Two great non-fiction reads, or An Ode to George Santayana


Well. Here we are. 2016. Again embarking on our quadrennial national year-long soul-bludgeoning grind…I mean our glorious process of exercising of our democratic right to select the President. Two outstanding books I’ve read recently shed tremendous perspective on some dynamics at play in our national body politic.


reaganIf you want a Rosetta Stone for understanding U.S. politics circa-2016, Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is about the best one you’ll find. All of the 2016 political flashpoints were at play in the wake of Watergate through the 1976 primary contests. While history does have a way of repeating itself, Perlstein, through an expansive cultural scope and deep account of the U.S. political landscape, builds a compelling argument that the 1976 election was the harbinger (and partial instigator) of a forthcoming seismic shift in the nation’s character.

Ronald Reagan, Perstein shows, was able to boil difficult issues into simplistic, conceptual aphorisms, communicate them with complete certainty and present them all as a simple case of good versus evil. For a country reeling in self-doubt, existential confusion and bone-deep distrust in its institutions, the self-evident binaries Reagan presented and the calming, affirming way he presented them offered many an immensely appealing alternative to the self-reflection and soul-searching the Vietnam War and Watergate begged for. The self-righteous solipsism Reagan presented–America always does what’s right and if America did it, it was right–and the religious fervor he inspired galvanized and activated a previously inert or fickle political constituency. Reagan’s campaign positions beggared belief among establishment Republicans and pundits: they were devoid of (or contrary to) facts, intellectually inconsistent, grossly impractical and globally naive. Each small Reagan national campaign success was greeted with “yeah, but” doubts from establishment Republicans and the national media. This continued almost all the way to the ’75 Republican National Convention, where Reagan came within 200 or so delegates from beating a sitting (though, admittedly, unelected) President.

Even in defeat, the strength of Reagan’s primary challenge successfully changed the Republican Party platform in two significant ways: married the party with an unqualified anti-choice position on the issue of abortion rights and effectively ended Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union and, in doing so, reigniting the Cold War. The stage was set for Reagan’s victory four years later.

While Perlstein doesn’t overtly link Reagan’s ’76 campaign positions and rhetoric with the modern-day Republican Party’s, the parallels are impossible to overlook. Ideologically, Reagan didn’t move the proverbial goalposts as much as he relocated the political playing arena. His style and worldview became the Republican Establishment, moving a John Birch Society by-way-of Barry Goldwater circa-1964 radical right-wing Republicanism into “mainstream” Republicanism, thus shifting the entire political landscape. The Invisible Bridge documents the beginning of how this happened nationally.

What makes Perlstein’s book such an engrossing read, however, is that is casts a wide-angled lens on America during this time, looking beyond just the national news media and Beltway gossip and lore. The Invisible Bridge serves as a tremendously entertaining cultural history of the time: The Exorcist, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Berkeley student protests, Jaws, Woodward and Bernstein and Redford and HoffmanSaturday Night Live, Squeaky Fromme. Perstein’s deep-dive into the contemporary culture provides fascinating and rich context for national events as well as insight into the national mood and the ideas and themes and anxieties floating around and given voice through its cultural products.

I listened to The Invisible Bridge on audiobook: almost 44 hours in total. I never found it anything less than totally engrossing. I would have immediately started listening to another 44 hours of Perstein writing about the next four year cycle. At some point I’m going to check out his Nixonland and can’t wait until his next book in what’s believed to be a 4-part series on modern American conservatism.

# # #

Wars, school shootings, natural disasters, epidemics, terrorist attacks. They all leave one of usdeath tolls that, despite varying orders of magnitude, immediately become impossible to process and translate into human-scale loss. 300 dead. 6,000 dead. 30,000…200,000 dead. They’re understood and publicly lamented and discussed by hand-wringing pundits and politicians as abstractions, not as 77 or 7,700 discrete human beings whose death devastates parents, brothers, sisters, friends and family. When those left behind are counted, the actual toll of a death mushrooms out by factors of 2, 3, 5, 10. We say people aren’t numbers, but when dealing to mass-scale human death, truly thinking about and feeling each individual loss is impossible, unbearable. The loss of “human life” is more palatable than the loss of a human being.

The triumph of the remarkable One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is how Asne Seierstad, through her painstakingly detailed reporting and a storyteller’s gift of empathy, brings the victims to life, making their deaths powerful, meaningful and, most of all, felt. The sense of loss is acute and, as the death toll rises (77 in total), the weight of the loss becomes almost unbearable.

“Heavy” is the word I can’t escape when describing One of Us. As Breivik carries out his terrorist plot, death and loss accumulate. Instead of growing numb as person after person is murdered in cold blood–acts Seierstad recounts in clinical detail–each death is singular and builds on all the previous. Breivik’s attack goes on and on and Seierstad never shies away or allows the reader respite from the horror. The hour-long assault feels eternal on the page. And in the immediate aftermath, as survivors are being reunited with their parents and siblings and those families whose children will never return come to that tragic realization, the weight of the loss is oppressive, unbearable. It’s all so heavy.

