Read this book: H is for Hawk

I’ve found that in the right author’s hands, any subject can be fascinating. Helen Macdonald is such a writer: H is for Hawk is simply outstanding, perhaps the richest, most vibrant memoir I’ve read.
h is for hawk

It’s basic story appears straightforward, arcane and, at best solipsistic or, at worst, self-indulgent: Macdonald recounts how she coped with her father’s unexpected death by immersing herself in the training of a goshawk. Widely held to be one of the most capricious and difficult birds of prey, the goshawk has special allure to Macdonald due to a seminal book from her bird-obsessed youth: The Goshawk by T.H. White. Best known as the author of The Once and Future King, White’s life and his hawking memoir serve as points of convergence and departure for Macdonald’s experiences with Mabel, her goshawk.

If this setup sounds in the least bit interesting, go directly to Booksellers (or your local independent bookstore) and get your hands on H is for Hawk. If, like me, you have no interest in falconry, birds, T.H. White or coping-with-grief memoirs, you will likely still want to get your hands on this book ASAP.

H is for Hawk is remarkably expansive and nothing short of profound. Macdonald displays a fiercely agile mind, a courageous sense of self-exploration and self-disclosure and a flawed, searching, compassionate heart. Macdonald’s prose is crystalline, unadorned, precise. She effortlessly and evocatively conjures the emotions from the moment of her experience: the tension, surprise, melancholy, self-doubt, despair.

Most rewardingly, though, H is for Hawk is dense with fresh, nuanced insights into weighty philosophical topics: humankind’s relationship with the land, nature and animals; our (mis)construction of and (mis)uses of history; our need for belonging, to a place and to others. I’ve never read a more honestly searching, unsentimental and even-handed dissection of these thorny philosophical questions. Macdonald’s quest for meaning is personal, genuine, without agenda and, at times, thrilling.

I really don’t do justice to the substance and scope of H is for Hawk. If you think there’s a chance you’d find this interesting, read this book. H is for Hawk is dazzling. It soars.

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Feeling foolish, or the nagging feeling you read it wrong

Late last summer, I caught a podcast with Dave Iztkoff, the author of Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. The book sounded awesome: well-researched, smart, dishy and right in my wheelhouse. Showing uncharacteristic discipline, I waited until it came out in paperback last month and ordered it immediately.


I finished it last night and, well, it was…good. It was well-researched. It was smart. And dishy. But it also was kind of just OK. Reflecting on it, I can’t really point to any reason why the book didn’t meet my expectations. In substance, it was exactly what I thought it would be, but in experience it was not the book I wanted. Were my expectations too high? Was I the book I was looking for not the book Iztkoff wrote? Did I read it wrong?

This led me to thinking about the other ways that I’ve left a book feeling let down or left out. I’d consider myself an above average reader; it’s rare that I don’t “get” what it seems an author is trying to do or say. But, I admit, I’ve finished (or, on rare occasions, quit) books feeling like I absolutely missed something.

In my experience, there are four indications that I possibly read a book incorrectly:

  1. “What’s the big deal?” – A common iteration of a fairly uncommon, to me, phenomenon. This is when something has been critically acclaimed and/or heavily buzzed about, but leaves me feeling indifferent. When I would classify a book as “fine” or “ok” when everyone else seems to love it, I’m happy to chalk it up to my possibly reading it wrong. Wrong mood, wrong time, wrong reader. Whatever.
  2. “What is going on?” – In my earlier reading days, I found this happening more often. And not for the reasons you’d likely assume. I once thought I’d really enjoy sci-fi or fantasy genre books. I loved Star Wars and comic books. My friends loved Tolkien and such. Many titles I picked up in these genres were impenetrable or operated on some internal logic that I couldn’t grasp. I’ve since improved my book selection process to largely avoid these genres and, as such, have largely improved my reading experiences. While I probably have gotten better as a reader, I’ve certainly gotten better at selecting books for my tastes. Not every good book is for every good reader.
  3. “I know I’m missing something…” – This is the most common way my feelings that I’ve read something wrong are manifested. It is not infrequent that I’ll read some dense or challenging literary fiction and just know I’m missing something, some vital allusions or call-backs to a classic work that would enrich my reading of the story, but which isn’t required for me to understand the text. This results in something like the following conversation

    THEM: “I loved how the main character’s journey mirrored the Odyssey”

    ME: “Uh. It did?”

