Book Passage President Elaine Petrocelli selects her favorite new books and provides a review about her selections in each issue of the Book Passage News & Reviews.
These books are also displayed in each branch of the Bank of Marin, as part of the program Partnership for Literacy sponsored by Book Passage and Bank of Marin. Visit any branch of the bank to find out more about this program.
Geraldine Brooks never picks easy topics. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, as well as high critical acclaim for Caleb’s Crossing and her other works of fiction. But none of that has deterred her from jumping into a story that is fraught with religious overtones—the life of King David. She portrays David in all his complexity from his humble childhood through old age. He is a brilliant harpist and singer with immense charisma, but he is also a fearsome warrior who ruthlessly pursues his vision of power. Nathan, David’s longtime counselor and prophet, narrates the plot that ranges back and forth in time. This is a superb novel. Some autographed first editions available.
Gloria Steinem is a force of nature who refuses to give up. In her extensive travels, she has constantly learned from people she meets—from poet laureates to cab drivers. What shines through in this book is her hopefulness. Steinem gets angry, and then she gets active. But throughout all her struggles there is the sense that each of us can make a difference (“If you don’t believe things can be better tomorrow, why would you fight today?”). This is a wonderful, engaging story about America from one of the leading figures of our day. Some autographed first editions available.
Who better to recreate the world of fairy tales than Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham? But if you’re looking for stories of children gamboling in the forest, you should head over to the Kid-Lit section. Cunningham’s tales are for adults—just as much as his novels The Hours and By Nightfall. The unexpected settings and character twists are breathtaking. A young woman resembling Snow White must negotiate with a bedtime partner who is erotically fixated on her past. A slacker named Jack hangs out in his mother’s basement instead of getting a job, until he decides to trade a cow for some beans. The drawings by Yuko Shimizu are as irresistible as the stories.
In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed 14 women, 5 men, and 2 dogs for witchcraft. While most of us wonder whether that type of horror could happen again in our country (I’m not sure I want to think about that too much), Stacy Schiff has put together a masterful book that looks in depth at the people involved in that nightmare. She digs into the dark recesses of the American psyche, revealing one of the most bizarrely fascinating and despicable periods in American history. The Witches is just as compelling as Cleopatra, A Great Improvisation, and Schiff’s other wonderful books. Some autographed first editions available.
Juan Diego, the complex hero of John Irving’s new novel, is a famous writer who lives in the U.S., though he was born in Mexico where he grew up near a smoldering dump. Now, in spite of several physical impairments, he is visiting the Philippines. Through dreams and flashbacks we meet a mesmerizing bunch including Esperanza, a prostitute who is also Juan’s half-sister’s mother; Flor, a transvestite; a couple of odd Jesuits; and a group from the local circus. Irving spins a funny, sexy,and profound tale of memory and fate.
You don’t often see history unfolding before your eyes—much less know some of the participants. But this story is ready to be told, and there’s no one better to tell it than Lillian Faderman, author of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. Fifty years ago, gays and lesbians were among the most oppressed minorities in the U.S, but they’ve been fighting their way over the last several decades toward full acceptance. The Gay Revolution has its villains, particularly the many public officials who made a living out of entrapping LGBT people and stripping them of their rights. But there are just as many heroes—leaders like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, and allies like Rev. Cecil Williams. Some autographed first editions available.
New York City in the 1970s comes bursting to life in this big, richly textured debut novel. The characters are taken from all slices of life, and they intersect in surprising ways. Garth Hallberg does a superb job of showing how life among uptown power brokers is just a heartbeat away from down-and-out druggies. The plot lines of this surprising novel come together in the great power blackout of 1977. A novel that is this ambitious in scope requires the deft, self-assured skill that Halberg has in abundance. You won’t want to miss the first novel from this talented writer. Some autographed first editions available.
In this powerful collection of inter-connected short fiction the stories flow together as one seamless meditation on life in Russia from the late 1930s until now. Anthony Marra is an extraordinary writer, as he showed us in his masterful first book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The poignancy of these stories is almost overwhelming. In the first, a censor working for the Soviet government, driven by guilt for having informed on his family, meticulously removes faces from paintings and photographs and replaces them with images of his betrayed brother. Marra’s depth as a writer is breathtaking. Some autographed first editions available.
Sarah Vowell loves nothing more than a good romp through American history, viewing things through her own hilarious filter and putting her gift for satire to good use. Here she looks at the Marquis de Lafayette, recounting both his bravery and foibles as well as the taste for glory he later exhibited in his 1824 victory lap of the U.S. She has a subtle way of linking the past to the present, noting that the “sweet-natured republic Lafayette foretold hasn’t exactly occurred.” The Baltimore Sun pretty well sums it up: “Vowell could make a trip to the DMV interesting.” Some autographed first editions available.
Patti Smith has to be one of the most talented people in America. Smith won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. As an artist, she has seen her drawings and photography exhibited worldwide to great acclaim. And then there’s her music. Grab a look at a YouTube video of “Because the Night” or “Gloria,” and you’ll see rock music at its finest. In M Train, Smith explores the rhythms of her life through places she loves, including Greenwich Village cafes, train stations, Frida Kahlo’s abode, and her own bungalow on Far Rockaway. This is a masterful, profound work. Some autographed first editions available.
There are many words that would describe Isabel Allende’s new book, but the best is “masterpiece.” Allende has reached such heights with her internationally acclaimed fiction that it seems odd to say that she’s taken her writing to a new level. But The Japanese Lover is simply that good. The main character is Alma, who, as a young girl in a Polish-Jewish family, was sent in 1939 to live with wealthy relatives in San Francisco. The story, which is rich in history and insight, moves forward to the point where Alma enters an assisted-living facility in her old age. Along the way, we get a new feel for San Francisco during and after World War II. Throughout, Alma maintains a lasting and mysterious affection for Ichimei, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener, who was sent off to a relocation camp with his family during the war. This haunting story will stay with you long after you finish reading. Some autographed first editions available.
It’s 1937, and a school teacher with no prior knowledge of swimming instruction is training the kids of sugar plantation workers to become world-class swimmers and compete in the Olympics. They begin to win national competitions in the U.S., and the pathway is open. Then the world intervenes. The 1940 Olympic Games scheduled for Tokyo are cancelled, as are the 1944 games after that. Julie Checkoway tells the story of these would-be Olympians with style, insight and compassion. Some autographed first editions available.
I often wonder how Simon Winchester has learned so much stuff. Not only that, but how can he write about it in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat? He’s gone from dictionaries (The Professor and the Madman) to maps (The Map That Changed the World) to volcanoes (Krakatoa) to just about everything in between. The subject of his latest, Pacific, is so broad and engaging, that the subtitle hardly fits on the page. With his usual boldness, however, Winshester has drawn together the history of that vast ocean and matched it against the huge cultural, demographic, and ecological forces at work. Some autographed first editions available.