Beyond solely accounting for and paying tribute to the lives that were lost, One of Us also explores how mass shooters–or, at least, a mass shooter–is created. Seierstad never seeks to draw sweeping conclusions on the genesis of domestic terrorists like Breivik, i.e., those nationalistic, anti-immigration, race purists driven to unspeakable violence. She merely tells his story and, in doing so, it becomes impossible not to see the through-lines that connect Breivik to so many other mass shooters: isolation, racial privilege, personal/professional failure, lack of personal accountability, a feeling of powerlessness, etc. Breivik’s story is a (hopefully) worst-case scenario of isolation and disaffection curdling into scapegoating and shows of force. In telling the terrorist’s story, as well as those of the victims, Seierstad also brilliantly illustrates how external forces–from the geopolitical to the quotidian details of county and municipal governance–shape individual experiences and, frequently, outcomes.

One of Us is a feat of reporting and an immensely powerful book, one of the finest works of non-fiction I’ve read. It’s an essential work of journalism, a page-turner that rivets you to the page regardless of how badly you want to look away. Its images are searing and its stories are heart-wrenching. It’s heavy. It’s important.

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The books we loved this year, Part 2

book pt 2

Need some ideas for what to buy the book lover in your life or suggestions for a terrific book to get lost in during your holiday down time? Let our book-loving booksellers help.

This is part 2 of our list of our booksellers’ favorite books they read this year. If you missed part 1, click here. I shared my personal top-10 list, as well. The lists reflect the eclectic mix of interests we have; we all love books, but we don’t all love the same books.

Check out the lists and come into Booksellers and let us help you get perfect book for any reader.

Eddie Burton

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronsoneddie

Ronson’s my favorite reporter, and here he reports from the uniquely modern world of social media lynch-mobs.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I didn’t think people were writing novels like this any more, especially people as young as Groff. As thorough a look at a modern marriage I’ve seen since John Updike.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

This turned out to be my favorite Eggers book to date. Timely and important, but I also came to care about the characters a lot.

Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick

It’s everything i heard it was and more. It succeeds on every level: history, biography, music criticism.

Honorable Mentions

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson


Macon Wilson

112915-little-sister_Little-Sister-DeathLet Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

Little Sister Death by William Gay

Speak by Louisa Hall

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho



Jason Bouck

Between You & Me by Mary Norrisbetween you and me

Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix by Mark Bittman

Trashed by Derf Backderf

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Witches by Stacy Schiff

Unfaithful Music by Elvis Costello

Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Pitch by Pitch by Bob Gibson

Ephemeral Works 2004-2014 by Andy Goldsworthy

Dispatches From Pluto by Richard Grant




Kat Leache

ice cream starLook at Me by Jennifer Egan

An aging model is in a terrible car accident which results in severe facial disfigurement, and subsequent reconstructive surgery renders her completely unrecognizable yet still beautiful. Through multiple intertwining storylines and in language that is compulsively readable yet meaty and sophisticated, Egan’s 2001 National Book Award-nominated novel brilliantly explores identity and self-worth as defined and contorted by the world’s gaze.  If you loved Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Good Squad, you’re sure to enjoy Look at Me.

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

Set in and near a fictionalized college town in Mississippi Hill Country–Kornegay’s own little Yoknapatawpha, if you will–Soil chronicles the downward spiral of paranoid Jay Mize, would-be farmer and former family man whose bad luck is rivaled only by his bad judgment. In turns sharply comic and piercingly sad, part Hannah and part Dostoyevsky, Soil is a gem of a debut by Greenwood, MS bookstore-owner Kornegay.

Euphoria by Lily King

A love triangle of anthropologists living among the native tribes of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s is the centerpiece of this gutwrenching novel inspired by the life and controversial psychosexual research of Margaret Mead. For fans of the cerebral, tortured love story.

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

An epic and breathtaking adventure centered around the life and loves of the singularly winning Ice Cream Star, member of the brave Sengals tribe of scavenging warriors. The story is set decades after a mysterious plague has killed most of the North American population, the only survivors being those under 18, the age around which the plague hits. This novel is truly one-of-a-kind and never what you expect. Don’t be turned off by the dialect in which Ice Cream Star written–it doesn’t take long to learn to read it, and its lyrical beauty is one of the novel’s greatest pleasures.

Other favorites:

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Descent by Tim Johnston

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Lake House by Kate Morton


Jamie Wells

my brilliant friendThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante




Joey Carr

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivanpulphead_John_Jeremiah_Sullivan_cover

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

Werner Herzog by Paul Cronin


It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here by Charles Grodin

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet


Jesse Davis

purityPurity by Jonathan Franzen

In Purity, Franzen gives us the charming psychopath Andreas Wolf, an intoxicating digital-age celebrity, and the multiple-viewpoint structure successfully exposes nuances of Wolf’s psychosis by allowing the perspectives of Tom and Pip to reveal his most repulsive side. Purity, or Pip as she prefers to be called, could easily have been lost amid the more successful and adventurous characters in the novel, but her relatable problems and insecure, if hopeful, attitude give the reader a familiar thread to grasp, an entry point into the narrative, while her namesake immediately sets the Dickensian tone in place.

