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The BookBrowse Review

May 15, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

What is the classic structure of a novel? Is there even such a thing? When we think about stories and talk about them, we tend to focus on plot and characters. The man took a trip around the world to find his long-lost brother. The girl and her dog dug up a treasure in the backyard and then together fought off a band of pirates. Plot and characters.

But what about structure? Often it is almost invisible, like a clear glass scaffolding that almost magically holds the story in place. Structure, though, can be just as vital to a novel as its content. A theme or subject can be reinforced by the way it is offered. Structure affects the pace at which we read, where we emphasize and what we emphasize, and it can subtly or overtly mirror content.

This issue is full of unique and innovative structures.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang is a compilation of nine short stories and novellas that are the stuff of science fiction, but not your usual variety. Instead, Chiang weaves together the truly bizarre and other-worldly while infusing each of his characters with universal emotions. This is not a theme-focused book, but more of an interdisciplinary experiment. The structure of the whole collection allows the reader to dive deep for a short time, come up for air, and then dive deep again, much like a bird flying over an ocean searching for food. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg explores the life of a fictional photographer who struggles to balance her personal, artistic and professional lives; it's written as an art catalogue created for a posthumous showing of her work, but without ever showing a single photograph. Structure here is in the form of an actual object in the story.

Angie Kim's debut, Miracle Creek, tells the suspenseful story of an explosion in a medical treatment facility in short third-person chapters—like small explosions, over and over again—so that form mirrors content. And Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips has 12 chapters, each representing a month in the year after two girls go missing on a peninsula in the far eastern corner of Russia. The reader feels that endless year of longing as opposed to just thinking about it.

Read any one of these books with an eye on their structure. Read any in our excellent line-up here and see if you can bring their often-invisible structures into focus.

Happy reading!

Your editor
Davina

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May 01, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Today is May Day, which traditionally marks the return of spring. The ancient Celts celebrated Beltane, "the return of the sun" and held a festival honoring fertility, growth and life after a cold, dark winter. It is believed they also originated the maypole dance, which was most likely a fertility rite symbolizing the union of masculine and feminine. And the Romans held a licentious five-day celebration devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers. May 1 hit smack dab in the middle of the festivities.

Fast forward to the USA in the nineteenth century and the day had become May Basket Day, celebrated by creating baskets of flowers and candies to hang on neighbors' doors. NPR describes it as "a curious custom — still practiced in discrete pockets of the country." It would seem our neighborhood here in California was one such "discrete pocket" as, thanks to the enthusiasm of our children's preschool teacher, they and some of their friends happily made paper cones filled with flowers to hang on neighbors' doors for a number of years.

Springtime. Light. Warmth. Rebirth. But May 1st is also about strikes, labor, rallies, and worker's rights. In early May 1886, over 200,000 workers protested across the USA, demanding an eight-hour day. In Chicago, a peaceful protest turned violent when an unknown person threw dynamite into the crowd, killing both police and civilians. In commemoration of these events, in 1889, May 1st became officially known as International Workers' Day.

Spring and strikes. Light and labor action. These contradictory symbols are each a part of May Day. And contradictory stories are each a part of this issue.

The Stranger Diaries is a Gothic thriller, full of murder, romance, and a ghost story; while Mama's Last Hug examines the emotional depth of chimpanzees. My Coney Island Baby is a love story set in the famous park, and The Island of Sea Women follows the lives of two women divers from South Korea. Boy Swallows Universe is a coming of age story about two brothers in Australia, and The Parting Glass is about a love triangle set in nineteenth-century New York City.

Contradictory themes and genres. But maybe they are not contradictory at all. Maybe they are complimentary instead. Multiple sides of this thing we call life – this journey of living in the world.

Happy Reading!

Davina

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April 17, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

This week, Notre Dame burned. Flames shot into the sky from the wooden roof of the cathedral, a symbol of the beauty and history of France disintegrating into heat and smoke. Renovations were underway, and the cause of the fire isn't known yet, but it seems to have begun in the frame that has held the massive structure since the 13th century. As its iconic spire crumbled to the ground, the specter of Victor Hugo's 1931 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame rose into the sky.

According to Robert Zaretsky, professor of French History at the University of Houston, Hugo believed that "the history of architecture is the history of writing." Zaretsky goes on to say: "For Hugo – before the printing press, mankind communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed in "books of stone." Rows of stones were sentences…[and by] the High Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedral liberated man's spirit. Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and aspirations, in flying buttresses and towering spires."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame celebrates both the place and the poetry. And many of the books we review this week do the same. Sally Rooney's Normal People celebrates Trinity College in Dublin, while Women Talking, by Miriam Toews, holds its drama and revelations inside a single Mennonite barn. In An American Summer Alex Kotlowitz explores many haunts and habitats in Chicago, while Siri Hustvedt examines the architecture of a journal as a through line for one woman's life in her novel Memories of the Future.

There is much more to explore in this issue, including a robust lineup of nonfiction books in our preview section; a just opened discussion of An American Marriage and the winners of the Pulitzer "Letters" category.

Enjoy!

