Daniel Goldin is the proprietor of Boswell Book Company. For more of his paperback recommendations, please visit the Boswell book club recommendations page.
Ever since Edith Wharton, great novelists have been writing about the vagaries of life among the moneyed classes of New York. But it’s always Manhattan. Surely there’s a novel about old Brookyn money? Indeed there is, and what a delicious tale Pineapple Street is! The three Stockton siblings have more money than most of us can imagine, but that doesn’t mean they make better decisions than the rest of us. Darley? She invoked the generation skipping trust when she wouldn’t have her husband sign the prenup. Georgina? She finally meets Mr. Right, only he might be Mr. Wrong. And Cord? He might have committed the worst sin of all, marrying a middle-class woman who is mistaken for the caterer. It is she, Sasha, who guides us into the world of money, the Tom Townsend of the group, for those who obsess over the film Metropolitan. But by the end of the story, our sympathies have extended quite a bit further, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments along the way. Someone compared Jackson’s first novel to The Nest (or rather, everyone has) and I have to say, it’s about the best comparison I can come up with too. And I loved The Nest, so connect the dots.
Bodie Kane arrives back at Granby, the New Hampshire prep school of her youth, to teach a short class on podcasting, and one of her students asks to take as a project the case of a student death where she posits that the wrong person is in prison. And being that Bodie was her former roommate, this unearths a torrent of memories, while at the same time confronting a #metoo case focusing on her separated husband. As the story unfolds, a panoply of sexism emerges, from microaggressions (who's watching your kids?) to abuse and assault, leading Bodie to question her entire school experience while also trying to figure out exactly what happened in this case. This a twisty and sophisticated take on psychological suspense - I dare you to stop reading!
A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them (Hardcover)
National Book Award and Pulitzer winner (the latter for his newspaper work) Timothy Egan takes on the second (and probably not last) coming of the Klu Klux Klan in America. In the 1920s, a combination of factors, including the migration of Confederate sympathizers and a White population scared by new waves of immigration, emboldened by the success of Prohibition, led to a resurgence of this organization that was most profound not in the South, but in the Midwest and West. Egan focuses on Indiana, a state that had perhaps the most KKK domination (though one should not exclude Ohio, Colorado, and Oregon, which have their own stories) and in particular, on D.C. Stephenson, who wound up having much of Indiana under his control. A ruthless criminal, a sexual predator, and a charlatan, Steve, as he was known, was seemingly unstoppable, until maybe he wasn’t. Egan’s meticulous research and lively storytelling combine for a powerful work with obvious contemporary parallels. I’m definitely going to be reading more Egan!
It’s almost like a child’s riddle: What’s one thing you can have too much of and not enough of at the same time? The traditional sources of phosphorus are disappearing, and the element, a key fertilizer ingredient that is vital to keeping the world fed, is being overused in agriculture. Today’s prime villains are corporate mega-farms that are exempt from the Clean Air Act, leading to runoff that is poisoning our waterways. As in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Egan’s historical research, expert reporting, and storytelling skills combine to lay out a problem that must be addressed before it’s too late.
In 1939, the Künstler family, a modernist composer and an upcoming actor, the grandfather and their young daughter Mamie, are able to leave Vienna and cross the ocean on the last voyage of the Ile de France to become part of the (often but not always Jewish) émigré community in Los Angeles, including Greta Garbo and composer Arnold Schoenberg. Just over eighty years later, Mamie is exiled again during the COVID lockdown, with only her grandson Julian and her housekeeper Agatha for company. For Mamie, this is an opportunity to take stock of her past, pass some of her stories down, and reveal some carefully hidden secrets. For Julian, it’s the chance to find meaning in his own life. And for readers, Kunstlers in Paradise is a witty, wise, and moving story with an intergenerational friendship at its core.
