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!

I admired Ben Lerner's last novel a lot; in fact, I ended my review of Leaving the Atocha Station by saying that "reading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I've had for a long time." I could say the very same thing about Lerner's brilliant new novel, 10:04, which leads me to wonder: Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? And if every one of Lerner's novels is singular, doesn't that make them, in a way, repetitive?

The difficulty in reviewing excellent poetry is to keep from responding in kind. When I've thoroughly enjoyed a collection, it isn't enough to praise the rhythm, the intensity, the clarity of the work I've just read; I find myself writing about how the book is "seamed in smoke" or observing "the supple twisting of its narrative spine." But I don't want to do that here — Saeed Jones' Prelude to Bruise is so visceral and affecting, I can't risk burying it in my own figurative language.

There's Much More To Apples Than Meets The Eye

Sep 2, 2014

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows four triumphant cavemen with a giant carrot hoisted onto their shoulders, with the caption, "Early vegetarians returning from the kill."

That's kind of what it looks like every autumn weekend when my better half, Dan, comes home from the farmers market with a half-bushel of apples balanced on his shoulder.

Accepting The Strange Brilliance Of 'Acceptance'

Sep 2, 2014

We have to backtrack a little here, right at the start.

Acceptance, book three in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, is hitting the shelves soon, and I want very badly to talk about it. But before I can do that, I have to talk about the first two books. To set the scene, as it were. To make any of this make any kind of sense, because Southern Reach is not the kind of series where you can just drop in at book two or three and have any idea what's happening. VanderMeer doesn't coddle dilettantes. He rewards the dedicated.

Rescuing Science From The Military ... With Comics?

Aug 31, 2014

Pouty lips, flowing hair and ... oligonucleotide synthesizers? Two of these things don't seem to belong — at least, not in a comic that seeks to expose high-level Defense Department research to the critical light of day. Human physicality seems somehow out of place in the sterile confines of a government lab.

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer — now in his mid-80s— has been in the business for more than 60 years. So his first graphic novel, a darkly drawn confection in the noir tradition, called Kill My Mother, comes late in his career. I feel a certain kinship with him, because as a reader I'm a latecomer to the genre myself. Call me a dinosaur, but his book, so deliciously inviting to scan (if a bit convoluted in its plot), is one of the first of its kind that I've read cover to cover.

"There are three rules for writing a novel," Somerset Maugham supposedly once said. But then he went on to add, "Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

When I'm reading for fun and not sitting up in my ivory tower reviewing books for NPR, I generally gravitate toward two kinds of stories: science fiction and procedurals. In both cases, I like my books grimy and lived-in. I have no love for utopias, shiny spaceships where nothing is ever broken, or Teflon detectives who don't come with baggage. If there isn't a bullet hole in someone or something before the story starts, there'd better be one put there within the first couple of pages.

Not long after we're introduced to John, the protagonist of Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea, he's reflecting on the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth several years ago. John is a former sailor on pirate ships who gave up the privateer's life to take care of his daughter, Tabitha. "The grief, besides, has waned to washes of melancholy," Smith writes, "impressions connected to no specific hurt but to the awareness of a constant. He is in no pain but the pain of the living."

As Summer Winds Down, Wistful Dreams Of A 'Lost Estate'

Aug 22, 2014

The summer before I went to college my grandfather died. I spent that season clearing out the shelves in his bedroom. And since he was a compulsive rereader, I kept the books that looked the most tattered. I thought he must have loved those the most.

One of them was The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), by Henri Alain-Fournier. I couldn't have known when I picked it up that it would be such an appropriate last book for someone just days away from becoming a college student. In the late August heat I sat on my grandmother's balcony and read it in two days.

British army troops once kicked a soccer ball around as they went into battle. True story! In fact, it's one of the first and best anecdotes in Paul Fussell's classic study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. That astonishing image illustrates just how naive the recruits were about modern war's potential for unprecedented destruction — and it sets the stage for their devastating shock and disillusionment.

A father takes his three sons to a hypnotist's show. Called onto the stage, the father's cool self-possession and confidence seem to prevail, and he walks away, claiming no effect. They leave the show, he drops his sons off and drives away. We learn later that he has taken his passport and emptied the family bank account. The boys will not see him again until they are adults.

Even for those of us who despise the heat and are well past school age, it's always kind of sad when summer vacation comes to a close. It feels like the end of an era, every year — goodbye to the swimming pools and water parks, the long days, the late evenings with friends. Those "back to school" sales are a kind of low-grade torment, even for those of us who kind of liked school.

It is early August. A black man is shot by a white policeman. And the effect on the community is of "a lit match in a tin of gasoline."

No, this is not Ferguson, Mo. This was Harlem in August 1943, a period that James Baldwin writes about in the essay that gives its title to his seminal collection, Notes of a Native Son.

The story begins with the death of Baldwin's father, a proud, severe preacher who viewed all white people with suspicion, even the kindly schoolteacher who encouraged his son's writings.

You've heard this story before. You may even have experienced it, or thought about it: A woman who apparently has it all — loving, financially successful spouse, posh home, wonderful, healthy kids, great job — still feels something is missing from her life. Could it be passion? Adventure? Risk? She throws herself at an old high school boyfriend. What's love got to do with it? Dismayingly little.