Thematic concerns are tied in with the mystery of identity that propels the narrative, and what has stuck with me after reading Purity is the pleasure of reading such a plot-heavy novel; I wanted nothing more than to be left alone to finish it. Though it is clear Franzen is an author with points to make — about identity and visibility, about celebrity and the private self — the mystery at the heart of the narrative spurs the reader on, leaving little time for contemplation. It is immensely gratifying to make progress in Purity as each new chapter reveals more secrets about the small cast of characters until the reader sets the finished book aside, head buzzing with ideas and crystal-clear lines of prose.

Sex At Dawn by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan

Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick

The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue De Connick

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My 10 favorite books I read this year (and ten other really terrific ones)

matt books

One of the perks of being in charge of content for the store’s blog is having the platform to champion books I love (and a limitless amount of online runway to do it with). So here are my ten favorite books I read this year.


I think, for me at least, “unexpected” is the best word to describe this list. If you’d told me a memoir of grief and falconry and a 75 year-old classic and Oprah Book Club selection would end of in my top-5 favorites of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. But this was truly a great year for me. Even when writing about my ten favorites, I felt bad for so many others that got left out, I went ahead and included a listing of another ten really terrific books.


I hope one or more books I’ve written about here will pique your interest and you’ll pick it up. They are all wonderful in their own way. Thanks for reading and thanks for a terrific 2015.


Happy holidays, happy New Year and, most of all, happy reading.


  1. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

This is my favorite book of 2015 and, frankly, second place isn’t particularly close. H is for Hawk is nakedly intimate, as well as remarkably expansive and nothing short of profound. The prose could cut glass and delivered moments that took my breath away.h is for hawk

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.

In the right author’s hands, any subject can be fascinating. Helen Macdonald is such a writer: H is for Hawk is simply outstanding, probably the richest memoir I’ve read.  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.


  1. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

55dc9c74e8f804624a2fec41_you-too-can-have-a-body-like-mine-alexandra-kleemanTruly impossible to summarize, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman is hilarious and deeply unnerving and strange and propulsive and philosophical and revelatory. It’s like nothing I’ve read. The story is too bizarre to effectively summarize, but it is in no way beside the point. Kleeman takes on our modern existence, our capitalist, consumerist, and mediated lives, puts a clown nose on it, looks it kindly in the eyes, then guts it with a prison shiv. Her prose flows like a broken Jacuzzi, it warmly envelops then periodically blasts you from unexpected angles. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine explores (and infects the reader with) the disconnect one feels in a place and time where even the imitation of a fake is packaged off as real and the real feels but a simulacrum for a fake we’ve been previously sold. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is bright. It’s brilliant. It’s the real thing.


  1. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh NguyenSympathizer

Harrowing, hilarious and haunting, The Sympathizer is a remarkable debut.
A great Vietnam War novel AND a great American novel, it’s the story/confession of a man of two minds: half-Vietnamese, partially American-educated, assistant to the general of the South Vietnam military, Viet Cong spy. His perspective offered a much-needed corrective for my view of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese side. Nguyen’s mastery of tone produces an emotional rope-a-dope: he gets you laughing before he punches you between the eyes.


  1. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

hunterI wasn’t looking forward to this one; I was required to read it for the store’s book club. Sure, I knew Carson McCullers’ 1940 debut novel was considered a classic, but I have little interest in reading those paeans to the dusty, humid, simple nobility of the oddballs of the rural south that populate the literary landscape. With the knowledge that McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old (and that it was an Oprah book club pick at one time), I was fully expecting a sad-sack tale of winsome, youthful longing, a 400-page slide guitar solo.

I was so, so wrong. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter rages. It’s the rage of the powerless, the voiceless, the all-but-defeated. It’s the rage of the rioter: singular, but omnidirectional, at everything, but directed at no one. It’s punk rock of a more restrained time. Carson McCullers created a masterwork that burns with immediacy, with hard, bleak truths and human understanding that are as relevant and relatable today as they were in 1940.

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagiharalittkle life

I’m hesitant to write too much about what A Little Life is “about”; I don’t want to unduly (mis)direct anyone’s reading of it. It is simplest and, hopefully, most accurate to say that A Little Life is about…life. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the power of memory, how memory constructs and gives us shape, how it enriches and inhibits. Mostly, A Little Life should be experienced. But it should also come with a warning label. This is so not a book for everyone.

A Little Life is an emotional dirty bomb. It is dark, so dark. It took me to emotional neighborhoods I’ve never seen from the highway, much less driven through…lingered in…taken up squatting in. On two separate occasions it caused me to spontaneously erupt in tears. Tears of grief. No book has taken such an emotional toll. Yanagihara could be tried for literary emotional war crimes.