When an Englishman moves to Paris with his girlfriend, he has no idea how hard it will be to crack the world of restaurant work, especially when she abandons him for a job back in Paris and to be clear, he doesn’t speak French. Starting as a runner in a nice but hardly Michelin-starred restaurant, Edward (or L’Anglais) is drawn into a strange world of power plays and sabotage as he struggles to climb the ladder to waiter. From the moment a tray of dishes falls over and the staff hastily puts the dirty food back on the dishes, you know you’re not getting a celebration of French cuisine. No, this is a story of a Paris you don’t read about, filled with stolen tips, cut corners, double shifts, and nap breaks in hotel bathrooms, after which the staff go home to squalid living conditions. Have you read foodie memoirs where the waitstaff get a meal before their shift? Not here - you’re lucky to sneak an uneaten roll off a customer’s plate. Despite it all, Chisholm perseveres and along the way, finds companionship with the larger-than-life crew that keeps the restaurant going. Plus he got an entertaining book out of it as well!
I am completely obsessed with Tom Breihan’s ‘Number Ones’ column in Stereogum. He’s been telling the story behind every Billboard chart-topper since the list started in 1958, and what started as capsule summaries have now turned into essays that almost always have something interesting to say about pop music and popular culture in general. But was this enough to make a book? You bet it was! Breihan looks at 20 particularly influential songs and the artists that created them and offers original-to-this-book essays that dig even deeper than his column. I’m sure there will be arguments about who made the cut, who was left out, and when it came to some of the artists, whether this was their move-the-needle #1, or was it another cut? And there’s always the problem of those groundbreakers, like Bob Dylan, who never got higher than #2 on the singles chart. The key here is that it doesn’t matter if you know the songs or not, especially now that you can listen to just about anything almost instantly. No less than enthralling!
If you can say one thing about widowed aquarium cleaner Tova Sullivan, the once-again-jobless Cameron Passmore, and star-aquarium-attraction Marcellus the Octopus, it’s that they’ve all had their share of misfortune. Yes, this is a story of grief, of losses both recent and in the past. But it’s also a story of found family, of hope, and of purpose. Van Pelt infuses all her characters with grace, not just the protagonists but the members of Tova’s Knit-Wit social group, Cameron’s Aunt Jeanne (who raised him after his mom disappeared), and even the elusive developer who Cameron suspects is his father. But the star of the show is probably Marcellus, whose dexterity and wisdom never fails to inspire. Why haven’t I read Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus? And while I’m asking, why haven’t you read Remarkably Bright Creatures?
While many readers know about the American porters of George Pullman, Suzette Mayr’s eloquent new novel, shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, chronicles the life of an attendant on the trans-Canadian railway. One thing not different was the job was filled almost exclusively by Black men, who were subject to the whims of riders and faced much racism on the job. In the case of Baxter, he carries an extra burden, as he is also closeted, and burns with the memories of past encounters and the constant fear that any wrong move could lead to losing his job. His dream is to be a dentist, and if there is levity in the story, it is in Baxter’s propensity to focus on the teeth of the folks around him. Through these details, George and his plight are brought to vibrant life. And how can I not love a story where one of the referenced works is an Eaton’s Department Store catalog?
Irene Woodward and Dorothy Dunford bond in training when both join the Red Cross to support the troops by running a coffee wagon. They are supposed to work in teams of three, but they just can’t seem to keep a third – maybe it’s because their friendship is so strong that there just isn’t room for one more in the truck. Outside the truck, their lives are filled with vibrant characters, some romance, and of course, the horrors of war. Urrea’s new novel is classic historical fiction, a change of style, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to fans – his prose has veered from journalism to magical realism to domestic dramedy. And I don’t really want to give anything away here, but I kept thinking it will all be worthwhile if Urrea stuck the landing, and I’m happy to say he sure did!
Two families who live across the street from each other in suburban Connecticut are bound together by one tragedy, a fatal car accident involving the Wilf family, and one miracle, in which Ben Wilf facilitates the birth of Alice Shenkman’s child. The story careens back and forth across time, as the strands of connection deepen and spread. I love books like this, from Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness to Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, and the fact that I’m referencing novels from nine and twelve years ago calls attention to how rarely I find books that capture this feeling of awe that I found in Signal Fires. It was clear from reading Inheritance that Shapiro is adept at capturing life’s reversals; I’m so glad to see that this special skill is equally on display in this beautiful and delicate novel.
