Daniel Goldin is the proprietor of Boswell Book Company, which opened in 2009. Before that, he worked at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, after a modest stint in publishing (which seemed long at the time).
If a bookseller can be said to be a groupie, I think you can safely say that I am one for Don Lee. Ever since his short story collection Yellow, I have been falling in love with his characters, pondering his philosophy about art and identity, and laughing at his sharp wit. In Lonesome Lies Before Us, his hero is Yadin Park, a musician who was on the verge of making it, despite his stage fright and not fitting the rock star mold, only to walk away. Now he’s installing carpet for a living in Rosarita Bay, Lee’s own Yoknapatawpha, when after years of being away from the business, with a left-brained girlfriend with big ideas (though she’s currently cleaning rooms in a fancy resort), inspiration hits him again. Only he is still the same insecure mess he ever was, and now he’s also got degenerative hearing loss. I still consider Wrack and Ruin one of the best novels I’ve read in my bookselling career, and in many ways, Lonesome Lies Before Us is a companion work and it’s such a great tightrope-walking, argumentative, heartbreaking, and inspiring novel, all at the same time. Honestly, I could talk about it for an hour, but it would be a better conversation if you also read it, so could you start right now? Please?
Two half-sisters in Ghana living in the 1700s are separated by a continent, when one is married off to a British commander and the other is sold into slavery. Gyasi tells the story of their descendants, one generation at a time, in Ghana and the United States. While I’ve read a number of books about the legacy of slavery, Homegoing’s take on African involvement is a different perspective, showing how tribes were prodded into warfare, manipulated by the Europeans. For an episodic novel with a different protagonist in each chapter, it’s surprising how connected I became to the characters, but such is Gyasi’s skill as a novelist. And yes, it all comes together at the end.
Anyone who wonders what happens to communities when a factory closes nowadays can look no further than Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein’s excellent look at several families whose lives were touched by the General Motors plant closing in 2008. Capturing both the financial strains and the emotional trauma, these laid off workers commute great distances to remaining operations or chase lower paying jobs, and often that’s after periods of no job at all. Compounding this is the emotional trauma of downsizing and the shame of getting help, whether from strangers or family. The story is enriched further by Goldstein’s profiles of the folks attempting to help the downsized. Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from Janesville is the lack of proven success and the numerous risks from job retraining, the one strategy for coping with blue collar job loss that has bipartisan support. A great match of public policy and personal stories, I highly recommend for your what-to-read-after-Evicted checklist.
I find something magical about stories that dance around characters. In Strout’s newest work, each story, or if you read it like a novel, each chapter, is from a different perspective of one of the current or former inhabitants of Amgash, Illinois. Slowly we figure out everyone is tangentially connected to Lucy Barton, a previous Strout protagonist. The tales veer from dark to light, from brutal to quirky, and from haves to have-nots, though even some of the haves were once eating garbage out of dumpsters. When the struggling Patty Nicely and her well-off sister Linda talk on the phone, it’s clear that neither really understands the others deepest thoughts, and that’s one of the joys of this story, allowing us to view all the characters from the outside and the inside. And as you read, you get a little excited when you realize that a side character like Dottie Blaine that you found interesting is finally getting her spotlight. So do you have to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to read Anything Is Possible? Absolutely not. But if you haven’t, my guess is that you’ll feel compelled to read it soon afterwards.
This epic novel about a Korean family in Japan, attempting to rise up from their meager beginnings, plunged me into a world I knew little about. Starting with a poor family with a son born with a cleft palate and twisted foot, the family’s generations eventually find success but always at a cost. In a way, they’re trapped, seeing their adopted land as their home but never being able to rise above second class citizens. The author of Free Food for Millionaires shines in creating vibrant characters, with some story arcs, like that of a policeman’s wife who acts as beard and caretaker to his brother, functioning like short stories, and others, like the mysterious and morally inscrutable benefactor Hansu, influencing across generations. While some of the reversals can seem a little melodramatic, Pachinko is soap opera taken to lofty levels, functioning both as a philosophical treatise on love, identity, fate, and morality and a compelling page turner.
D.A. Bert Cousins shows up at L.A. policeman Fix and wife Beverly Keating’s house for a christening party, bearing gin. He’s not really invited, but he’s desperate to get away from his own four kids. A chance encounter shakes up the family dynamics forever, but it’s the encounter that one of the kids has with a famous writer that really changes everyone’s lives. In a novel that draws more off her own life experience than any of her previous works, Ann Patchett deftly unravels the complicated bonds of a blended family, the stories they tell, and the thin line between truth and legend. Rejoice, Patchett fans!
