From the Shelf
Never Get Old
Age-old wisdom can easily become lost amid today's growing mountains of competing ideologies. In his 1915 address to students of the Froebel Educational Institute, Jewish scholar C.G. Montefiore stressed the importance of balancing an open, curious mind with one ready to test new fads and theories for durability--a pivotal habit for those who wish to stay young while growing old. Pushkin Press' London Library series gives readers a chance to dip into knowledge from a century ago, and I'd say Life in a Bustle: Advice to Youth (which contains Montefiore's speech and two other turn-of-the-century pamphlets on health and well-being in a busy society) holds up superbly.
"Youth is said to be the season for hero-worship, but if we want to keep young, that worship must persist all through our lives," writes Montefiore, quick to clarify that he does not consider this an affected and shallow notion. "I mean the power to feel before the human mind and before human goodness a certain reverence, a certain awe." I speak from experience when I say that there are few things more satisfying than discovering people worth admiring, and telling them so.
I'd only add that stopping a moment to marvel at the non-human wonders that surround us, too, can bring a youthful jolt back into the day. Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series dwells on subjects many of us may take for granted: eggs, traffic, trees, earth. In the hands of contributing essayists like Nicole Walker, Paul Josephson, Matthew Battles, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, however, such commonalities leap from the doldrums with a rush of color.
At the risk of sounding like the Insane Clown Posse hit "Miracles," (which implores, "It ain't no way/ to ignore the miracles of every day"), the world is teeming with wonders. Stay curious. Stay astonished. Stay young. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
In this Issue...
by Hari Kunzru
Amid an increasingly distorted sense of reality, an old blues track haunts the two music nerds who thought they had created it.
by V. Sanjay Kumar
Mumbai teems with lurid intrigue in this smart and affecting work of postmodern noir.
by Steven B. Frank
In 1974, two 11-year-old boys, one white and one black, learn that their differences don't have to keep them from becoming friends in this funny and moving middle-grade novel.
Review by Subjects:
Walking with the Brontë Sisters
The Novel Destinations blog featured "5 must-do pastimes in Brontë country," for viewers struck by wanderlust after watching the PBS Masterpiece drama To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, which will make its debut this coming Sunday, March 26.
Grammar nerd headline of the day (via the Guardian): "Oxford comma helps drivers win dispute about overtime pay."
Author Mary Beard (SPQR) chose her "top five powerful women in ancient Greece and Rome" for the British Museum blog.
Check it out: "Giant cedar tree repurposed as a Little Free Library."
Mental Floss revealed "11 authors who hated the movie versions of their books."
Alessio Rocchi's Hoja bookcase "allows you to hold about 40 books in a small space," Bookshelf noted.
Chris Hayes: The Political Equivalent of Enriched Uranium
|photo: Virginia Sherwood|
Chris Hayes is the Emmy Award-winning host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, the New York Times bestselling author of Twilight of the Elites, and an editor-at-large at the Nation. His newest book, A Colony in a Nation, argues that American society has been split into two parts: the Colony and the Nation. In the Colony, life is characterized by aggressive policing and abridged civil rights. The Nation enjoys a much higher quality of life with more lenient policing. Hayes explains how the dynamic was created and why it persists.
How did you come up with the Colony/Nation framework?
Two things led me to it. The first was my time in Ferguson after the controversial police shooting of Michael Brown. I was overwhelmed by the ways in which the police felt so much like an occupying force. It felt that way not just to the protesters and residents, but the media as well. And when you talked to residents, you heard stories of police conduct that sounded like the kind of petty, capricious predation I normally associate with dictatorships or places under occupation, not a liberal democracy. (I should make the obvious point here that this is the experience of policing for millions of black and brown folks all over the country). As I continued to report, I was struck how policing in the U.S. looks nothing like the ideal notion of democratic accountability. Then I read Nixon's 1968 speech, in which he uses this phrase about African Americans: "They don't want to be a colony in a nation." And it stuck in my head. That's basically what we've created.
Would it be fair to say that your book is, in large part, an attempt to explain black and brown experiences of the law to white America?
As a writer, you want everyone to read your book, across every racial and ideological category. In part, this book is trying to explain to white people why the Colony/Nation divide affects everyone, both as a matter of racial justice, but also as a question of the most fundamental democratic commitments we have as a citizenry and people.