I know I have a ton of classic literature blind spots. This kind of thing at one time would make me feel foolish (hence my giving up the ghost on ever being a book snob). Now, I just take the stance that there are JUST. SO. MANY. books I’ll never read. I do my best then move on to the next one.

  1. “This is not the book I thought I was going to get.” – This is what apparently happened with Mad as Hell. I went into reading it with a set of expectations for not only what would be contained within the book, but also for how those contents would make me feel. When expectations are high, this can be unfair to the book…actually, unfair to me. The book is the book. It’s up to me to read it for what it is. If I do, I’ll appreciate it for what it is.

Life’s too short and there are too many terrific books out there for me to worry too long about reading a book incorrectly. Challenging myself and being adventurous in my reading will lead me to picking up the wrong books for me from time to time. To limit myself to only those that I know I’ll get completely would cut off entire continents from the world of books. Why dream of doing that?

I’d be a fool.

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A Sweet 16: a list of several (sixteen, to be exact) winning non-fiction picks

The NCAA basketball tournament, the annual 64-team*, billion dollar cultural force known as “March Madness”, fundamentally owes its commercial success to an underlying promise: the unpredictability of truly unscripted drama.

*I know, I know. It’s officially 68 teams, but…c’mon.

The first weekend of the tournament primarily revolves around one narrative: David vs. Goliath.  As the tournament progresses, narratives are updated to most effectively keep people invested in the competition so that cars, carbonated beverages and corn chips can be sold. They use basketball games to tell stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation.

As the annual tournament moves into its second weekend, I’m sharing with you my Sweet 16 of unscripted stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation, aka non-fiction. These are all non-fiction titles I’ve recently (or somewhat recently) read and, like the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, they are all very good and have earned their way onto this list. In the spirit of tournament**, I’ve divided these 16 books into four categories, or regionals if you will: Memoir, Media, Music and Miscellaneous. For each, I pick my favorite to advance to a (fictional) Final Four.

** …or selling a contrived premise. You make the call! If you’re looking for a good non-fiction read, here’s the tip…

Memoir Regional H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald – I was having this conversation just yesterday about how in an exceptional writer’s hands, any subject can be riveting. Macdonald is such a writer. The story of how she dealt with the grief of her father’s sudden death through immersing herself into the training of a goshawk, H is for Hawk is a revelation. Part exploration of loss, part treatise on man’s relationship with animals and part deconstruction of a centuries-old tradition, H is for Hawk soars beautifully.

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison and Unspeakable, by Meghan Dahm – A bit of a cheat here, trying to squeeze two different books into one slot here***. They’re both exceptionally smart and probing essay collections that mine the author’s personal experiences to explore thorny, under-examined aspects of human emotions.

***…or a tribute to a 64-team tournament that has 68 teams

Lit, by Mary Karr – Oh Mary Karr, you delight and shatter me in equal measure. Every three or four pages in Karr’s memoir of alcoholism and recovery has a passage or phrase so exquisitely and originally written it that it stops me in my reading tracks and makes me want to never write again. I will never write anything as good as the 64th (or 68th) best thing passage in Lit.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? , by Roz Chast – New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s hilarious, poignant and unsparingly honest graphic novel about her experience caring for her elderly parents keeps you laughing and squirming with deep recognition.

Memoir Regional winner: H is for Hawk tops Lit in somewhat convincing fashion h is for hawk Music Regional

Autobiography, by Morrissey – Stories are told. Drama unfolds. Slights are recorded. Grievances are aired and re-aired. Scores are settled. All is breathlessly recounted in the unmistakable, petty, poetic, dramatic, Bronte-esque, self-lacerating, self-aggrandizing, trenchant and singular voice of Morrissey. An absolute must-read for any Smiths or Morrissey fan.

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson – Where does an individual’s tastes in music come from? Is there neurological hardwiring that determines what we enjoy, or are our tastes completely a social construct? In this slim volume, part of the terrific 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury, Wilson provides a wide-ranging philosophical survey of the various schools of thought for where and how a person obtains his/her musical preferences. A little on the academic side, but very readable and so, so fascinating.