"There are so many studies out there about living conditions among the poor, but most apparently focus on public housing and not the private market. Seeing a gap in research, Sociologist Desmond immersed himself in their world, living in a trailer park on the far South Side of Milwaukee and a rooming house on the North Side. He covers the plight of eight families, whose lives are in various states of disrepair, much of which is caused by their inability to get stable housing. Their stories are shocking, and so are the stats; it’s hard to believe what a high percentage of their funds go to housing, and how few people below the poverty line get any subsidy. It’s eye-opening how quickly tenants are evicted, and how much of that comes from government regulation and law enforcement, as opposed to the landlords themselves (though plenty comes from the landlords too), His research alone is a triumph but he also does a tremendous job telling the stories of Arleen, Larraine, Crystal, Scott, and the other folks struggling to survive in Milwaukee. Let’s hope that this book actually helps change policy." --Daniel
If you read Shotgun Lovesongs, you know that two of Butler’s strengths are his ability to probe the depths of men’s friendships and his rich Wisconsin settings. His new novel, an epic about three generations at a Boy Scout Camp in the North Woods, takes it to the next level. It starts with the bullied Nelson, who finds purpose in the Scouts and winds up running the camp, and Jonathan, the older boy who becomes both his manipulator and protector. Their complicated friendship unfolds through Jonathan’s son Trevor and grandson Thomas, who both wind up spending summers at Chippewa, but what’s a Scout to do when the Scout Oath doesn’t always hold up in reality? Is there a place for honor when nobody wants to get a stamp collecting or radio merit badge? In Butler’s hands, the answers unfold, all in the context of a heck of a good story.
Daniel Wilkerson is at a crossroads. Struggling with a gambling addiction, he’s dropped out of college and squatting at a friends’ apartment in New York. Should he stay in New York to make music or return to his well-meaning-but-off-note adoptive parents’ home and try to graduate? There’s only one thing hanging over his head, and that’s an email from a childhood friend who may have a connection to his birth mom. You see Daniel Wilkerson is also Deming Guo, the son of Polly (Peilan), a Fuzhounese woman who was working at a nail parlor and disappeared when he was a preteen. Lisa Go’s first novel gracefully jumps from mother to son, from past to present and back again, as it stitches together a timely story of two people searching for connection and meaning. It’s this year’s worthy winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, an award for a previously unpublished manuscript of socially engaged fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver.
As someone who has lived my adult life on Lake Michigan, I’ve followed stories about invasive species, water levels, the watershed border, and endless sources of pollution. I’ve heard the pronouncements of 21st century wars being fought over water, and imagined how coastal cities would dream of draining the Lakes the way they did the Colorado River. But whether you know a lot or a little about The Great Lakes, Dan Egan’s new book is a must read because it brings the issues to life with his expert storytelling. The tragedy of invasive species is only exacerbated when you come to terms with just how little traffic passes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. And there’s no better warning to America’s future than the Aral Sea, the once fourth largest body of water that is now an arid desert. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes lays out our past and our future, showing how both failures (and alas, successes) can turn around with time, as well as how much politics goes into every decision. Who knew sports fishing had so much clout? A fascinating read about a subject of urgent importance!
With son Brendan off to college at Berkshire State and with her ex-husband Ted remarried and with a special-needs kid, Eve Fletcher’s feeling a bit unfulfilled, despite her sometimes trying job as the director of a senior center, until she finds a new decidedly adult pastime. Mother and son both don’t know what to make of their new lives, and all they seem to know about relationships, to say nothing of sex, seems to be up for discussion in the modern world. What I love about Tom Perrotta’s books is how uncomfortable they can make me feel, at the same time I am laughing hysterically, and Mrs. Fletcher shows Mr. Perrotta in top form on both counts.
The suicide of Nadia Turner’s mom has left Nadia distraught, to say the least. Her acting out leads to a fling with Luke, the minister’s son, and that leads to Nadia being pregnant. That alone is enough to stir up the Upper Room Church, but when she decides to terminate the pregnancy, that is either much better or way worse, depending on whether you’re talking publicly or privately. Somehow Nadia gets a job at the church office, working for Luke’s mom. And when the quiet and quirkily observant Aubrey shows up, they wind up being friends, well before they know each other well, and certainly long before their relationship gets even more complicated. Bennett’s characters ponder their identities, in terms of race, gender, belief system, all with a distinctive and vibrant San Diego setting and a Greek chorus of church ladies having their say. The Mothers is a passionate and nuanced novel about love, friendship, choices, and of course, mothering.
When I first moved to Milwaukee, I learned after signing my lease that the previous tenant had died in the bathtub. So I was particularly amused by the setup of Elinor Lipman’s newest novel, wherein one Faith Frankel purchases a fixer upper and learns that something fishy was going on in the house previous to her tenancy. Faith’s engaged, but her fiancé Stuart is on a spiritual journey while she stays behind in small-town Massachusetts, writing thank-you notes for a small private school’s development fund. Filled with the familial complications we come to expect, I’m not giving anything away by calling On Turpentine Lane a romantic comedy of the highest order, with the delight not just in the classic joy of seeing the two people meant for each other get it right, but in the myriad ways that other couples can get it completely, hilariously wrong.
