whitman, Ashbery, Dickinson, Robert Creeley. I really recommend this book.

*When I wrote this review, I hadn’t finished the book – I think I had one section left.  Therefore, word to the wise: do not do this, ever!  Because in the last section of the book, contra my point about Adam writing only in the third-person in Topeka, he does write in the first-person, in the section that ends the novel.  This, too, like pretty much everything else in the novel, is a fascinating move – formally and otherwise.  Why?  Because, through the decision to write in the first-person in the last section, it as though Lerner, through Adam, is moving away from the cool objective third-person and more towards owning, even accepting, his own first-person experience.  Which is a powerful thing.

4. Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis

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Poemland, the fourth book of poems by Chelsey Minnis, was published in 2009, but it feels wonderfully contemporary.  It is also, like Saunders, both smart and funny.  To be honest, I”ve never before in my life encountered poems like Minnis’s, who achieves a very complex tone that manages to be very giddy and very dark.  The book is composed of very short sections – four or five pages a piece, say, separated by a page of mostly black – and, on each page there will be about four to six shortish lines or sentences, separated by white space, and often ending (each line or sentence) with an ellipses or exclamation mark. Weirdly enough, these punctuation marks get at the heart of what Minnis pulls off.  Because through ellipses and exclamation points, she opens up whole new regions of irony, feeling, and innuendo. One of the famous chestnuts of criticism, though always relevant and true, is the idea that a writer should know what to say and, maybe even more importantly, what to leave unsaid.  Minnis seems fascinated by the unsaid, by white space and the lack thereof, by the proverbial iceberg of feeling that is tickled and activated by really just about anything – ellipses, say, which are literally just three dots in succession, (…).  In two earlier books, Zirconia (2001) and Bad, Bad (2007), Minnis pushes the possibilities of the elliptical to an extreme, so that an entire poem is made up of a few (interesting, funny, provocative, weird) words or phrases, but in-between and connecting (disconnecting?) these words are just a series of periods, basically a kind of prolonged ellipses.  Sometimes a whole page will be ellipses, with a few words.

How do we read these kinds of poems?  To my mind, these earlier poems, with the strings of periods, suggest a kind of suggestive, even at times sexual, static – it’s like an ironic, pregnant pause, that reminds me of the work of a comedian like Sarah Silverman, her persona on stage, how she creates a kind of aura about her that revels in filler words like “um….” or “uh…..”  In that sense, Minnis’ ellipses in the earlier books actually signify a form of (ironic) thinking, even waiting, while also playing hilariously with the idea of the “dumb girl,” twirling her hair, say.  In interesting ways her poems also play with Whitman, because Whitman in “Song of Myself” also uses ellipses in very suggestive and interesting ways.  (Minnis’ earlier poems also remind me, though I think they are more perverse, of the poetic form of erasures (where a poet will literally erase certain words, often in found texts, but leave other words in), and the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument.  In all three kinds of texts, there can be a really interesting tension between verbal and non-verbal forms.

But all this talk about formal stuff is possibly leaving out the pleasures of reading Minnis. And Minnis is fun because she is genuinely funny.  Yet her funniness (said the librarian seriously) is not without its cunning.  It’s been pointed out millions of times, but comedy works because there is often a kind of violence beneath the surface – a pushing of boundaries and taboos, let’s say – and this violence provokes us into laughter because, in a way, it makes us uncomfortable, makes us feel the incongruity, the vast gaping spaces, between what we think and what we say.  Think of the slapstick in The Three Stooges, or how we laugh at Malvolio as he suffers in Twelfth Night. I am reading Don Quixote right now for a book discussion, and there are scenes of very intense violence inflicted on Quixote and Sancho Panza.  But often these scenes are, in an admittedly disturbing and enjoyable way, incredibly funny – I’m thinking of one where Sancho Panza is wrapped in a blanket and thrown around like a football.  These scenes are both hilarious and heartbreaking – hilariously heartbreaking, heartbreakingly hilarious? Minnis, in the poems I’ve read of hers from Zirconia and Poemland, is profoundly aware of the rich, ambivalent hues of our feeling worlds, our idiosyncratic, to use her phrase, “poemlands.”  Her comedy, like all good comedy, is cathartic – she knows that when we are genuinely laughing, there is always something else going on, which I think is probably that our own need for pushing boundaries is being assuaged, mollified, satisfied, and maybe most importantly, encouraged.  Because Minnis is fully cognizant of this dynamic, she exploits it to really great effect.  Her poems are both excruciating and delightful.  Much, much recommended, especially for poetry lovers.

Thanks for reading!  And Happy New Years!