This book is powerful and haunting and amazing. It is so not for everyone.


  1. The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

fatal flameLyndsay Faye has saved the best for last and delivered a dynamic, enormously satisfying conclusion to her engrossing and always delightfully unexpected Timothy Wilde trilogy. If you haven’t read Gods of Gotham, the first in the trilogy, and you’re a fan of literary mysteries, historical fiction or just well-written hero stories that immerse you in another world, then what the hell have you been doing? Come to the store and get Gods of Gotham immediately!


These are more than just good mysteries, however. Lyndsay Faye’s Wilde trilogy transcends genre in two ways: in the elegance and impact of its historical setting and in the emotional richness of its world-building. Throughout the three books, Faye populates the world of Timothy Wilde with complex, authentic, human-sized characters. The cumulative effect of this work pays off mightily in The Fatal Flame. Because each recurring character has been painted throughout the series with nuance and depth and love, there are genuine, affecting emotional stakes on the line. There were a half-dozen times or more in Flame where I caught myself tense and worried for the fates of different characters.


Lyndsay Faye always delivers in that sweet spot between twisty, surprising plot and rich character-driven emotional stakes.


  1. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

An incisive, thoroughly of-the-moment psychological horror story,            A head full of ghostsHead Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is creepy, high-wire suspense, as well as trenchant social critique. Is 14 year-old Marjorie Barrett schizophrenic, possessed by an evil spirit or simply a deviously troubled adolescent? The pervasive miasma of dread that hangs over A Head Full of Ghosts is pierced by well-crafted (and well-timed) jolts, as well as the pointed observations and (often) unintended humor of Tremblay’s remarkably well-drawn and fully-fleshed narrator, Merry Barrett, the troubled Marjorie’s little sister.

While horror fans should love A Head Full of Ghosts, it is much more than another genre entry.

Forget the countless literal-minded, marketing-driven imitators that have come before: Paul Tremblay has delivered the real “next Gone Girl“. Working within a genre tradition and possessing all the requisite shocks, bumps and jaws drops, A Head Full of Ghosts comes from a definite, coherent point of view and has something resonant to say about our current culture. The only thing scarier than the horrors Tremblay presents are readers immune to the horrors he presents.

Embrace or ignore the “horror” designation, just don’t let it keep you away. A Head Full of Ghosts is so, so smart and about the most fun read I’ve come across in a while.

  1. The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman

fair fight goodThe story of  female boxers in 18th-century Bristol, England, The Fair Fight is smart and compelling exploration of the power of possibility – how while hope is essential, that which cannot be imagined cannot be hoped for. This book surprised and delighted me at every turn and featured, as one of the three points-of-view the story is told from, one of my absolute favorite literary characters. Freeman’s writing is incredibly confident and the characters are crafted with love and nuance.



  1. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City of Fire isn’t a Great American Novel (TM), but it is pretty great and it hallberg
is so American. Hell, it’s America*: it’s the cry of the lone individual always a part of, grasping for, rebelling against, relying on and resenting in equal measure the systems and institutions that make us who we are.

An epic book under the guidance of a steady-hand and poetic heart doing what only a book can do, City on Fire is a true feat. It’s immense in all the right ways.

though, predominantly a White America story, despite a prominent African American character and a major supporting Asian American character, it’s not a complete American story…hardly a knock–even a book this massive can’t capture the entire American story


  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (due March 2016)

jane steeleA loving and wholly original tribute/meta-fictive re-imagining of Jane Eyre, Jane Steele is a page-turning, ever-so-slightly larger-than-life, ridiculously fun and charming post-feminist hero story. Faye takes on Jane Eyre’s basic structure and themes of identity, class, patriarchy and reconciling personal happiness with virtue and gives us a heroine who, while trying to channel Jane Eyre as her spirit animal, finds she’s capable of and compelled to deal with her oppressors in more decisive and final (and murderous) ways. In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye’s writing is manifested and personified in Jane: irresistibly charming, reliably surprising, and equally prone to steal or break your heart (or stab you in it).


Ten other really terrific books:

The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick Dewitt; Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller; Speak by Louisa Hall; The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits; Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry; Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins; Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Yunil Sapa (due Jan. ’16); Mislaid by Nell Zinkmatt books

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The books we loved this year, Part 1

books 2

Need some ideas for what to buy the book lover in your life or suggestions for a terrific book to get lost in during your holiday down time? Let our book-loving booksellers help.


This week, we’ll be sharing our favorite books we read this year. The lists reflect the eclectic mix of interests we have; we all love books, but we don’t all love the same books.


Check out the lists and come into Booksellers and let us help you get perfect book for any reader. (Go to Part 2 here and blogger Matt’s personal top-10 here)


Karen Tallent

These are not in any particular order of best or least, just the books which provoked thought, enjoyment and exploration of the human condition.