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove , by Ahmir Questlove Thompson – Roots co-founder and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon bandleader, Questlove set down an intimate, honest, insightful, sly and immensely smart meditation on the way music can impact and shape a life. Mo’ Meta Blues effortlessly earns the highest compliment I can give a memoir: I didn’t want to leave Questlove’s company. I would read Questlove’s writing about medieval laundry techniques.

Rip It Up and Start Again, by Simon Reynolds and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes – Another two-for-one. I tethered these together because they both vividly tell the stories of a particular music scene: the rise, fall and aftermath of the UK punk scene in Rip it Up and Start Again and the mid-70’s New York music scene in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. I found them both riveting with a concrete and aural their sense of time and place. Both bring their respective scenes to life, making icons like Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen human-sized, actual people who interacted with other nobodys who became somebodys. Each also illuminates the ways that the creation of music is not merely a matter of plucking divine fruits from the creative ether three, but rather a conversation with and reaction to the music happening around the artists and the music that came before.

Music Regional winner: Let’s Talk About Love in a buzzer-beater over Rip it Up and Start Again letstalkaboutlove

Media Regional

My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, by Peter Biskind – If you have any interest in classic Hollywood, this is the smartest, most erudite gossip rag ever assembled. Orson Welles was a Hollywood legend (and legendarily difficult person) whose career spanned from pre-WW II Era radio (his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, for example) through his death in 1985. He knew and had an opinion on everyone and everything. Welles was a literal genius, a polymath who could hold forth on a wide-range of topics. But his experiences with and opinions on Hollywood royalty – Hepburn, Bogart, Olivier, etc. – and not are alone worth the price of admission. Any Hollywood buff will lap this up.

The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Have Done to Us, by David Thomson – If you’re looking for a deep and comprehensive history of the movies, this is your book. Legendary New York Times film critic and author of more than 20 books on movies David Thomson offers an at times loving, at times mordant, always illuminating history of moving pictures. He covers not only the people who created, shaped, popularized and changed the visual language of viewing entertainment, but also the technological, cultural and historical influences that shaped the medium and that the medium shaped.

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade, by Walter Kirn – Journalist and novelist Walter Kirn lays himself bare for public humiliation in this memoir about his years-long friendship with Clark Rockefeller, aka Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the German imposter, criminal and (later) convicted murderer. The story is almost unbelievable. The fact that Kirn would, himself, share the story of how he was duped takes courage or desperation beyond my grasp.

All The Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai – For the last 30 year, Gary Hart has been a punch line, a cautionary tale and a signifier for received political wisdom. In All the Truth is Out, journalist Matt Bai revisits the Gary Hart story (i.e., his “monkey business” with the now-notorious Donna Rice) and separates myth from fact. Bai’s central argument is that, for a variety of cultural and technological reasons, this scandal is the inflection point at which the U.S. media pivoted from their previous coverage standards and became the purveyors of “gotcha” tabloid tripe that obscures the issues affecting governance and keeps many of our best minds from entering the political area. Bai’s premise relies heavily on one of my all-time must-read books, Neal Postman’s eerily prescient Amusing Ourselves to Death (a bonus, standing must-read recommendation there).

Media Regional Winner: In the end, My Lunches With Orson’s speed and versatility overcame The Big Screen’s muscular post-up game orson

Miscellaneous Regional

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore – Wonder Woman is a super hero icon, a feminist symbol and the product of the bizarre theories and sexual psychodrama of William Moulton Marston. Lepore, a Harvard historian and author, traces Woman Woman’s creation to early suffragist’s movement. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is as much a riveting history of the movement, its leader and public face, Margaret Sanger, and Marston, the inveterate, indefatigable professional failure, than about Wonder Woman. Lepore’s research is exhaustive and she tells a compelling and unique human story while also capturing the scope of a great social upheaval.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach – Just read Mary Roach. Trust me. If you want to learn about science history and its magnificent oddities, and laugh…out loud…a lot…read Mary Roach. Stiff is my personal favorite. All of her books are informative and hilarious.