It's hard to think of another writer who is as popular, as strange, and as lionized as Haruki Murakami is. Usually writers get to be one of those, but not all of them. Yet over the course of his formidable international career, Murakami has written novels that have been ambiguous to one degree or another, which hasn't stopped readers from lining up at midnight when his books go on sale.

Tasmanian-born novelist Richard Flanagan named his latest book after a spiritually intense travel journal by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho, but this extraordinary new novel presents us with a story much more tumultuous than the great haiku writer's account of his wanderings. Flanagan has written a sort of Australian War and Peace, centered on the extraordinary Dorrigo Evans (also Tasmanian-born), a heroic yet philandering doctor.

I first read Lace as a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Dominican Convent High School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the 1980s. I remember that chunky, glitzy novel being passed around during math, biology, religious education classes ... under our desks, pages earmarked as it moved along ... for your reading pleasure ...

What giggles it provoked; how many hushed discussions it spawned, and how those we called the "forward" girls dissected and expounded on the text. And all of it done right under the noses of the austere nuns.

Celebrity child autobiographies fall into two categories. There's the scorched earth approach: One sordid story after another — call it the "Mommie Dearest" syndrome.

The second category is the warts-and-all approach, in which the performer's progeny relates parental faults in oft-painful detail, but with the ultimate goal of deeper understanding. In many ways, the warts-and-all way is more challenging, because it requires the author to explain why — despite the horrors — they still loved Mom or Dad.

False Equivalencies Mar This Bold 'Face'

Aug 15, 2014

Trans men and women face many problems — not least among them is the small but pernicious group of people, usually found on Tumblr, who use the rhetoric of trans experience to claim that they too are trapped in the wrong body: an able body (I have the soul of a person in a wheelchair!) or a white body (I'm black inside!). Treating gender, race and ability as identical and equivalent categories, they blithely declare that they are "trans-abled" or "trans-ethnic," so they too understand oppression. The appropriate response is usually an eye roll.

'How The World Was,' Drawn In Dreamy Lines Of Memory

Aug 14, 2014

What's interesting? All sorts of things, and people tend to agree on what they are. War, for instance, is more or less universally believed to be interesting. And yet back in the early 2000s, when French artist Emmanuel Guibert decided to craft a graphic novel about his friend Alan Cope's experiences in World War II, the source material wasn't particularly "interesting" at all.

What's the line between falsehood and fantasy? Between fear and horror? Between other worlds and the ones we carry inside our heads? Graham Joyce has been asking — and brilliantly answering — these questions for years. His latest book, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, is no different. One of Britain's most quietly reliable fantasists, Joyce has written a jewel of a novel that blends gentle nostalgia, Bildungsroman angst, and a glimpse of the dark, unreal places where loss and memory mingle.

For all you teachers out there contemplating the August calendar with dismay, watching, powerless, as the days of summer vacation dwindle down to a precious few, I have some consolation to offer: a hilarious academic novel that'll send you laughing (albeit ruefully) back into the trenches of the classroom.

I grew up on a mortgaged cattle ranch with a grandmother, who spoke in tongues, and a mother addicted to prescription pills: Percodan, Valium, Vicodin, you name it. My father was killed when I was just an infant (pickup, train tracks), and my grandfather was an oil pipeline worker in the Middle East. He had a Kurdish bodyguard named Abdul who once killed a man with a knife.

At the age of 14, I stumbled across The Stranger, Albert Camus' famous novel of absurdity and detachment. It was hard not to relate.

Nostalgia is a hard-hitting drug, its alchemical powers well known, but can it turn a child's entire school experience into sentimental gold? Some kids love school, and many, in retrospect, realize that what seemed like misery at the time was actually relative joy compared to what came after. But to find a silver lining in even the most embarrassing, most angst-filled moments of your school years? Such a thing seemed impossible for even the most wistful of people, until I read Lewis Buzbee's Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom.

A Beautiful Book, Whether Or Not It Makes You 'Happy'

Aug 9, 2014

Lies! Deceit and rank mendacity! Eleanor Davis promises what current pop music insists is perfectly possible — that you can be happy — and then she doesn't deliver. Instead she draws comics full of hilarious surrealism, gut-tugging tropes and eloquent despair. How dare she?

Published in Britain as Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe and in the U.S. less cheekily as Joss Whedon: The Biography, Amy Pascale's portrait of pop culture's man of just about any recent hour may not make her title subject any new converts, but it is hero-worshipping enough to make devoted Whedonites feel they're being inducted into the Scooby Gang.

Richard House's thriller The Kills, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, weighs in at 1,024 pages. It's a long read, and worth every minute.

'Seeders' Imagines A Pulpy Planet Of The Plants

Aug 7, 2014

In A.J. Colucci's 2012 debut, the sci-fi thriller The Colony, she describes a world where ants rise up to challenge the tyranny of pesticide-wielding humans. Instead of Planet of the Apes, it's Planet of the Ants — and with her second novel, Seeders, she's written a veritable Planet of the Plants. Unfortunately, the result isn't nearly as thrilling as it ought to be.

Every literate nation should have the epics it deserves. The Indian subcontinent already has Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (among a few others), and now we can add to that illuminating company Kamila Shamsie's new novel, A God in Every Stone. Stretching from the ancient Persian Empire to the waning days of the British Empire, the novel has an enormous wingspan that catches a wonderful storyteller's wind.