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!

In 1859, Philadelphia surgeon Richard J. Levis published a piece in The Medical and Surgical Reporter titled "Memoir of Thomas Dent Mütter." It was a eulogy for his former teacher, a surgical pioneer who had died earlier that year at the tender age of 47. Mütter is also the subject of Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's new book, Dr. Mütter's Marvels; in it, Aptowicz forgives the simplicity of Levis' tribute to Mütter by noting, "[Levis] was not a poet, just a surgeon." Aptowicz, on the other hand, is a poet.

Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff's deputy in central Montana, is the officer who's called upon whenever someone goes missing. In the past, he has found people either safe or clinging to life, if barely. But for over a year, he's only found corpses, dead of exposure or suicide or murder. "Valentine Millimaki did not bring back angels," writes novelist Kim Zupan in The Ploughmen, "No, I did not, he thought. Souls did not aspire on his watch to safety or heaven but came trestled roughly from the dark woods, trapped in the alabaster statuary of rigid flesh."

Caitlin Moran's weekly column for The Times, has gained fans all across the U.K. With humor and a wry, self-deprecating wit, she writes on a wide range of topics that include government, technology, beauty and pop culture — all of which become, under her feisty gaze, feminist issues.

'Rooms' Is Haunted By People (And Ghosts) That Can't Let Go

Sep 29, 2014

I have a friend whose parents died when she was a teenager, leaving her the house. They had been sick for a long time, and so the accumulation of stuff that generally accompanies any suburban existence was traumatically amplified: the dining room had two sets of furniture, the living room had three.

Though some dystopias are bound to seem more plausible than others, the nature of these stories, especially those written for young adults — the heightened fable of the premise (with all the eye-rolling this can sometimes provoke) and the realistic teenage psyches being mapped on top of them — usually means that the books open in an established status quo. Complaints about these high-concept stories often, and with varying legitimacy, exist in the Hows. The overarching question: How do these new orders ever begin?

Many sobering statistics have emerged from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but one number in particular has stuck with me: More than 200 health care workers have died so far.

It is hard for me to conceive of the bravery required to take care of people with this awful, contagious disease. And yet, when I recalled Connie Willis' groundbreaking, Hugo Award-winning science-fiction novel Doomsday Book, the resonances came back to me with the sound of tolling bells.

Some short-story writers seem to feel the need to show as many different sides of themselves as possible in one book: tough, tender, minimalist, maximalist, funny, sad. But in her new collection of stories, Margaret Atwood emphasizes one particular Atwood quality, which, for lack of a better word, I'll call "wicked." (Though let's be sure not to confuse the writer with her characters.)

Frances has it bad, and that's not good. Normally she's an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.

In 'Afterworlds,' A Teen Imagines Worlds Within Worlds

Sep 24, 2014

YA is thriving, but it's become a diverse genre, linking books widely spread across more traditional classifications like mainstream literature, fantasy, mystery and romance. What these books often have in common is their unremitting fondness for ordinary, everyday people — just like the reader, perhaps — who become Chosen Ones by suddenly discovering they have powerful abilities, or a unique birthright, or a complicated, passionate love triangle forming around them.

What a treat it is to read Brian Morton's latest novel, populated with the prickly, civic-minded liberal intellectuals we've come to expect from him. Florence Gordon, his fifth book, like Starting Out in the Evening, his best known, is set on Manhattan's Upper West Side and concerns a feisty older writer and a much younger admirer and would-be mentee. Both novels not only feature curmudgeonly characters who insist on living on their own terms but explore questions about what constitutes a successful life.

'My Life' Asks: How Do You Leave A War Behind?

Sep 23, 2014

With each new story we hear about PTSD, about the lasting price paid by those fortunate enough to have returned from war, our notion of a soldier's sacrifice expands: There are those who sacrifice their lives, those who sacrifice parts of their bodies, and those who — forever anguished by their experiences — sacrifice their minds.

Will Boast's parents, Andrew and Nancy, met and married in Southampton, a port city on England's south coast. Fleeing the social and economic malaise that blighted the country in the late '70s — workers on strike, power outages and high inflation — and with ambitions for his young family, Boast Sr. moved them to Fontana, Wis., where he worked for a plastics company.

It's the hats. In century-old photos of women's suffrage activists, there's something just plain dowdy about the headgear. Teetering atop laboriously pinned-up hair, groaning under the weight of improbable foliage, the hats can't help but make suffragists seem irredeemably stodgy to modern eyes.

Bright Shards of Someplace Else is Monica McFawn's first collection of short stories, and it's already won this year's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Perhaps it was her idiosyncratic voice, or her flair for distinctive characters that the judges recognized. Or maybe it was her empathetic power. Either way, McFawn has talent. In these 11 stories she manages to range from fantastic to satiric to poignant.

This time of year always reminds me of a wonderfully autumnal poem called "How to Like It," by Stephen Dobyns. Set in "the first days of fall," the poem describes a man whose summer seems long over: Old memories weigh on him, and new adventures feel just out of reach.