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, by Jill Lepore – The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of loosely-connected essays exploring The Meaning of Life (capital “T”, capital “M”, capital “L”). It turns out that the answer to this grand, existential question frequently turns on the unexpected and, often, the seemingly prosaic. For example, Lepore documents and builds a compelling case that photography and political gamesmanship did far, far more to create the “right to life” movement—before Roe v. Wade—than organized religions did. Researched, even-handed, counterintuitive and endlessly surprising, The Mansion of Happiness is guaranteed to make you see things in a whole new way.

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s, by Jeff Pearlman – It’s only fitting to end with a basketball book. Pearlman digs deep in his research and interviews countless people to bring to life the Showtime Lakers era. From the personalities of the only-one-name-required legends in the title, to the Studio 54-like atmosphere at the stadium’s Forum Club, to the peculiar characters of the team’s secondary players, management and owners, Showtime is the dishy, informative, and immensely entertaining definitive biography of one of sports’ legendary dynasties.

Miscellaneous Regional Winner: In an upset, The Mansion of Happiness shocks Showtime. mansion_of_happiness_cover

It’s impossible to prolong this basketball bracket conceit through to crown a champion. The final four are all terrific. Besides, any picks would, as they have been so far, compromised by recency bias. All the books on this list are very good. Pick any of them. You’ll win.

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The joys and pains of finishing a series/the joys and pains of starting a series

It’s the eternal lament of the book lover, to never have the time to read all the books you want to. Forget about the books you might want to read, those that sound really good and really interesting and, perhaps, are really recommended to you by others. There’s already books that you really, really want to read that you’ll likely never get to. People regularly recommend books that just don’t clear my personal threshold for “must-read” status and get the (perhaps too brusque) response, “never gonna read it…I’m sure it’s great, but I just don’t see a scenario where I’d get around to it.” While I should probably massage the message a bit, I consider it a sign of my personal growth as a reader that I can assess those books (perfectly worthy reads all) and preemptively prevent additional “to-read” pileup.


A nifty new display at the store has created a flare-up in my so-much-to-read, so-little-time anxiety. This “Start a New Series” table has rekindled my desire to (finally) start two different series I’ve truly wanted to read for a while. I’ve heard and read nothing but great things about both, things that make me believe that they are great reads. I have little doubt that both Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy and Ben H. Winter’s Last Policeman series would absolutely be in my wheelhouse.

But, yet, I can’t ever seem to get around to reading them. All the shiny, hyped new books that arrive weekly, coupled with the regular flow of exciting advance readers copies of upcoming books we’re sent from publishers makes it near impossible to make a dent in my to-read pile. If Maddaddam and Last Policeman were both just stand-alone books, I’d probably have hammered them out already (though, they weren’t nearly as intriguing to me when I didn’t know they were anything more than just a stand-alone book). But knowing they’re both three-book commitments makes getting started difficult somehow. If they’re terrific, I could continue the series and, in doing so, fall behind in my other reading. If I don’t continue, then I’ll be unable to process and move on from the one I have read because I know the story isn’t finished. If I don’t really like them, then why did I waste my valuable time reading only one book in a trilogy?

Starting a new series can be fraught with peril for a time-crunched reader.

fatal flameI recently completed The Fatal Flame, the third and (presumably) final book in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde trilogy. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this one in the coming weeks. It’s a terrific, totally satisfying ending to the story Faye started in Gods of Gotham and continued in Seven for a Secret. All three books are outstanding, character-driven mysteries that have a great sense of time and place (1840’s New York City). I can’t recommend them all more highly to anyone who enjoys well-written, historically researched, literary mystery.

What struck my particularly when reading The Fatal Flame was how the characters grow and change through the series. Like humans, these characters carry their experiences—good and bad—with them and change because of them. I was caught off guard by how one character, introduced in the first book, responded to an action by Timothy Wilde (the series’ narrator and central protagonist). My surprise was, in retrospect, somewhat…well…surprising. Of course she might react that way after all that happened to her (a central story in Gods of Gotham).

