NWPR Books

Northwest Public Radio loves to read! Below, you will find our editorial reviews and personal recommendations for literary works we think you, our listeners, would love.

We are also receive station support from many Northwest Independent Booksellers, who provide their own recommendations here.

And, if you have any great reads you would like to share with us, please let us know, by emailing your review to NWPR@wsu.edu!

Since George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, I've been repeating these words by the poet Audre Lorde like a prayer. She writes:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

North-Of-The-Border Horror In 'Go Down Together'

Nov 26, 2014

"There is a town in north Ontario / With dream comfort memory to spare," sings Neil Young on the 1970 CSNY track "Helpless." "Helpless" also happens to be the title of the tenth and final story in Gemma Files' new collection, We Will All Go Down Together. The similarity isn't a coincidence; Files quotes Young's lyrics directly in another story, "Strange Weight." And the whole volume revolves around a fictional town in northern Ontario called Dourvale — a village which, like the town in Young's song, has dreams and memories to spare.

Ron Rash is a Southern-born novelist and short story writer with a reputation on the rise; you might know him as the author of the novel Serena (a PEN/Faulkner fiction prize nominee a few years back), which is about to become a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. I have just finished reading his newly issued collection: 34 pieces of short fiction, previously published from 1998 to 2014, all of them under the title Something Rich and Strange, and I have to say that "rich" and "strange" are two words that aptly apply to this book.

There's More To Asking Than Just Art

Nov 21, 2014

Amanda Palmer's well-intentioned, slightly clueless new book, The Art of Asking, is a little bit diary, a little bit TED talk, and a little bit how-to guide. Palmer, Neil Gaiman's wife and one-half of the band the Dresden Dolls, had a well-publicized break from her record label and asked her fans to front the money for her next venture via Kickstarter. She asked for $100,000 — and received $1.2 million. From this successful experiment in asking for help, she has produced a hazy philosophy of asking, built on the pillars of trust, reciprocity, couch-surfing and a lot of body paint.

Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable is nominally a collection of essays about the conversations we all want to partake in but hold back from; the thoughts we all have but refuse to admit out loud.

And, in several respects, the book fits the bill. "Matricide," the collection's opening essay, recounts Daum's experience watching her mother die from gallbladder cancer. But the piece is equally an exploration of their troubled relationship, and Daum is open about her grievances. "I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud," she says at one point.

A 'Garden' Full Of Dazzling, Whimsical Tales

Nov 18, 2014

"Real magic, right next door," exclaims a character in "Walpurgis Afternoon," one of the short stories in Delia Sherman's stellar short-story collection, Young Woman in a Garden. In it, a family that's hyperconscious of zoning laws and what the neighbors think are faced with the unimaginable: A huge, elaborate Victorian house appears on their block overnight. Two women live in the house, and the secrets they hold will change everything.

During the summer of 1940, the Third Reich occupied most of Europe. If Britain fell too, the complete Nazification of the continent seemed like a real possibility.

And the German High Command had a plan for the invasion: Operation Sea Lion. But the mission never materialized into action.

After the war, many surviving Reich commanders claimed Sea Lion was merely a psychological game meant to demoralize Britain, and that Hitler never believed a full-scale invasion was necessary.

Metrophage is not a new book. That's important to understand right from the start.

Spend Some Time 'Loitering,' And Feel Less Alone

Nov 15, 2014

The essay, some time in its long journey from Samuel Johnson's "loose sally of the mind, an irregular undigested piece," has become something that can be persuasive instead of discursive, something that slices and gleams, an accumulation of arguments as relentless as the stacking of bricks.

On Sunday morning as I cast my vote in the Catalan election, I thought of the day that George Orwell arrived in Barcelona. It was the day after Christmas in 1936 and Spain was in the midst of a terrifying and utterly chaotic civil war.

Orwell was shot in the throat and barely survived to tell the tale of what he saw, but survive he did, and in 1938 Homage to Catalonia, his personal account of the near six months he spent on the front lines of the Spanish Revolution, was published to little attention. In fact, it wasn't published in the United States until 1952.

The citation for Alice Munro's 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature calls her "the master of the contemporary short story" and praises her ability to "say more in thirty words than an ordinary novel is capable of in three hundred."

Munro distills into one story the sweep of a lifetime, with all its sorrows, disappointments and glories. Her work spans the 20th century, but her focus is on ordinary people (mostly in Canada) whose responses to love, lust, seeking community and facing tragedy range from magisterial to frail to vindictive.

English translations of foreign-language science fiction are becoming more common, still, they face an uphill battle. The American market is already crowded with books written by native English speakers, and it takes a conscientious reader to seek out treasures that originate from other parts of the world — that is, if they're even translated in the first place.

Gratitude can seem like kind of a cheesy concept sometimes. In a post last month, How to Be Happy in Five Minutes a Day, the site MakeUseOf.com assumed it would take less time than that to think of three things you were grateful for. There's family, or if not family, a friend. If not a friend, a pet. If nothing else, life.

Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild delved into the riveting story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old man from an affluent family outside Washington, D.C., who graduated with honors from Emory, then gave away the bulk of his money, burned the rest and severed all ties with his family. After tramping around the country for nearly two years, he headed into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992. His emaciated body was found a little over four months later.