When Peter Ash finds out that his former Marine buddy committed suicide, he shows up at his widow’s house to help with some home repairs. Under the crawl space, he finds a mangy dog and a mysterious suitcase filled with cash. Needless to say, the contents are much desired by another party, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nicholas Petrie has written a compelling thriller that knows all the right moves, from the loner character to the family in peril to the multiple plot turns, but infuses a fresh twist with Peter Ash, a vet with PTSD manifested in acute claustrophobia. There’s a bit of an Elmore Leonard vibe going on here, only with everyone playing at more contemporary higher stakes. And as a bonus for locals, the Milwaukee setting is distinct, but not so over-detailed to get in the way of the nail-biting plot.
As a bookseller who did not major in English Literature, I feel like my writerly knowledge can be somewhat hit or miss. Confession time: I’ve read little of Woolf, Eliot, and Forster, and nothing of Lawrence. So thank goodness for this intensely researched, intricately woven, and adroitly written group biography, focusing on a moment when everything changed, and modernism began to pervade the cultural consciousness. It’s an intimate and personal journey, and at the same time, a light into the creative minds of the day, not just of the featured players, but also of the two writers who influenced them, Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Think of it as a nonfiction version of Colm Tóibín’s The Master. And in a true mark of success, The World Broke in Two made me hungry to go back and read more of Virginia, Tom, Morgan, and David (Bert to family).
Get ready for a thoroughly Perry-esque journey through philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s worldview, focusing on everything from sex and faith to aesthetics and death. For those who can’t get enough Montaigne, this volume is a welcome unique addition to the canon, through the lens of a roughneck Phillip Lopate. And if you’re a Perry fan already, you’ll not only love the book (it’s still laugh-out-loud funny), but you’ll be driven to dip into the original Essays. The truth is that the coasts have been making assumptions about who Michael Perry is since his very first book, Population 485, and it is probably time for them to rethink that after reading Montaigne in Barn Boots. But don’t expect Perry to let it go to his head—he’ll probably throw you off by mentioning his chicken coop and deer rifle.
Darren Mathews has returned home from up north to East Texas, trading in his lawyerly future for a life in the Texas Rangers. His job is already on the line, for helping out a friend dealing with a white supremacist stalker, and then he comes across another case in nearby Lark. A black man and a white woman are both dead, killed days apart, Mathews has to figure out what happened. Even though he outranks law enforcement, his tentative job status, to say nothing of his color, makes this a lot more difficult. What’s worse, Geneva, the proprietor of the local black bar who should be his ally, is surprisingly uncooperative, perhaps understanding that even when the person behind the badge is a person of color, the law might not be on her side. Bluebird, Bluebird is a great start to a series, with a setting that likely has a lot of secrets buried along the highway.
Nine children, all orphans, live on an otherwise deserted island. Every year, a green boat comes in with a new kid. Every year, the oldest child, designated the Elder, must get in the boat and be sent away. This year it’s Jinny’s turn to be the elder, not only leading the island, but taking charge of the new child, Ess, teaching her to fend for herself. The problem is that Jinny is not a great teacher, and she’s missing Deen, and hey, what would happen if the rules were broken? Deceptively simple in concept, Orphan Island is a fascinating story, filled with great world-building, a sympathetic-yet-flawed heroine, and endless philosophical detours. It was pitched to me as a Lost for kids, and I still think it’s a perfect description. I offer a warning that there are no pat answers in the story, and while I certainly didn’t mind that and I don’t think most kids would either, I can imagine a type of adult that would find the whole thing disturbing. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
The Flynn sisters came over from Ireland when they were just 17 and 21. Cool-headed Nora is betrothed to a fellow who she’s not as excited about as she should be, while Theresa is up for adventure and wants to become a teacher. Fifty years later, Nora is a mother of four with four kids: the eldest Patrick and youngest Brian run a bar in the old neighborhood, John runs campaigns for conservative politicians, and Bridget is active in animal protection. And what of Theresa? She’s a cloistered nun and she and Nora haven’t corresponded in thirty years, and yes, it has to do with a family secret. When Patrick dies under the influence of alcohol in a single-car crash, the family is forced to come back together and settle, once and for all, what makes a family. Saints for All Occasions is filled with flawed but deeply humane characters that you can’t help but love. Imagine all your favorite parts of Alice McDermott, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, and though you may not have read her work lately, the late Alice Adams. What a lovely book this is!
A high school trip to Ghana plants an idea that instead of selling cocoa raw materials to foreign brokers, someone could take advantage of the untapped market for single-origin, high-quality chocolate from the country. With Milwaukee-area entrepreneur Steven Wallace’s knowledge of law (one previous career) and wholesale distribution (in tee shirts, an old family business), and a passion for the product, he cobbles together a plan. Are their numerous setbacks along the way? One bad-tasting sample after another should answer that question. And in a country where 85% of jobs are through the government, do the Ghanaians even know what to make of this strange man and his dreams? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But despite these setbacks, Obroni and the Chocolate Factory is an inspiring story about bringing a new product to market through creativity, drive, and learning to collaborate in spite of cultural differences.