What makes Lyndsay Faye’ trilogy so compelling and rewarding, particularly the further along you go, is the immersive world-building she accomplishes. The setting and all the historical factors that affect customs and drive character behaviors are vividly exhibited. Characters are fully-drawn. You grow to care about them. This accumulation of time and experiences and traumas and victories are shared and not easily replicated in a single, one-off novel. Like with all terrific series, at the end of The Fatal Flame, I didn’t want to leave Lyndsay Faye’s world.

Finishing a book series can be fraught with peril for a book lover.

What’s your favorite book series?

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Where are you going Bernadette and what are they going to do to you? Or, when a beloved book goes Hollywood.

As an article of faith I assume that there are people (perhaps many), somewhere (perhaps all around), who receive the news that a favorite book is being adapted into a movie or miniseries with unconditional enthusiasm.

I know that there are many people who react to the same news with the approximate response “I wonder how they’re going to screw it up” in a tone suggesting an emotional state falling somewhere between “resigned defeat” and “visible contempt”. In the pie chart representing typical reactions to this type of announcement, this piece would resemble Pac-Man .

It’s easy to understand why. Hollywood has a long tradition of exsanguinating beloved, worthy books. If it’s a book we personally love, we carry the memory of that botched adaptation around like a scorned lover. We may stop actively resenting it, but we never forget it.


This week brought the announcement that Richard Linklater is in talks to direct the movie version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, one of my favorite reads of the last few years. Judging by the responses of every one of the many, many people to whom I’ve recommended or given Bernadette, they share my adoration for Maria Semple’s heartfelt comic gem.

While this was the first I’d heard of Bernadette being adapted for the screen, the news of Linklater’s involvement was encouraging. His filmography exhibits all the right tools to capture what makes Bernadette special—Dazed & Confused: adolescence and the humor within the high stakes of low drama; School of Rock: high-energy, antic set pieces; the Before trilogy: nuanced and difficult emotional truths and sharp dialogue.

Linklater seems like a perfect choice to make a Bernadette adaptation worthy of the source material, one that accurately transmutes the blend of wits, smarts and heart in Semple’s written work into light and sound.

There are good reasons why movies are rarely as good as the books from which they’re adapted. My feelings toward adaptation announcements are typically captured in the Pac-Man slice of the aforementioned pie chart. But I suppose the right creative team or talent attached can slide me into the much narrower slice of “open-minded anticipation”. That’s how I feel about Bernadette the movie based on this week’s news.

It goes the other way, too. A bad adaptation can be a thief that steals our fond memories or an unwanted guest that forever intrudes upon an otherwise beloved family picture. Aside from very rare exceptions, the best case scenario for the movie is to capture the correct tone, hit the right emotional notes (regardless of how much it deviates from the book’s various plot points) and become a reflection of the affection we feel for the book.

Don’t mess it up, Linklater. We’ll remember and likely hold it against you.


mosquitolandNext Tuesday the most “Bernadette” book I’ve read since reading Bernadette nearly three years ago hits the shelves. Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, is the story of Mary Iris “Mim” Malone, a teenager abruptly pulled from her home life in northern Ohio and relocated with her father and new stepmother to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, aka “Mosquitoland”.  When the regular letters from her mother back in Ohio stop coming, Mim decides to get back home and find out the truth about what’s going on with her mom and her family’s sudden split. With her step mother’s secret emergency fund purloined and in Mim’s backpack with a hastily assembled collection of belongings, Mim sets off cross country to get home.

Mim’s adventures on the road are harrowing (maybe even too harrowing for some YA readers), humorous, tense and tender. After a rollicking road adventure, Arnold brings the story to a satisfying, if not entirely plausible, end.

While Mosquitoland is a YA novel, I found it very similar in tone and wit and emotional payoff to Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both are whip-smart, emotionally true and feature irresistibly charming narrators. In Mim Malone, David Arnold has created one of the most fully-realized teenage protagonists I’ve read. Sharp as a shard of glass and just as messy and dangerous to herself because of her limited experience, Mim is all set jaw, raised eyebrow and fidgety fingers.  Arnold’s heroine is the perfect exemplar of the fear-tinged bravado and disaffected posture of the teenager hungering to find their people, those who truly understand them.

Don’t be scared off by the YA label:  Mosquitoland is for anyone of any age who’s ever felt this hunger.