Last year, when I heard that Anjelica Huston's memoir A Story Lately Told was about to come out, I was excited. I imagined that it would include a lot of inside stuff about the '70s and Hollywood and the actress' long relationship with Jack Nicholson. As it turned out, that book's subtitle was Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York, and it ended with Huston arriving in California. But I didn't miss the glitz. The story she had to tell was original.

It's such a goofy title. Let Me Be Frank with You is the latest installment in the odyssey of Frank Bascombe, the New Jersey Everyman Richard Ford introduced almost 30 years ago in his novel, The Sportswriter. Two more Frank Bascombe novels followed, and now this: a brilliant collection of four interconnected short stories of about 60 pages each in which Ford is indeed "being Frank" Bascombe with us once again, as well as being "frank" about all sorts of touchy topics in America, such as race, politics, the economy, old age and the oblivion that awaits us all.

Will Self's 'Shark' Swims In A Chaotic Sea

Nov 9, 2014

Since the publication of his 2012 novel, Umbrella, Will Self has become a strong advocate for resurrecting modernist literature in the 21st century.

In a series of articles and public lectures, Self has pointed out that modernism never really got a foothold in English culture. In its place, he argues, has evolved a form of Anglo-Saxon realism that reeks of snobbish bourgeois values.

I've said before that a good collection of poetry — unlike, say, a good novel, or a good short story — is tricky to talk about. If I love a novel, I'll describe the plot, maybe compare it to the writing of others, talk about the successes and failures of its craft. Poetry collections, though — I just want to read portions out to people, make them feel what I felt, show them concretely the details over which I marveled.

As I watched coverage of this week's midterm elections, I couldn't help but think about Donald Antrim's surreal novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.

The book, a brilliant and wickedly funny satire on our broken politics, unfolds in an unnamed American seaside town. As the story begins, our narrator, a former third-grade teacher named Pete Robinson, sits mysteriously in his padlocked attic, observing the wreckage of his community.

Brief as his new novel may be, Bradford Morrow has no problems with taking his time. The fine mists of a seaside vista, the loops and lines of a writer's careful lettering, even the meals his characters eat (truly, just about every single one): None of it escapes the lingering eye of the narrator behind The Forgers. Each detail gets its due — except, of course, the ones he doesn't want you to see.

As much as I wish it were different, Robert Nesta Marley is mainly known in the United States as the front man for smoking pot. Or, as a favorite subject for poster makers, who profit off college students searching for an identity. Students who associate the great dreadlocked one with good vibes.

'Ugly Girls' Is, Well ... Not A Pretty Read

Nov 5, 2014

Perry, with her blond hair and long legs, is pretty. Baby Girl, with her shaved head and overdrawn lips, is ugly. Together they steal cars, shoplift, and ditch school — not knowing they are being watched by Jamey, an ex-felon posing as a teenage boy online. The girls begin to realize something is not right with Jamey, and the novel unfolds as you think it might, with flurries of attempted rapes and murders, screaming, vomit, death, and general chaos.

What would a young man's life be like if he suddenly found he could heal from any wound? It's a fantastic premise for a book, especially one as swift and easygoing as Fred Venturini's debut, The Heart Does Not Grow Back.

When Nuruddin Farah was a young writer, he published a satirical novel about Somalia, his native country. On his way home from a trip he called his brother, to ask for a ride from the airport. His brother told him not to come home: His novel had caused a stir, and authorities were looking for him.

William Gibson Skypes The Future In 'The Peripheral'

Nov 1, 2014

There was a time when William Gibson was the man. When, if you were talking about science fiction, you couldn't have a conversation that didn't invoke his name. When, to readers of certain tastes and a certain (reasonably innocent) age, his futures were the ones that got woven into our DNA.

A Century Of Black Glamour In This Fine 'Vintage'

Nov 1, 2014

"The artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains."

-- James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

The force is strong throughout Nichelle Gainer's Vintage Black Glamour, a carefully curated collection — packed with historical sketches and political commentary — of photographs spanning nearly a century of black beauty and style.

Michel Faber wrote a book a while ago (The Crimson Petal And The White) that became a critically acclaimed international best-seller. He also wrote the book Under The Skin, which was recently made into a very weird movie starring Scarlett Johansson as some kind of confused and lonely alien sex monster.

In the foreword to his new novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Patrick Rothfuss gives the reader a warning: "If you haven't read my other books, you don't want to start here." The other books he's referring to are The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, the first two installments of his bestselling fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicle.

Back in 2007, a shooting in Iraq caught the attention of many in the U.S.

Four security guards working for the company Blackwater shot and killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians in a traffic circle in Baghdad. Last week all four were pronounced guilty by a federal jury.

For our series, This Week's Must Read, author and Air Force veteran Brian Castner reflects on this news by turning to literature.

Group sex parties. Polygamy. Bondage. What could such things have to do with Wonder Woman? Fortunately, there's no connection between those titillating concepts and the famous Amazon — certainly not in Jill Lepore's new book.

Just kidding! In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it'll have you saying, "Merciful Minerva!" It turns out that decades of rumors were true: The red-white-and-blue heroine, conceived during World War II, had a decidedly bohemian progenitor.