Gold Fame Citrus by Clare Vaye Watkins-  This was a book all at once chilling and beautiful, often in the same sentence.  It follows the life of a young woman in a drought-ravaged California of the near future. Its landscapes will haunt you, and its people stay with you.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson-  The end of the world…and it’s rebirth over a five thousand year span.  A novel of human daring and ingenuity.  No one does it better than Stephenson.


A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay- Probably the finest work on the mystery of evil since William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.  Is young Marjorie truly possessed, or is she an intelligent and broken child using the instruments of media -fueled technology to further her own emotional, spiritual and physical demise?  Whatever you decide, the conclusion is inescapable: Marjorie and Merry Barrett are victims of human vanity and media exploitation.


You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.  A true modern karenmyth of identity and consumer-based obsession.  Hallucinatory, allegorical and wholly original.  To review this book is difficult. It must be experienced.


The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot- A fearless, well-researched  bio of Allen Walker Dulles by the founder of  Cold War realpolitik that will have you saying, “What? Are you kidding me?”


Nicole Yasinsky

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson


Mosquitoland by  David Arnold


An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahirember in the ashes


Sabaa Tahir has created a world that is terrifying and exhilarating–one that I hope I never find myself in, but of which I cannot get enough!! With action and twists as exciting as any episode of Game of Thrones, and prose that drives the story with crystal-clear precision and lyrical beauty, An Ember in the Ashes leaves the reader wondering what freedom really is, and contemplating what price each of us would be willing to pay to achieve it? How far would YOU go? Her talent shines through from start to finish, with characters that you love to root for, love to hate, and some you may find yourself sympathizing with, even though you probably shouldn’t…

I haven’t been this excited about a new author in the YA world in quite some time-I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for us!!


Thing Explainer by Randall Munro


Home by Carson Ellis



joanneJoanne Van Zant

Descent by Tim Johnston

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Lake House by Kate Morton


Ill give you the sunRachel Harris

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Everything, Everything by Nicole Yoon



Mark Frederick


Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide by Ian Tollpacific crucible

The first two volumes of Ian Toll’s brilliant “Pacific War Trilogy” are simply superb. As bracing as cold sea-spray, these narratives hoist naval writing to a new zenith. Five stars to Commodore Toll and a promotion to C.N.H. – Chief Naval Historian.


Target Tokyo by James M. Scott

Tense, dramatic and exciting, James Scott’s Target Tokyo thrillingly recounts America’s first great counter-punch to Japan after Pearl Harbor: The Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942. Each of the 16 air crews’ perilous journey is vividly detailed, while the individual heroism displayed that day is now legendary.


Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s Watreloo is the best of many books published this summer to commemorate the 20th anniversary of this historic battle (June 1815). Writing of French eland and British vigor (allied with Dutch and Prussian loyalty), Cornwell’s story of that “near run thing” (Wellington) is well-told. The numerous color illustrations are glorious.


Matt Wening

1). Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)-  High school teen, Zachary Lightman, looks out his classroom window to see a flying saucer flying outside his classroom window, a flying saucer from his favorite’s video game.  With the help of the millions of other gamers around the world, they must unite and use their training to defend the earth against an impending invasion.

2). The Martian by Andy Weir (2015) – U.S. astronaut Mark Whatney is stranded on Mars after a storm—a storm his colleagues thoughts killed him—forces his team to evacuate. With only his skills and the supplies left behind, he must find a way to survive and make it back home to Earth.

Matt w3). The Ritual by Adam Nevill (2011) – Four friends are backpacking through the forests of Sweden when they decide to take a shortcut to avoid the dreary weather that has followed them from the start of their trip. This shortcut however proves to be the most horrifying decision that they have ever made. Somewhere in the distance of the never-ending woods, an ancient beast begins to hunt them. Their survival solely relies on their cooperation, something that has been tested from the moment they entered the ancient forest.

4). PT-109 by William Doyle (2015) – Doyle investigates and brings to light newly found evidence and articles that pertain to John F. Kennedy’s fantastically wild altercation he had during World War II, when his PT boat was struck, and sunk, by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.  Kennedy and his surviving crew swam to the surrounding islands avoiding sharks, Japanese patrol boats, and possible hostile natives. A completely true and wild tale featuring one of Americas most loved and infamous presidents.

5).  Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990) –  Revisiting this twenty-five year old classic with the release of the newest addition to its movie franchise this year, it proves to be just as satisfying now as it did when Michael Crichton first published it in 1990.  A group of specialists are invited to a tropical island to review billionaire John Hammond’s newest ground-breaking attraction: a dinosaur park.  Twenty-four hours at the park turns out to be the most terrifying adventure of their lives, however.  They must work together to survive this terror 65 million years in the making. Touching on ground-breaking ideas of the time, Crichton includes DNA sequencing, genetics and chaos theory in this novel that truly is a page-turner till the very end.

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Bargain, banned and burned books, or watching the smoke, ignoring the Fire


So. This is interesting news for the book world: Amazon opened a bricks-and-mortar store this week.