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The joys of proper winter weather preparation

I hate the cold. Hate it. H-A-T-E.

The only thing I hate more than the cold is its terrible offspring, Winter Weather. Winter Weather is the unruly—and unwelcome—toddler that makes everything worse: it makes a terrible mess, holds you hostage and leaves you in a constantly unnerved state, worrying something important is going to get broken.

I hate winter weather.

Though I’d be content to never see snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain—your winter whatnot—again I have to admit that the last two iced-in, homebound days were glorious. I couldn’t work and couldn’t go anywhere.   And I was prepared, stocked up on the essentials: books. And some food, but, most importantly, plenty of books.   Truthfully, if I had a supply of books as good as the two I read these past two days, I could have effortlessly outlasted Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel.  

find meFind Me, by Laura van den Berg

released 2/17/15

Joy Jones was abandoned in a cardboard box on the steps of a hospital on a winter day as a one month-old. In the 20 years since, she bounced from foster homes to group homes and back again. She spends her days as a part-time cashier at a Stop-n-Shop and a full-time cough syrup addict. When an epidemic hits that starts by slowly eroding victims’ memories, then moves to producing scaly silver sores on their bodies and, then, to swift but painful death, Joy finally catches a break in life: she’s seemingly immune. She’s invited to join others who are immune at a secured hospital in Kansas for a mandated 10 month stay, during which time doctors run tests on them in hopes of finding a cure. But the tests hardly seem medical in nature and the supposedly immune patients keep dying from the disease.

During her stay, Joy stumbles upon the identity of her mother. Possibly. Tracking down and meeting her becomes Joy’s focus. After news that the outbreak may be over, Joy decides to leave an increasingly chaotic and aimless hospital.

I won’t spoil Find Me by providing additional plot details, but I will say that it is fantastic, unexpected in all the best ways. Unsettling and strange, it frequently had me feeling untethered. Were the events actually happening or were they just part of Joy’s cough syrup-addled—or disease-impaired—memories? Van der Berg’s writing is assured, commanding, propulsive. She plays with the concept of memory and how it consists of, essentially, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Van de Berg treats time like a taffy pull, leaving the reader always on less than solid footing. The effect is vertiginous.

Find Me is a Murakami-like fever dream that questions the boundaries, limits and meanings of personal memory and the implications of a population that loses the ability to remember.

head full of ghostsA Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul G. Tremblay

available June 2015

This one’s not out for a while, but you can be assured you’ll be hearing more from me about it. Maybe soon because—oh boy—this is a gooooood one. I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book.

On the surface, A Head Full of Ghosts is a horror novel about 14-year old Marjorie Barrett who is either a troubled teen or possessed by a demonic spirit. At the end of their rope, both emotionally and financially, the Barretts agree to have TLC film a reality show about their daughter’s possession and exorcism.

A Head Full of Ghosts is clever, creepy, and inscrutable. Most of all, though, it is so, so smart. Paul Tremblay brings a piercing, original point of view to his novel, creating a story that has a subtext even more terrifying than the gripping, leave-the-light-on horror tale.

More on A Head Full of Ghosts later.

With books this good, I’d welcome a return engagement from Winter Weather. I’ve got plenty more books I’m excited about…and am keeping my fingers crossed for more snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain…winter whatnot.   Friday looks promising.

Be prepared. Your friendly neighborhood booksellers at Booksellers can help make sure you’re well-stocked and ready to not want to leave your house.

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Love for sale

Yesterday, leading tear manufacturer and reigning king of YA John Green delivered the keynote address at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 10 conference in Asheville, NC. Green used his talk to booksellers attending in person and via the live webcast to praise independent bookstores and their employees. “We’d [authors would] suck without you,” said Green. He then zeroed in on something special about indie booksellers: “Part of what you’re selling is your passion and expertise. You cannot buy that and you cannot replicate that. We’re not in the widget business; we’re in the stories business.”

Recently, I’ve been in an ongoing a conversation via email with Booksellers’ representative from Harper Collins about a new book they’re publishing that we both adore: The Country of Ice ice cream starCream Star, by Sandra Newman (see review below).  Despite technically being in the ever-swelling “post-apocalyptic” literary fiction sub-genre, what makes the book so remarkable…so affecting and so memorable…is what makes it a difficult hand-sell to customers.