Even if you’ve read Allegra Goodman before, you’ve never read a novel like Sam. It’s told completely from her perspective, keeping just the amount of distance you might expect from an adolescent who values her privacy. With any number of childhood setbacks, Sam’s seminal years leave her insecure at best and entering adulthood with any number of missteps. It’s rock climbing that gives her a sense of purpose, and while it doesn’t take her where she wants to go, it does lead to unseen paths - she just needs to find the right footholds. Quiet but powerful.
In the not-too-distant future, fires have ravaged much of the world, and America, like much of the world, has been taken over by extremists. Even the isolated Maine woods have become too dangerous. The only option is for Lark and his family to escape to Ireland, the only country still open to refugees. But during the harrowing voyage, not only does tragedy strike at every turn, but hopes for a peaceful resettlement are dashed. Can Lark, with the help of two newfound companions (one canine) find peace in the legendary settlement of Glendalough? I’m not generally a dystopian reader, but Lark Ascending’s beautiful language and imagery, combined with the emotional heft of the story, drew me in from the first paragraph.
New York Times Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman’s walking tours are packed with history, nature, and culture and veer far from obvious destinations, though he also has interesting to say about the classics, like Rockefeller Center and Museum Mile. Each tour, whether its Harlem, the South Bronx, Jackson Heights, or Broadway, is taken to the next level with the benefit of a expert local travel companion. If you haven’t read the pieces, you’re in for a treat, but even if you have, the collection reads even better as a collection, and you can’t beat the package, printed on full color, high quality paper at a very reasonable price point.
When Lindsey’s husband dies in a skiing accident, she uses the insurance money to buy a rickety motel and moves her three kids from Portland to a small Hawaiian town. They’re not just running from father Paul’s death, but a bit of shame too – the family fortunes quickly veered from easy money to financial struggles when Dad’s tech startup collapsed. Overcoming grief, adapting to change, fitting in – these are classic themes of middle-grade fiction and that’s not surprise, coming from the author of the beloved Counting by 7s. To be clear, there is far more adult perspective and enough unnerving twists to keep this out of eight-year-old hands. And yet, there is a classic kids’ book at the heart of the story, and for someone like me who likes classic kids’ books, this hit the mark. A compelling, heartwarming treat!
While I have a subscription to The New Yorker, I don’t read every long-form article. In fact, I consider it a triumph if I can get through the cartoons, Talk of the Town, at least one review, and at least one article. But even when I did read some of the pieces collected in Rogues, I found it fascinating to revisit them as part of a collection. Rogues, particularly if you exclude the closing profile of Anthony Bourdain, reads as a collection of true crime short stories, being that they have the vibrancy of the best fiction. I love the way traditional crime subjects like drug cartels and arms dealers are mixed with the corporate misdeeds of unscrupulous hedge fund managers, look-the-other-way bankers, and unrepentant television producers, leading me to wonder if we should reshelve some of those corporate narrative books that are currently in our business section. Whether you want to read more Patrick Radden Keefe or are just hungering for juicy narrative nonfiction, this should satisfy you 12-fold.
All Sneha really wants when she relocates to Milwaukee is a circle of friends, a special someone, and a steady income, but even those goals turn out to be a harder to achieve in this debut novel. She’s got a few friends and a possible love interest, though most of them are struggling with goals and money, plus both her contractor boss and the flat manager turn out to be, well, two pieces of work. Plus, contract work kind of sucks - you’re in the company (it’s obvious to any Milwaukeean where she works, but it’s never spelled out in the story), but not really of the company, much the way that Sneha must navigate her life in Milwaukee as a queer South Asian woman. There’s almost a chaotic feel to the narrative - will Thom forgive Sneha, will things with Martina work out, can Tig get her commune together, and just how much money is Amit going to spend trying to save a drug-addicted friend? – but to me, that’s just the way things feel during the kind of quarter-life crisis that Sneha is experiencing. And props for getting the Milwaukee details right circa 2016, considering Mathews never lived here, though she went to school in Madison. Milwaukee is usually used as a no-place-in-particular setting, but here, Mathews plays off oddly Edenic history of socialist mayors that is meaningful to some millennials, even if the contemporary city struggles with prejudice and crime. Even the name-checked restaurants reinforce the narrative – not necessarily fancy, but a little too expensive for the unsteady paychecks of most of this crew, particularly Tig, who generally orders the most expensive thing on the menu. In the end, everything’s going to work out. Right?