Yep. The online monolith that sells everything from books to bikes, bath mats to baby wipes, and bytes and bytes of music, movies, e-books, and original TV programming, all online, has decided to open a good, ol’ fashioned bookstore.

As a bookseller at an independent bookstore, I’m not happy. Not because big, bad Amazon, the behemoth with the bookstore body count, is entering our turf.

I’m not happy because the coverage of this story is missing the point. Amazon’s foray isn’t ironic, nor is it a retail curio.

It’s the logical extension of every single thing Amazon does: to strategically insinuate itself into all aspects of consumers’ lives to take a larger share of those consumers’ dollars.


True confession time: this is the post I never wanted to write. I never intended to.

It’s nearly impossible for an independent bookseller to talk about Amazon without sounding like the buggy salesman shaking his fist at Henry Ford.

I’m no Luddite. I’m pro progress. Personally, I’m agnostic on the subject of e-readers, in general. I don’t use one, simply because paper books are more conducive to my lifestyle. I don’t like the planning and care that goes along with maintaining an e-reader. If an e-reader fits your preferences or lifestyle better, then go on and e-read.

At a macro level, I’m pro e-readers. There are parts of the world where it’s impossible, for political, economic or logistical reasons, to get bound books into the hands of people. Technology is wondrous and smartphones, tablets and e-readers open up the possibility to give countless people access to the universe of the written word. This is a good thing.

I’m no book fetishist. Paper and glue and cardboard and twine are physical components of books, but they aren’t the book.   The words and ideas are what make the book. That’s what I care about. They are delivered to me on paper. You get yours delivered how you want them.

I don’t work in a bookstore because I love retail. I am a bookseller because I love books.


What bugs me about this story is how this new venture is being covered: it’s not about the bricks-and-mortar; it’s about the books inside the store.

What Amazon is touting as its competitive difference as a bricks-and-mortar retailer is its very Amazoness:

“We’ve applied 20 years of online book-selling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, said in a statement Monday. “The books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments.”

While subsequent reports clarify that the store will “consult flesh and blood book experts to curate the selection”, this merely seems to serve the purpose of assuring customers the store won’t be staffed with robotic automatons. It’s unclear, however, if the humans working in the store are the “experts” who “curate” the selection or if they’re flesh-and-blood Amazon automatons directed by some algorithm-based management system.

I don’t dislike Amazon because they’re a competitor. I dislike (and personally boycott) Amazon because they don’t give a flip about books. This isn’t the hermetic rant of an anti-capitalist. It’s fact.

cat raqccoon

Amazon Majordomo Jeff Bezos has made no secret of this. He picked books as the first product offering for Amazon because they were easy to ship, impossible to break and, most importantly, he wanted to gather data on the educated and affluent consumers who were the typical book buyers.

Amazon’s commodification of books was starkly illustrated in it battles with the publishing industry. After years of demanding greater and greater price concessions from publishers, Hachette pushed back. Amazon responded by removing books from Hachette authors from its site. If an Amazon user searched for a title published by Hachette, Amazon would take them to the page for some other, “similar” book. While genre and subject matter filters were likely included in the algorithm to suggest “similar” books, I’m not certain that size, weight, cover color and page count weren’t also included.

For Amazon, one book is as good as another. They are a commodity. That’s why I can’t (and won’t) give Amazon a dime of my money (and their well-documented mistreatment of employees only fortifies my resolve). This is principle, not self-preservation.

faiting couch

When we think of banning books, we think of priggish school marms clutching their pearls and wailing about “the children” or humorless, grim-faced Soviet-style bureaucrats.

In our current times (East Tennessee mothers concerned about teenage boys reading acclaimed history books where a science writer writes clinically about lady parts notwithstanding), the elimination of voices takes a much more subtle form.

Make no mistake, in seeing books as just a commodity like anything else they sell, Amazon’s reach and market penetration enable them to de facto ban books for people who can’t access a local bookstore. As they did with Hachette, they can decide at any moment just to not offer whatever books they don’t want to…or those they don’t make an acceptable (to them) margin off of.

Because, at the end of the day, all Amazon cares about is your money. If they made more money off burning books and delivering the ashes to your door, they would. If they made money off of it, they would deliver buckets of Ebola to you.

In a time when Amazon is focused on ramping up their original TV programming for customers to stream on the same device they use to buy Amazon products, including e-books, a brick-and-mortar store seems an unusual play for them. You’d think they’d prefer for e-books to completely subsume the paper book market.

Their e-reader is, after all, called the “Kindle Fire”.

But, today, Amazon seems to be betting on what we independent bookstores already know: that nothing can replace a neighborhood bookstore staffed with passionate, knowledgeable, gloriously idiosyncratic booksellers.

Amazon’s betting that they have just the formula to replicate that.

I’m betting it’s “similar.”