But for readers who are already familiar with the effects of this policing regime, particularly readers of color, I hope the book offers some fresh insight into how the system got built. Like, why did white people make this? And using my own experiences to excavate the nature of white fear and how powerful and seductive it is, I hope people come away feeling they have a better sense of the political substrate of the system we've built.
Do you think that citizens of the Nation truly don't understand how bad things are in the Colony or do they understand but consider it a small price to pay for personal safety?
I think it's both. The vast majority of people aren't spending a ton of time thinking about criminology. And at an intuitive level, it's not crazy to think, "well, we had a lot of crime and then we hired a lot more cops and started putting a lot more people in prison and crime went down." But I also do think faith in that basic story is predicated on not having to confront on a daily basis the immense costs that mass incarceration and stop-and-frisk policing impose on our fellow citizens. It's not that different from the ways in which Americans think about American foreign policy--they hear about it in an abstract sense, but they don't have to directly experience the worst consequences of it.
America was founded with different systems of justice already in place in regard to white citizens and black slaves. Hasn't black America always been "a Colony in a Nation?" What has changed?
Of course, from slavery to Jim Crow, separate systems of justice are foundational. And, in fact, this notion of internal colonization and separateness is an old one. I quote DuBois referring to black Americans as constituting a "nation within a nation." What's changed, I think, and what distinguishes this particular era is the development of black political power. Part of the structure of Jim Crow was to block enfranchisement and black representation. Today, there's greater black elected political power than any time in the nation's history (though it is still a small fraction of all elected reps) and yet that enfranchisement has not eradicated this internal division and the democratic deficiency it represents.
President Trump successfully ran as a "law and order" candidate despite crime rates at historic lows. What is fueling the disparity between perception and reality that Trump capitalized on? Do you worry that the Colony will suffer more under his administration?
Well, yes. I mean, he basically just threatened to declare martial law in Chicago because he was watching a Fox News segment on violence there. Remember, Donald Trump is someone whose entire worldview was shaped in the high crime New York City I grew up in, which I describe in the book--one where white fear thrived. Trump famously called for the execution of the Central Park Five, who spent years in prison before being exonerated. He's never apologized and still contends they were guilty! In many ways Trump was able to the take the local politics of law and order and the cultivation of white fear of the New York City of my youth and project it out across the nation, integrating other threats--Muslims and immigrants primarily. The message is that the country is disordered and dangerous due to lawlessness at the border: unruly, violent criminal immigrants, a Muslim fifth column and inner-city black violence. In the book, I call this "the political equivalent of enriched uranium." It's a way of triggering the absolute worst impulses in white voters, and as a campaign tactic it's been very successful. We're just beginning to see--with the immigration executive order that bans travelers from seven Muslim countries--how it works as a governing agenda.
America is a nation founded on revolution but obsessed with order. How do you think veneration for our rebellious ancestors coexists in American minds with such a strong intolerance toward disunity of any kind?
This is a great question and touches on a great historical irony I wrestle with at length in the book. The same folks who attended tea party rallies with Gadsden flags and tricorne hats are the most likely to say police aren't sufficiently respected and that you should just do what a cop says, no matter what. There's a deep tension there! The original tricorne hat crew used to like to beat up customs officers and tar and feather them. Can you imagine, if a mob did that to a modern-day police officer, how constitutional conservatives would feel? So, I don't think there's a single answer. The tension between fidelity toward our revolutionary founders and our deep desire for order is forever unresolved and plays out in all kinds of ways in our politics.
Books of this kind often identify a problem and then propose solutions. I didn't find much in the way of policy prescriptions in A Colony in a Nation. Was that a deliberate choice?
It was absolutely intentional. I wanted to avoid what some people call "The Last Chapter Problem." It's what happens when a nonfiction author lays out a critique of some social problem in the first 90% of the book and then uses the last 10% to attempt to solve it. It rarely works. In fact, I did precisely this in my first book, Twilight of the Elites. The first 90% of that book holds up, I think, remarkably well. In fact, I think in many ways it's more relevant than it's ever been. But I can't say the same for the last chapter. I also think I was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who believes that it's not a social critic's job to offer solutions. If people are moved by the book, they will seek out experts and advocates offering concrete solutions.
Is there a "win-win" scenario or does any potential fix require there be a "loser?"