Four girls are growing up fast in a Chicago housing project, trying to keep it together while their literal homes are being destroyed. At the center of the story is Fe Fe, who sees the pull of the streets take her friends. Just a warning - there are moments of violence, addiction, and abuse. But the writing! Just read that Double Dutch Scene on page 37. And those girls - it’s hard not to fall in love with Fe Fe. Highly recommended!
Since you asked, cyclorama is a theater backdrop and not a velodrome, as I first thought. And what a theater novel this is! The story centers on the North Shore Magnet High School production of Anne Frank, helmed by a very inappropriate drama teacher, with a cast of ten extraordinary students, in which events are set in motion during the rehearsals that have repercussions thirty-some years later. Langer’s latest harkens back to his over the top, Chicago-centric epics filled with intricate plotting, an unforgettable cast, and lots of humor. Muley Wills from the much-loved Crossing California even gets a cameo. The story can be cringe-funny in a Tom Perrotta way, but also exuberant in a Gary Shteyngart way, and powerful in a, well, Anne Frank way. A joy!
The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat (Paperback)
Vanilla ice cream, breakfast cereal, corn, tomatoes, and several other foods become the jumping-off point for Matt Seigel’s meandering and quirky food history. Why is British pie crust traditionally inedible? How is honey kosher if most samples likely have traces of unkosher insects? And while we’re on the subject, why do vegans eschew honey, but not all the foods that bees pollinate? Why did Nathan’s Famous employ college students who dress like doctors? Could it possibly be true that the USDA is responsible for open-faced sandwiches, but the FDA monitors closed-faced ones? So much food ephemera! Best of all, there are often interesting points to be made about human nature slathered between the easily transportable iceberg lettuce and tasteless-but-great looking tomato. Be warned that The Secret History of Food pretty much uses all secondary sources (over 40 pages of notes!), but what other kind of book are you going to write during COVID? A multi-course feast of delights!
Waiter, truck driver, cocktail pianist – I like a well-done job memoir, and Fly Girl soars. Several books have featured flight attendants over the years, though the most famous (Coffee, Tea, or Me?) was actually written by a male airline executive. Last year there was a round of publicity with lots of great flight attendant stories, but it turned out the book itself (Falling) was not an insider memoir but a thriller. Acclaimed novelist and memoirist Ann Hood started when flying was still glamorous, when first class TWA passengers had carved chateaubriand and even coach had a choice of entrees, but folks in these positions had to confront unruly passengers, not-so-friendly crews, less-than-desirable schedules, endemic industry sexism, a long decline in quality due to deregulation, and in TWA’s case, the nightmare that was Carl Icahn. But for someone with the travel bug, you probably couldn’t have a better life, with the exception, perhaps, of being a writer, and the nice thing is, Hood was able to do that as well.
Belinda Huijuan Tang’s excellent debut, inspired by her father’s upbringing in Anhui province, opens in early 1990s California. Yitian is called back to his hometown when his mother reports his father missing. While Yitian has hardly adapted to America, the return stirs up its own haunted memories, a tortured life with his father, a lost bond with his brother Yishou, and an unfinished longing for his onetime-girlfriend Hanwen. Though framed as a missing person mystery, Yitian’s journey helps him unlock deeper questions of his family and perhaps one day understand his father. The Cultural Revolution is one of repression and loss that affected generations. In making the political personal, Tang brings this period to vibrant life.