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[INSERT SIR MIX-A-LOT-BASED BOOKISH PUN HERE], or New York, New York, it’s a helluva town


Yesterday was a big day for books. More to the point, it was a big day for big books; on the same day Marlon James’ 700+ page A Brief History of Seven Killings was awarded the 2015 Man Booker prize, the most hyped debut novel of the year, Garth Risk Hallberg’s 944 page tome of New York in the 1970’s, City on Fire, hit shelves. Yesterday was a big big book day for me, as well: I finished the completely immersive, completely devastating A Little Life, the 736 page Man Booker finalist by Hanya Yanagihara.

There was some personal symmetry with me completing A Little Life on the same day City on Fire was released. They are two of my favorite novels of 2015 and, while hefty page counts and a New York setting are obvious points of comparison, they are both, at their hearts, books about memory. These points of comparison are, in truth, fascinating and instructive points of contrast that illustrate different ways authors can conjure the magic that only books can deliver.


A Central Park shooting of a teenager girl on New Year’s Eve 1976 is the inciting action that brings the 8-10 “main” characters of City on Fire together. Their lives are connected and intersect in Dickensian fashion and their various stories converge in the July 1977 city-wide blackout. City on Fire is about art, high finance, punk rock, outer borough suburban life, city union contracts, fireworks, anarchists, high society, Tom Wolfe-style “new journalism”, police procedure amidst budget cuts, etc. The scope is luxe, rich, focused. Hallberg switches points of view and moves back-and-forth through time effortlessly.

Hallberg paints with a hand as sure as any I recall. The audacity to take on this scope and ability to, by god, absolutely pull it off is remarkable. About 700 or so pages into the 924-page novel, it struck me what an incredible job of pacing he’d done. Nowhere dragged. No one storyline pulled the narrative down.

I’m not sure City of Fire is a Great American Novel (TM), but it is pretty great and it is so American. Hell, it’s America*: it’s the cry of the lone individual always a part of, grasping for, rebelling against, relying on and resenting in equal measure the systems and institutions that make us who we are.

* Predominantly a White America story, despite a prominent African American character and a major supporting Asian American character, City on Fire not a complete American story. This is hardly a knock: even a book this massive can’t capture the entire American story

littkle life

I’m hesitant to write too much about what A Little Life is “about”. First, I just finished it and, frankly, I haven’t fully recovered. Second, I don’t want to unduly (mis)direct anyone’s reading of it. It is simplest and, hopefully, most accurate to say that A Little Life is about…life. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the power of memory.

A Little Life follows the lives–the personal and professional triumphs and failures, the joys and sorrows, the everything-in-between–of four college friends: Willem Ragnarsson, dreamboat,  waiter/aspiring actor, orphan and only surviving member of a family Montana ranch hands; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, life of the party, utterly assured painter raised by a doting Haitian-American mother and aunt; Malcolm Irvine, architect, dreamer, self-doubting scion of the 2nd African American CFO of a major Wall Street financial house and white mother, an author; and Jude St. Francis, quiet, withdrawn math savant and legal whiz.

Yanagihara introduces us to these friends as college students at an unnamed prestigious New England university (read: Harvard) and follows them over 30 years. The story is told from each character’s point of view, though, as the novel progresses, one character’s story, by design, takes on more prominence and becomes the focus.

As I noted before, I hate to give too much more detail about A Little Life. It should be experienced. But it should also come with a warning label. This is so not a book for everyone.

A Little Life is an emotional dirty bomb. It is dark, so dark. It took me to emotional neighborhoods I’ve never seen from the highway, much less driven through…lingered in…taken up squatting in. On two separate occasions it caused me to spontaneously erupt in tears. Tears of grief. No book has taken such an emotional toll. Yanagihara could be tried for emotional war crimes.

This book is powerful. It rearranged my insides.

This book haunts me. I miss being able to rejoin these lives.

It’s amazing. It’s is not for everyone.

yin yang

With their heft and weight and (somewhat) shared locales City on Fire and A Little Life stand in near-perfect symmetrical counterpoise to each other. Both will end up in my top 10 books of 2015, but they couldn’t be more different in how they achieve their effect.

In City on Fire, Hallberg utilizes memory (and nostalgia) for a specific time and place, recreating New York City in the 1970’s with precision and detail. You can see and hear and smell the City and its people. He so effectively paints an enormous picture with exacting detail, then uses this specific moment in time as an inflection point to tell us a larger story about who we, America, are today.

Yanagihara’s use of memory is masterfully impressionistic. As much as anything, A Little Life is about how memory constructs and gives us shape, how it enriches and inhibits. Her story structure itself mimics the vagaries and subjectiveness of an individual’s memory. Our memories are not temporally proportional within our personal narratives: one moment can shape our self-conception forever from which no number of opposing moments can undo. “Big” events can fall away, becoming a faded, fuzzy watermark on memory, while the seemingly insignificant day-to-day moments can be what we treasure most. We can be desperate to hold on to memories when we lose a loved one and even more desperate to banish memories that haunt us. We can’t control them. They come and go as they please and, at their worst, they control us.