That's the big question, isn't it? I want to believe it's win-win. I mean, I genuinely do believe we can have a more equal, safer nation, where people can flourish and exercise the full liberty and autonomy that should be our birthright as Americans. But I also don't want to discount the more difficult notion that the current arrangement represents a kind of redistribution from the Colony to the Nation and that abolishing the "colonial" arrangement would mean that the Nation would lose privileges and benefits it currently enjoys. We need to develop a political language and framework to destroy the boundaries of the Colony and the Nation even if that's true. --Hank Stephenson
by Hari Kunzru
With White Tears, Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men) bends time when two audiophiles happen upon a storied old blues track. Seth is a socially inept weirdo. He builds his own sound equipment and wanders Manhattan, recording the ambient noises of the city. His only friend is Carter, a brooding record collector and producer obsessed with black music. They are rising stars in the music industry. When Seth unwittingly picks up a man's voice singing an entrancing blues song, Carter fixates on it. With a little studio magic, they isolate the song, add a bit of old-timey patina and arbitrarily name it "Graveyard Blues" by Charlie Shaw. Carter posts it to collector forums. If they can pass off a recording from last week as a rare 1928 blues single, what can't these white boys do?
That act of hubris launches the duo into a dangerous slipstream, however, when a mysterious collector demands to know where they found the record--and what the B-side is. After their ruse is exposed, Carter is seriously injured and hospitalized, and Seth must confront the possibility that Charlie Shaw may be more than just a fabrication.
A gifted surrealist, Kunzru twists together a gripping story about obsession, musicology, race and the pathology of white guilt. He blurs distinctions between several first-person narrators as Seth, trapped in an alarming fugue state, seeks absolution. White Tears is a slippery, daring novel that raises provocative questions about appropriation and reparations. Kunzru conjures a Faustian bargain for the boys who "really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness." --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Amid an increasingly distorted sense of reality, an old blues track haunts the two music nerds who thought they had created it.
by Peter Heller
When a knockout mystery is the least fabulous element of a novel, something exceptional is afoot. Celine by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars) gives us an intriguing protagonist in a suspenseful thriller.
Born into American aristocracy, Celine Watkins is as comfortable in Jackie O sunglasses as a Glock shoulder holster. She's a 69-year-old recovering alcoholic with emphysema and a mysterious history in government work. The epitome of an old-school movie dame, she's wickedly sharp and does not suffer fools.
A private investigator with a soft spot for lost causes, she specializes in reuniting families. One day a stranger named Gabriela shares the story of her beloved father, long believed dead. Celine and Pete, her perfect counterweight of a husband, are sufficiently intrigued to set out in a borrowed camper to investigate.
The inquiry serves as backdrop for larger themes about art, despair, loyalty, obligation and privilege, illuminating Celine's colorful history and deeper motivations along the way. Heller's writing is smart and clever, the depth and vitality of his characters second to none.
When a novel like Heller's Celine unfurls page after page--when the characters are so rich one doesn't want to break the bond by turning the last one--it's an honor to have inhabited its world. Pete summarizes it best: when one moves through the world with Celine, it's simply more fun. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A tough PI and her husband hit the road to investigate the decades-old disappearance of an artist who's long been assumed dead.
by Suellen Dainty
When the famous Chef Anton--Anne Morgan's boyfriend and boss--tells her he's in love with someone else, she's both devastated and suddenly in need of a job. Anne's always worked in professional kitchens, but, on a whim, she applies for the position of housekeeper for her idol Emma Helmsley, a lifestyle guru who is essentially the English Martha Stewart.
Soon Anne is practically the fifth member of the illustrious Helmsley family--enjoying working in their home and getting to know Emma; her husband, Rob, a prominent television personality and academic; and their two charming children, Jake and Lily. But she's surprised to discover that all is not as it seems on the surface and, as the months go by and Anne learns more of the Helmsleys' dirty secrets, her future becomes increasingly entwined with theirs. Meanwhile, shocking truths about Anne's own past come to light, with repercussions for all of them.
Suellen Dainty (After Everything) has created a detailed and slowly paced (yet completely addicting) story in The Housekeeper. Anne's repressed personality and the gilded Helmsley family don't seem to mesh at first glance, but as the novel unfolds and the Helmsleys' emotional vagaries play out, the reader will be frantic to know how it ends. Somewhere between chick lit and tense psychological thriller, The Housekeeper is a tantalizing glimpse into the everyday lives of the rich and famous--and the people who work for them. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: A housekeeper discovers the dark secrets her rich employers are hiding.