Davina

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April 03, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Laurie Halse Anderson was a National Book Award finalist in 1999 for her groundbreaking young adult novel, Speak, about a girl who is dealing with the aftermath of a rape. When librarians and teachers shared it with teens, they were riveted by the story – even teens who were reluctant readers finished it in one night – but despite their curiosity and connection to the novel, schoolboards and parents tried to censor it. This opened up brand new conversations, not only about what kinds of topics adults think are acceptable for teens to read about, but why we think certain topics – or ideas or narratives – are acceptable. Or not. In this way, Speak was an enormous wave that brought many more topics to the young adult literature shore.

And now, twenty years later, Halse Anderson brings us her memoir, Shout, an intimate examination of her own sexual assault written in free verse, as well as a more general study of childhood and family and how they both shape identity. It is also, poignantly, a statement about the universality of trauma and how it can be a bridge of empathy between people, regardless of the specifics of each person's experience.

Books are a brilliant way to trek across that bridge. And we've got a bunch of empathy-building choices for you in this issue. There's Shout, of course. And then there's The Workshop and the World, by Robert P. Crease, which examines the psychology of science denial, particularly relating to climate change, by delving into the philosophers and thinkers from history who shaped our conversations and perceptions of science. Christina Thompson's Sea People is an exploration of the history of the Polynesian Islands and the origins of its first inhabitants. And Instructions for a Funeral, David Means' short story collection explores, among many other topics, whether stories build empathy.

We think they do. Like Speak, all of these books are waves crashing onto the shore, bringing with them new topics, ideas and narratives for us all to enjoy.

Happy reading!

Davina

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March 20, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

"We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises," Chris Robichaud says in a 2017 article in Wired. Robichaud is an ethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on dystopia in fiction and philosophy. Fiction allows us to walk through doors that might otherwise never even be opened. We don't have to live through an experience, we can read about it instead. And because we are not personally affected by the outcome, we can turn it in our hands and see the many perspectives that created it.

The door that dystopian fiction opens reveals more than an experience; it illuminates our world a little – or a lot – more than we can presently see. It shines a light on a future time and place, while often wrestling with issues that are relevant today. In this way, even though dystopian fiction is often bleak and frightening, it can also be strangely comforting. We can look at what might happen in the future and perhaps deal with it now.

In this issue we review two dystopian novels that examine immigration and the concept of a wall. John Lanchester's aptly titled The Wall explores the dangers of climate change and how an environmental apocalypse can foster tribalism and an us versus them mentality. We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Mejia is about the privileged and the impoverished, and the wall that divides them as seen through the point of view of one young woman who comes from one side but disguises herself as the other. Pair those with Susan Meissner's The Last Year of the War, a novel about a German American girl whose life is changed when she and her immigrant family are sent to an internment camp during World War II, to contrast an historical look at immigration with the dystopian ones.

Just as we can learn from history, we can learn from the future. Robichaud goes on to say: "We can't look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument... Rather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?"

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March 06, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

A humpback whale calf was recently found in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. It was quite a distance away from the ocean – about 50 feet – which is strange enough, but the fact that it was that far north in February was stranger still. How did a whale end up so off course? Researchers don't have the answer. Was it sick and fell behind its pod? Did it lose its mother and then lose its way? Was it chased by a predator? (There aren't many creatures that hunt humpback whales, but killer whales do.)

Most likely we will never know. The question remains captivating though. The idea of straying from an expected course is especially fascinating. The myriad external and internal circumstances, decisions, and reasons are compelling. The tension between the safety of a predictable routine and the danger of the unknown is universal.

Books are built on that precise tension – and we've got many for you to choose from in this issue!

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a coming of age story set against a psychologically-taut historical reenactment trip, Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Hagen explores two girls forging new paths as they find their own voices, Sugar Run by Mesha Maren examines a young woman's desperate desire to find her way back to normal after making a devastating choice when she was a teenager, and The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox centers on a mysterious murdered man. Who is he? What happened to him? (Questions identical to the ones about the humpback whale!)

These stories – and the others in this issue – will take you down unexpected roads and into the complex minds of characters, and they will keep you in that taut place between familiar and strange.

Happy reading!

Davina

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February 20, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Valentine's Day is just a few steps behind us, and although there is most definitely a fence to be wobbling on in terms of whether the holiday is a sweet excuse to remind the people close to you that you love them or a full-blown advertising ploy to coerce people into spending money, it does focus the conversation on love which is welcome on any day of the year.

And what is one of the best ways to have that conversation? You know what we think: reading books!

Love appears in all shapes and sizes in this issue. From The Falconer, by Dana Czapnik, which is about a blossoming sense of self-love as a teenage girl comes of age in a 1990s pre-feminist era, to Elizabeth McCracken's Bowlaway, a whimsical novel that centers around a bowling alley and the metaphor of love as a fragilely balanced emotion, susceptible to being knocked over but also always standing back up again and again, to The Lost Man, by Jane Harper, that explores sibling love against the backdrop of a family mystery.

Our paperbacks are no different. Love and loss are at the center of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez about a woman who has to come to terms with the death of her friend and mentor and forge a new relationship and new sense of responsibility as she is tasked with taking care of his dog. There is love between friends in Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher, about an Israeli boy who befriends Palestinian twins; and in A State of Freedom, Neel Mukherjee explores the complex love of country.

Love is in the air – and between the pages of this bouquet of books we have gathered for you!

Happy reading!

Davina

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BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.