The world has become hard to shock. It's not because evil is a new thing — that's been around since the beginning of time, and it definitely wasn't created by movies, video games and every other popular scapegoat for the decline of society. But it's undeniable that we've all become a little inured to things that might have been considered unspeakably horrifying 50 years ago.

Italo Calvino has a habit that's hard not to find disconcerting. Halfway through a story, or even a few sentences in, he often pauses — briefly, glibly — to mention in passing that everything he has written so far is wrong. Oh, and the same goes for what's to come. But it's best not to let it slow us down, he suggests. This will happen sometimes when you're inventing worlds and ideas that can't be put into words.

But words are all he's got — so deal with it.

The Monstrous And The Beautiful Dance In 'White Van'

Sep 16, 2014

In the opening chapter of Wolf in White Van, the debut novel from singer-songwriter John Darnielle, protagonist Sean Phillips descends into a memory, and imagines other paths within it. "There are several possibilities," he tells us of a hallway in his family's home, with its many doors and secrets. "They open onto their own clusters of new ones, and there's an end somewhere, I'm sure, but I'll never see it."

A Fresh Take On Dystopia In 'Chimpanzee'

Sep 14, 2014

The recent wave of dystopian novels — okay, let's call it a glut — has focused attention on all kinds of Earth-threatening ills, from climate change to genetically modified food. The plight of student-loan debtors and struggling academics, however, hasn't usually topped that list. Which is partly what makes Darin Bradley's latest novel, Chimpanzee, so fascinating, flaws and all.

It's a bright cool day in September and the books now number 13. Kim Harrison has concluded her long-running Hollows series, the 10-year-anniversary of which I marked back in April, and I am bereft. In The Witch With No Name, Rachel Morgan, Ivy Tamwood and Jenks the pixy have their last string of adventures together in a modern-day Cincinnati riddled with elves, witches, vampires living and undead, werewolves, fairies and demons, in a rollercoaster ride of interlocking shenanigans that left me a little breathless.

One measure of a fine writer is the ability to master new tricks. Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a different animal (so to speak) from Netherland, his remarkable PEN/Faulkner Award-winner about a Dutch financial analyst adrift in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Though both involve romantic estrangement in a globalized but alienating world, The Dog focuses more narrowly — and sometimes claustrophobically — on one man's hopeless, deluded efforts to live blamelessly in a distressingly mean-spirited, soulless society.

In my 20s I was living in London, and dating a Scotsman. A friend pulled me aside. "Read The Crow Road by Iain Banks," he told me. "It's the story of our childhood. Read this and you'll understand us."

The Crow Road is a darkly witty coming-of-age novel. It's set in the early '90s in a mostly realistic Scotland.

The Ecstatic Blankness Of Poet Louise Glück

Sep 11, 2014

Louise Glück is in love with silence — her poems strain towards nothingness. "The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary," she once wrote in an essay. In her new collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, one poem features a painter, aging and facing his own decline, who paints canvases that are "immense and entirely white."

Add Marcos Giralt Torrente's Father and Son: A Lifetime to the shortlist of worthwhile memoirs about mourning a parent — a list that includes Philip Roth's Patrimony, Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, and Hanif Kureishi's My Ear at His Heart, all of which the author cites as touchstones for his exploration.

Norman Mailer, one of the most prolific American writers of the 20th century, may have compared himself to some of the heavyweights of modern literature. But Joyce Carol Oates is an entire sports complex, including the Olympic-sized pools and the locker rooms.

Be prepared to be blown away by this raw, visceral, brutally intense neomodernist first novel. There's nothing easy about Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, from its fractured language to its shattering story of the young unnamed narrator's attempt to drown mental anguish with physical pain.

If you were placing bets on which author would write the tenderest, most moving book about fatherhood, Philip Roth would probably come in at the bottom of the list. The parent-child relationships in his books — from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral — mostly fall somewhere between humiliating and devastating. Which is why it's such a surprise, and a delight, to stumble on Patrimony, one of Roth's best, and most unusual, books.

On the Continent, no one is allowed to talk about their gods. No one can display their signs or symbols. They certainly can't be worshipped. No one is even allowed to know the history of the Divinities who once walked among the people, performing miracles left and right, though scrubbing the memory of such things from a city, a continent and a people is not quite as easy as passing laws that make the dead gods verboten.

Particularly when the dead gods in question might not in fact be, you know, actually dead.

There are a lot of reasons not to read James Ellroy's newest novel, Perfidia — the opening shot in his proposed second L.A. Quartet. It's a long and sprawling book with about a million pages and 10,000 characters, so if that kind of thing scares you, go back to your Hunger Games and leave the grown-ups alone.

It's a brutal book. More than one person crawls home with a handful of his own teeth. A quick gunshot to the head? That's a merciful way to go in Ellroy's Los Angeles, and not many characters get that kindness.

"The truth is I've been something of a bifurcated, high/low girl from the very start," Daphne Merkin declares in The Fame Lunches, her first collection of essays since Dreaming of Hitler in 1997. This new anthology gathers 45 wide-ranging essays that straddle the high/low cultural faultline with aplomb, weighing in on subjects as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Courtney Love, lip gloss, kabbalah and handbags as "the top fashion signifier."