Mystery & Thriller
The Third Squad
by V. Sanjay Kumar
V. Sanjay Kumar (Artist, Undone) delivers dark literary noir in his strange yet hard-hitting crime novel The Third Squad.
Set in Mumbai, the novel follows the secret and deadly work of a police sharpshooter named Karan. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Karan is recruited into an elite police squad that carries out extrajudicial killings of the city's burgeoning gangster population. With these unusual elements, as well as surrealist descriptions and aphoristic dialogue, Kumar produces an eerie postmodern atmosphere of urban chaos and moral ambiguity. Karan is haunted by his inability to feel and process the killings normally; Kumar skillfully ties this mood to the shape-shifting city itself. His Mumbai embodies the vagaries of globalization, where an emerging middle class must contend with chronic poverty and a vicious criminal underbelly. Kaleidoscopic shifts in point-of-view further evoke this fragmentation of civil life and a blurring of right and wrong.
Kumar's understated, deadpan style cloaks his wit, poetic intelligence and impressive perceptiveness. Beneath the novel's anomie and shadowy atmospherics is a humanist inquiry into the worth and dignity of life. "I am a person, not a puzzle," Karan repeats throughout, as if trying to affirm his own humanity. The Third Squad ends with an emotional wallop, making it stand out among crime novels. It has the chiaroscuro effects of classic noir, but also the philosophical depth of highbrow literary fiction. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist and fiction author
Discover: Mumbai teems with lurid intrigue in this smart and affecting work of postmodern noir.
The Wages of Sin
by Kaite Welsh
Sarah Gilchrist, the tenacious protagonist of Kaite Welsh's gripping debut thriller, The Wages of Sin, knows how seedy Edinburgh, Scotland can get--and she learned it the hard way. In 1882, when few women worked as doctors, Sarah has enrolled in Edinburgh's medical school, where male classmates harass her mercilessly. Between trying to study and finding her resolve to stay in school, she volunteers at an infirmary. There she meets Lucy, a young prostitute carrying an unwanted baby. A few days later, Lucy reappears in Sarah's life--as a corpse on her school's examination table. No one except Sarah has noticed the signs of murder on the dead woman's body, and she is determined to find the killer.
What follows is an exhilarating and atmospheric mystery set mostly in the gas-lit streets of Edinburgh. Welsh adroitly captures details of the time--the cobbled streets, a whalebone corset--while making space for Sarah's more contemporary sensibilities. Indeed, Sarah, with her radical (for the time) notion that women like Lucy deserve police protection, reads as a spokesperson for modern-day feminism. In the hands of a lesser writer, Sarah's anachronistic qualities would clang with inauthenticity. But here, Welsh, who is also a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, balances her protagonist's progressive inclinations with a self-awareness that enables her to play the roles (good niece, demure dinner guest) that the era demands. The result is a layered, provocative and riveting mystery about Victorian dynamics and womanhood. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In Victorian Edinburgh, a medical student risks her life and rejects the gender norms of the day to solve a murder mystery.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Song Rising
by Samantha Shannon
In the third installment in Samantha Shannon's projected seven-book Bone Season series, the motley crew of clairvoyants are surrounded by adversaries. The government is determined to hunt them down using a dangerous new technology while panic leads to vicious infighting.
In the near-future realm of Scion (an alternate-universe version of England and eight other European nations), the ScionIDE military is poised to seek out and quarantine the so-called "unnaturals," people with psychic gifts. Though a prejudicial human bureaucracy fronts Scion, the strings are pulled by ethereal entities called the Rephaim, who exploit the clairvoyant captives as an expendable force against their enemies. Following the events of The Mime Order, 19-year-old dreamwalker and seventh-level clairvoyant Paige Mahoney now rules the London voyant underground as Underqueen and co-leads the Mime Order (which aims to overthrow Scion). When rumors reach her of a coming portable Senshield scanner, Paige gathers her closest confederates, intent to destroy its power source for good.
Series newbies would do well to begin with The Bone Season, though the author's blog contains detailed recaps. Paige shines as she finally gets the chance to take the fight to Scion, but also realizes that straightforward revolutions where "the world stands with you in your fight... [exist] only in daydreams." Shannon's hybridized world combines sci-fi and fantasy as the perfect backdrop for a human rights thriller. While many issues remain unresolved, including romantic subplots, readers who sign on for the series will appreciate the amount of meat on the bone for future adventures. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: In the third book in the Bone Season series, clairvoyant Paige Mahoney faces hard choices and dangerous missions as the Underqueen of London.