While their methods and aims are different, both Hallberg’s and Yanagihara’s books succeed because of the specificity of the memories they vibrantly bring to life. Hallberg’s is wide and pointillist. Yanagihara’s is deep and all-consuming. Both have created wildly immersive experiences that are, in very different ways, unforgettable, and bring to mind one of my favorite quotes I’ve picked up along life’s way:

“You and I come forth as possibilities of essential nature, alone and independent as stars…The self is completely autonomous, yet exists only in resonance with all other selves.”  (Robert Baker Aitken, Zen master and peace activist)

Or…”You are infinite. I see you. You are not alone.”

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An incredible 75 year-old discovery, or the joys of reading under pressure


Reading shouldn’t be something one feel pressured into, right?

It should be a pleasurable and, aside from special circumstances (school, work, etc.), a fully voluntary and free-flowing use of one’s time.

I’ve somehow worked myself into a bit of a corner, reading-wise and am feeling the pressure. As a bookseller, I want to be in-the-know about the noteworthy, challenging, thorny, off-the-beaten-path new books, those that I tend to find most rewarding. I have friends and customers who look to me for my recommendations along those lines. I also like to be able to talk with customers about some of the popular bestsellers. I like to always have at least two or three of those in my recommendations bank. I also like to maintain strong, responsive relationships with my publisher representatives. They send me books because they think I’ll like them and be able to help hand-sell them in the store. In exchange, I get a stream of (frequently) amazing books. It’s a win-win. But I want to always read and provide feedback on what they sent. It’s my part of the deal.

My to-read pile only gets bigger and I’m regularly feeling the pressure to make a dent in it.*

Add to this our monthly ICYMI book club. In the four months we’ve met thus far, the experience has exceeded even my most optimistic hopes when I conceived of it. The books have been fantastic and the discussions are even better: lively, really smart and insightful. We’ve got a terrific group of readers. You should join us if you’ve any interest. If you like to think about books and talk about books (and, frequently, laugh about books), you’d enjoy it.

However, the monthly selection is another reading obligation added to my almost overwhelming existing one. I know, I know. This is entirely self-imposed, but books I feel I need to read comprise almost all my reading these days.

hunterI picked up this month’s ICYMI book club selection, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, with little optimism. In my commitment to full participation in the group, I was going to read the darn thing even though there were many, many other books I also should be reading that I wanted to read more. Oh well, at least I could cross it off my near-fathomless pile of “classics” I’ve never read.

Sure, I knew Carson McCuller’s 1940 debut novel was considered a classic, but I have little interest in reading those paeans to the dusty, humid, simple nobility of the oddballs of the rural south that populate the literary landscape. With the knowledge that McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old (and that it was an Oprah book club pick at one time), I was fully expecting a sad-sack tale of winsome, youthful longing, a 400-page slide guitar solo.

I was so, so wrong. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter rages. It’s the rage of the powerless, the voiceless. It’s the rage of the rioter: singular, but omnidirectional, at everything, but directed at no one. It’s punk rock.

Hunter is told from the shifting points of view of five main characters and their stories demonstrate how religion, democracy, society, capitalism, marriage and family are all forms of soft fascism, designed to constrain you with a false consciousness and tether you to an impossible binary: acquiesce to “your place” or be put in it. The only escape, McCullers seems to suggest, is death or, maybe, possibly, love (though it is unlikely).

This is hard, angry, bleak stuff. The fact that it was so well-received, both critically and commercially, upon its 1940 release (and through the ensuing years) is attributable to McCullers’ beautiful, unadorned prose and lovely voice. Her writing is warm and sad. It washes over you and carries you along. It flows.

McCullers demonstrates such deep, palpable empathy and understanding for her main characters, all flawed to varying degrees. Her ability to understand and achingly convey the complexities and contradictions within the hearts and minds of such wildly disparate characters (a middle-aged diner owner and widower; an aging African American doctor and father with an explosive temper; an itinerant adult male alcoholic Marxist wannabe-revolutionary; a fastidious, likely homosexual, deaf-mute adult man; and a 14-year old tomboy) is uncanny and charitable…

What’s been left unsaid is the insight and humanity in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a literary achievement for a 23 year-old. The truth is it would be an achievement for a writer at any age. Carson McCullers created a masterwork that burns with immediacy, with hard bleak truths and human understanding that are as relevant and relatable today as they were in 1940.

If it weren’t for the book club, I likely would have never picked this book up and I would have been the poorer for it. See, I need to be forced to pause in my voracious, always looking forward reading habits. I knew this when I suggested the premise for the ICYMI book club. Despite having a mapped-out reading schedule for (frequently) weeks in advance, maybe I don’t always know what I really want, reading-wise. A book I had to read became a book I’m incredibly glad I didn’t just never get around to.

How many other books are out there that I’d like this much and have heretofore missed and will never get to unless forced to? And what are?

Tell me.

(Seriously. I’d like to know.)

*NOTE: This is in no way a complaint. I’m drowning in terrific books to read. <sarcastic italics warning> Woe is me. Seriously, it’s amazing. I love what I do.

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