Many novels, especially those that become best-sellers, come with an easy-to-grasp hook. Current hot seller, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, came with buzz and comparisons to Gone Girl. Despite it not really being anything thematically like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is twisty and thrilling and scratches a very similar reading itch as Gillian Flynn’s twisty thriller.  While not a comparison I would make personally, it’s not unfair and, more importantly, it’s very effective for selling the book. It is important to note that scores of books have tried to compare themselves to Gone Girl since it became a publishing phenomenon. The Girl on the Train’s success is not because of the marketing (or not just because of it), but because the book is a brisk, harrowing, at times excruciating, page-turner. The Gone Girl analog gets people to try it. Hawkins book is a best-seller because people like it and are telling others about it.

This brings me back to The Country of Ice Cream Star, a book I loved as much as any I’ve read recently. Other books have engaged me more mentally or cut me deeper emotionally, but I can’t think of a book I’ve read recently I loved like Ice Cream Star. The further I’ve gotten away from the experience of reading it, my fondness for it has only grown.  Unlike The (Gone) Girl on the Train, Ice Cream Star lacks any easy-to-grasp button to hook a potential reader. It’s post-apocalyptic, sure, but I think after the raft of recent titles treading over that terrain it could be as much a hindrance as a selling-point. Also, the setting isn’t really what makes it so special. The writing—its lyricism, its originality, its thrilling audacity—is what sets Ice Cream Star apart.

This is challenging for a bookseller. Without any pre-existing short-hand comparison, how do I do it justice when talking about it to customers? How does one explain what delight smells like or how wonder sounds or the feeling of taking a defibrillator to long-dormant pleasure centers in the mind? Words can prove inadequate or too imprecise to do it justice with economy or accuracy.

When discussing this with our Harper Collins rep, I suggested that, in many ways, love for Ice Cream Star will be its main selling point. What makes it special has to be experienced. In many ways, its magic has to be earned. My passion for the book—as well as the passion of my coworkers who have or will read it—and my reading experience will mostly be what convinces Booksellers customers to try The Country of Ice Cream Star. For the right readers, I couldn’t recommend it more. I love this book.

John Green is so right: we’re not in the widget business. We’re in the business of stories. Sometimes, when we come across that special book, we even have love for sale.

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Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman

One of my absolutely favorite books of recent years is finally hitting the streets and lovers of language and literary fiction should be excited. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is nothing short of epic, both in narrative scope and literary achievement.

So much of the the joy of Ice Cream Star lies in the act of discovery: of the completely foreign, but not-too-distant future in which it takes place and of the language in which Ice Cream Star, the 15 year old young woman who’s the book’s narrator, sets down her story. The world Newman creates is original, richly detailed, and compellingly realized, down to the Pidgen English patois that the story is told in.

From the get-go, Newman drops us into Ice Cream Star’s world in media res. This is Ice Cream Star’s reality and Newman, to her credit, trusts her readers enough not to contort her story to hold our hands. She deftly brings readers along, threading details into the story so we slowly begin to piece together what happened and establish an operational framework for this world. Then, just when you think you have a handle on the book’s human and social landscape, the world opens up in surprising, delightful ways.

While the world-building that Newman does here is remarkable, Margaret Atwood-caliber stuff, what elevates and separates Ice Cream Star from other post-apocalyptic literary fiction is the language.

The strange and deceptively simple language Newman created makes the book a bit of a challenge to get immediately immersed in. But it is entirely worth the effort. The story grabs you from the start and the plot moves swiftly, carrying you along until you get adjusted. Once accustomed to the language, I found it a slyly effective way to incisively and humorously (and often beautifully) take a sideways angle to cut through absurdities of human relations, American institutions and societal norms. By the end, I’d grown to love the language and voice and character of Ice Cream Star: a hickory stick with a poet’s radiant heart.

At turns violent, romantic, funny and touching, The Country of Ice Cream Star wraps an exploration of power, American institutions, race and human nature into a ripping, twisting, turning epic.

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