Biography & Memoir
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
by Michael Finkel
On April 4, 2013, 47-year-old Christopher Thomas Knight was arrested during a break-in at a summer camp for the disabled in the woods of central Maine. What made that otherwise unremarkable apprehension of a petty thief extraordinary was the identity of the perpetrator--someone who had spent 27 years in those woods, intentionally cut off from any human contact. The Stranger in the Woods is journalist Michael Finkel's intimate account of Knight's long sojourn, one man's singular response when the tension of living in society became unbearable.
After Knight left his job installing home and vehicle alarm systems in 1986, he made his way to an area about 25 miles north of Augusta, where he settled for the duration of his time in the woods. He supported himself through periodic raids on the nearby camp and seasonally occupied cabins. One of the most striking aspects of Knight's isolation was the fact that his elaborate hiding place lay about a three-minute walk from the nearest cabin. And yet, in all those years, his only human encounter was a brief one with a passing hiker in the 1990s.
Finkel (True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa) adroitly connects Knight's story to accounts of other hermits. In the fast-moving 200 pages of The Stranger in the Woods, Finkel takes pains not to deify or demonize him. He does offer an undeniably sympathetic portrait of his subject, a "refugee from the human race." His account will appeal to readers who enjoy stories of encounters with both the natural world and the natures within. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Discover: Journalist Michael Finkel offers a fascinating look at one man's 27 years as a hermit in the Maine woods.
The Devil's Mercedes: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler's Limousine in America
by Robert Klara
The Mercedes-Benz 770K W150 was a monstrous limousine used by monstrous men. These bulletproof behemoths carried high-ranking Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, around the Third Reich. Famous photos of crowds hailing the Fuhrer showcase the sheer menace of these machines, with hoods as long as some whole cars, seating for eight and grilles that look like something off of a battleship. After Germany's defeat, 770Ks became coveted war trophies. Several of them were brought to the United States in the years after the war. These vehicles, with little or no evidence, were often touted as Hitler's personal car, ignoring the fact that he had a whole motorpool of Mercedes.
In The Devil's Mercedes, Robert Klara (The Hidden White House; FDR's Funeral Train) tracks the winding provenance of two 770Ks and the eccentric cast of characters who possessed them. The first is a Mercedes used as payment, in lieu of hard currency, from Sweden to a Chicago businessman. The second is captured by an American soldier in Bavaria, borrowed by a general for his personal ride, then shipped home. Klara follows the roads taken by these cars under various ownerships, through record-setting auctions and fund-raising tours, storage in warehouses and museums, and back to their original riders, whose real identities are a rewarding surprise. The Devil's Mercedes is an engrossing mystery with thematic depth, a look at how cars, admittedly impressive ones, became symbols of Nazi horror, and what those symbols have meant for generations of Americans. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer
Discover: Two monstrous Mercedes limos used by the Nazis undergo a peculiar exchange of hands.
Essays & Criticism
Bit Rot: Stories + Essays
by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland (Generation X) is a media theorist, artist, writer and designer. He's also wickedly funny, which makes his thoughts on modernity all the more biting and enjoyable. Bit Rot, a collection of essays, short fiction and pieces that are best described as miscellanea, shows off all sides of Coupland's work without ever losing his sardonic edge. Because few pieces go over five pages, the book feels like an ongoing conversation with a hilarious, intelligent friend.
Bit Rot is mostly made up of essays that both skewer and defend contemporary existence. Coupland is upfront about his own susceptibility to nostalgia, but also has little patience for anyone who believes that the world is somehow worse off due to the Internet, smartphones and the like. One might assume Coupland is a misanthropist, given his sense of humor, but he's nothing of the sort. In the piece "Stuffed," he explores hoarding from prehistoric times to the present, showing how our need for "stuff" is both pathological and simply a way of being human.
The short works of fiction dotted throughout Bit Rot provide a nice change of pace without losing sight of Coupland's arguments. By placing them alongside the essays, he's able to present his topics in different modes of discourse. This is especially welcome since he sometimes has the tendency to repeat himself in the essays (which, to be fair, should be somewhat expected in a 400-page collection). Even with that minor quibble, Bit Rot remains an engaging, thought-provoking look at the modern age through the thoughts of one smart, funny man. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: This collection by Douglas Coupland helps make sense of the modern condition.