The Sullivans have run their family restaurant in Oak Park for three generations, but three unexpected occurrences send the family into disarray - the 2016 election, the Cubs World Series victory, and the sudden death of Bud, the family patriarch. Then there are the setbacks that should have been expected, given the ill-chosen life partners of the Sullivan third generation, Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy. The story is centered on them, two sisters and a cousin, with special appearances by Teddy’s younger half-sister Riley, as their lives spin out of control, sending them back to Sullivan’s. But family is not the best place to avoid drama. This first-rate fractured family free-for-all is Chicago-infused and food forward, from sandwich loafs to sliders. So glad I finally read a Jennifer Close novel - I can’t wait to read another!
The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science (Paperback)
Science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) offers up tales of scientists committing crimes in the name of science. Telling the stories in approximate chronological order, these tales jump from the criminal staples of murder, fraud, and sabotage, to the historical but still resonant crimes of slavery and grave robbing. Hey, if it could happen to Alastair Cooke, it could happen to anyone. Each story is historically researched and compellingly told, making this engaging volume sort of a cross between Patrick Radden Keefe and Mary Roach.
When uber-rich Yalie Farrell Covington spots middle-class New Jersey freshman Nate Reminger across a crowded theater club, it’s the beginning of a crazy relationship that spans decades and continents. No one can keep them apart, only many try, from Covington’s villainous Wichita family, to Hollywood, and AIDS. I really enjoyed how Rudnick included elements of his own life into the story, reflected through a funhouse mirror. Sister Act becomes Habit Forming; see if you can spot them all! Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style veers into madcap and perhaps far-fetchedness, but it is always entertaining, ultimately moving, and much like Rudnick’s play Jeffrey (translates to I Dare You in this novel), uncompromising.
Restaurant reviewer Dana Potowski is asked to be on the committee to pick the new minister for her Unitarian Universalist congregation and decides to write a memoir about the experience, but how is she going to do that when she’s agreed to confidentiality? The committee, a varied lot of big personalities, seems to be on the same page regarding generalities, but when it comes to the specifics, conflicts arise, factions take hold, and Dana’s not exactly the only committee member keeping a few secrets. If you had asked me for a shortlist of compelling plots for a novel, I would not have come up with this one, but I would have been dead wrong, and not just because whenever I describe it to someone, I often get the response: I would read that! Search is a wonderful novel filled with vibrant characters, essential philosophical questions (most notably, what do we want from life?), and a cornucopia of foodie delights.
Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in 1920s Mumbai finds herself helping a servant who has been accused of a tea-induced abortion, though she claims it was taken to regulate her menstrual cycle. Why would the government even care about this? And what about the servant’s employers, who were spearheading the construction of a woman’s hospital, only to pull out at the last minute? Could the subsequent death of the family patriarch be somehow related? Perveen, a Parsi lawyer in a mostly non-Parisi world, is a strong and intelligent hero who has what it takes to prevail, despite being hobbled by cultural and political roadblocks. While this excellent series is always packed with fascinating historical details, The Mistress of Bhatia House is also timely, being that these fights over women’s health continue today.
Maud is a garden historian who has taken a job helping renovate a Hudson Valley estate, a continent away from her husband. She’s leaving him; he just doesn’t know that yet. A friendship with an archeologist on the property soon turns into something more, only when her daughters arrive for the summer, it makes things initially more complicated, and soon enough, impossible. Can a novel be both serene and turbulent at the same time? In the case of Hedge, yes, as it counterpoints a woman and family in crisis with the serene tranquility of nature. Can Maud come out of this without destroying herself? That is the question in this provocative, passionate, and philosophical novel.
For once, Cosby’s hero is neither a current nor reformed outlaw, but a sheriff. Not just a sheriff, but the first Black sheriff of Charon County, an area where the troubled past is still simmering. Concerned that his biggest problem is a march by Christian Nationalists, Sheriff Titus Crown is blindsided by a school shooting, where the victim is a beloved teacher, and in addition, the shooter, killed by a trigger-fingered officer. This does nothing to ingratiate Crown with the formerly supportive Black community, led by an activist minister. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; before this story is fully told, there will be plenty of secrets revealed and, as promised in the title, shed blood. Edge of your seat thrills, masterful storytelling, and what a voice – another winner from SA Cosby!