Psychology & Self-Help
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Lisa Feldman Barrett (Handbook of Emotions) is a psychologist, neuroscientist and the director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University. In How Emotions Are Made, she explains a new theory of emotion that may be counterintuitive for many people but has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of almost every aspect of life.
Most of us probably take for granted what Barrett calls "the classical view of emotion"--emotions as universal, irrational, reflexive responses to our experiences. However, she says, if scientists ignore the classical view and look only at the data, they find that emotions are not hardwired, or universal, or triggered by external events: "You are not a passive receiver of sensory input, but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action." We create our emotional realities, which means we also have the power to change them intentionally.
This is a well-structured, enjoyable book, written in a conversational style and augmented by four appendixes, thorough notes, an extensive bibliography and links to more information online. Barrett summarizes the history of emotional science and the current state of the field, and explains how biology and culture work together to form the concepts that create our emotions. She also describes how this new understanding of emotion may be practically applied to balance our emotional health, rewire our emotional responses and transform our approaches to social issues, health care, other species and law enforcement. --Sara Catterall
Discover: A neuroscientist offers an enjoyable guide to a revolutionary scientific theory of emotion and its practical applications.
Children's & Young Adult
Armstrong and Charlie
by Steven B. Frank
The year is 1974 and Armstrong and Charlie are both 11, both good arm wrestlers and both dreading sixth grade at Wonderland Avenue School. But it's their differences that they notice first. Armstrong is in one of the first cohorts of black kids being bused to formerly all-white schools in Los Angeles. "[T]he Supreme Court has said it's time for black and white to blend," Armstrong's dad tells him. Armstrong is not so sure: "I don't see why. It's not like we're going to rub off on them." Smart, mouthy and hot-tempered, Armstrong enters Wonderland with a chip on his shoulder. Charlie, who is white and whose brother recently died, is obsessed with death statistics and rigid about following rules. He's promptly dubbed Rules Boy by Armstrong, thus setting the stage for a long, antagonistic school year. But the fights gradually morph into pranks, then transform again into competitiveness, grudging acceptance and, finally, friendship.
Steven B. Frank's debut middle grade novel, inspired by his own sixth grade year at Wonderland, is one part comedy, one part poignant drama and one part food for thought. The boys' alternating voices provide a context to their lives that isn't always apparent in first--or subsequent--meetings. Occasional interjections in the form of hilariously deadpan playground incident reports by Yard Supervisor Edwina Gaines give a wider picture of events. With an undercurrent of the tension and racism accompanying the era, Armstrong and Charlie also captures the awkward coming-of-age of two boys who learn that sometimes one must leave something behind in order to move forward. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In 1974, two 11-year-old boys, one white and one black, learn that their differences don't have to keep them from becoming friends in this funny and moving middle-grade novel.
Bronze and Sunflower
by Cao Wenxuan , trans. by Helen Wang
Cao Wenxuan is one of China's most beloved children's authors and winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award. His lyrical middle-grade novel Bronze and Sunflower brings to life two devoted siblings: Bronze, the mysterious, mute young son of impoverished farmers in a remote Chinese village, and Sunflower, the seven-year-old city girl who comes to the country with her artist father after he is consigned to forced labor and reeducation during the harsh years of the Cultural Revolution. When her father drowns, Sunflower is adopted by Bronze's loving parents. The family struggles together, each sacrificing to help the others. Bronze walks miles to the nearest town in freezing weather so he can sell shoes woven from river reeds to pay for Sunflower's schooling. Sunflower steals away on a boat so she can scavenge valuable ginkgo nuts at a distant plantation to raise funds for her grandmother's medical care.
The author, who grew up amid the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, faces the hardships of village life head-on. Children are tied to trees and beaten for misbehavior, and when starvation takes hold, people grow so desperate they think "about gnawing on stones." Despite privations, small pleasures--like riding to school on the back of a water buffalo or creating a sparkling necklace out of icicles--make life beautiful. Cao shows English-speaking readers a foreign world where time is measured in the seasonal comings and goings of the swallows, but also a familiar one where the fabric of family is woven from shared hopes and unexpected acts of kindness. --Ann Shaffer, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This graceful story of a girl growing up in a poor village during China's Cultural Revolution introduces English-speaking readers to the work of Cao Wenxuan.