In this dystopian YA novel set in an alternate, steampunk-y version of California, a teenage girl gets mystical visions of tasks that she must perform to save her people.
In 1894, the village of Promise in North California has long helped passengers from a nearby train line that carries the unwanted—lepers, refugees, the elderly, abandoned children—to a workhouse/asylum in British South California. Juanita Elise Jame-Navarro was rescued from the train and brought to Promise as a baby; now 15, she’s become a “mystic traveler”for her tribe. From the Shadow World, she gets a mission to sabotage the workhouse train because a new superintendent plans to cut expenses by killing the asylum’s “expendables.” Juanita has spirit guides to help, such as her ancestor Billy, a locomotive engineer who addresses her as “Little Engine Woman.” After the sabotage, her plan is to escape southward to Mexico, which brings its own dangers—especially from the cruel and powerful Mendoza family. But the planned explosion goes wrong, killing some Promise folk—likely including Juanita’s beloved, Galen—and leaving herself injured. Pilgrims rescue her and take her to their village; feeling betrayed by the Shadow World and heartbroken over Galen, Juanita bides her time. Two years later, Billy again insists on a perilous sabotage mission, this time involving the unscrupulous Antonio Mendoza. Billy believes that the Mendozas can be outsmarted and perhaps even motivated to shut down or clean up the asylum. Juanita’s new quest is to steal a train, blast the tunnels, look for Galen, and recover Carla, an asylum-bound baby. During her mission, she’ll learn startling truths about her family history and discover new strengths.Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are organized around a quest. Although Juanita does indeed solve problems and cover some ground, these are secondary to her maturing understanding of herself, history, the Shadow World, and relationships in both the spirit and human realms. Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Hill (Heroes Arise, 2008) pays attention to the anthropology of her invented culture in ways that enrich the story greatly, often in details that subtly underscore how the society both resembles and differs from our own. For example, Juanita worries about being too plump, but she also likes the soft black hair on her legs because she sees it as feminine. The steampunk influence is also subtle; some characters wear top hats with goggles, and there’s a clockwork man and a mystical tin airship. Steam trains are also important, of course, and Hill has researched their operations well. But this is a book about people, not inventions, and its emphasis is on its characters’ choices and their consequences, as when Juanita wonders, “Who would I be by the time I stopped the asylum train, found Galen and rescued Carla?” However, philosophical musings don’t take the book over, either. Tough, painful, and real things happen to Juanita, making her determination to carry through her mission all the more heroic.
A coming-of-age story that thoughtfully blends mysticism and adventure.
A widow details her husband’s final years—when he was in a nursing home—but also presents a sweeping view of their four decades together.
Munat first met Chuck in Chicago in 1968. He was a 34-year-old high school English instructor and father of three, soon to be divorced; the author was a 21-year-old college senior and his practice teacher at the time. “The first thing I loved about him was his bravery,” she recalls, opening with a powerful vignette of Chuck negotiating between riot police and students protesting poor conditions in black schools. Munat would need to channel that courage when Chuck’s health went downhill rapidly in 2003 following a small stroke. After three weeks in rehab, he came home, but Munat couldn’t cope with his incontinence and falls. Back he went to St. Thomas nursing home, where he remained until his death in 2009. A diagnosis of Lewy body dementia explained Chuck’s shuffling gait and occasional disorientation. LBD is characterized by “fluctuating cognition,” and the book gives vivid examples of Chuck’s “Downtime” versus “Showtime” behavior. The narrative fluidly shifts between sections about the daily challenges of caregiving and flashbacks to the couple’s earlier life together, including confronting career changes, forming a blended family, hosting exchange students, and moving to Bainbridge Island, Washington. Re-created dialogue is excellent throughout. Excerpts from journals and family newsletters enrich the text, as do frequent photographs and inventive chapter titles (“It All Began with a Pink Wastebasket”). Munat provides a clear sense of marriage as an ongoing passage, along with chronicling her separate caregiving journey: leaving their home for a condo and drawing strength from family, a “Circle Babes” support group, and short vacations. Visiting Chuck nearly every day for six years was a drain but also a labor of love. “Illness could not take away what we’d always had: an abiding love and respect for each other,” she writes. “And that kind of love does not come to an end.”
A beautiful, richly panoramic book that should reassure caregivers and delight memoir readers.
A conservationist and art photographer explores the erotic aspects of trees.
For more than 20 years, Arbor has been creating intimate photos of trees and people together. The humans, which include herself and others, are nearly always nude, and the folds and curves of their bodies harmonize with the sinew of the trees. In one, the author prostrates herself, as if on an altar, along a platform at the base of a 285-foot mountain ash; in others, she reclines on a willow that appears as though it’s bending to drink at a nearby pool or nestles in the crook of a windblown Cyprus, the curve of her back in perfect accord with the outermost bough’s lurch to the left. In one black-and-white photo, she molds herself to the basal furl of an enormous fig tree, pressing her palms and her cheek against its bark, looking like something from the pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. “For tens of thousands of years,” she writes, “people took refuge under trees, held council under trees, and depended upon trees for survival.” Indeed, from even earlier. Anyone perusing Arbor’s book can’t help but feel eerily reminded of humanity’s distant ancestors—the earliest hominids—and how some of them would have lived nearly their whole lives in the vanished oaks and beeches of the Pliocene (“we lived in kinship with them,” she achingly writes of that forgotten past). Sometimes the models’ fetal poses in the trees drift toward the sentimental, à la Anne Geddes’ work, and some readers may be amused by the fact that sometimes the models are difficult to locate, bringing to mind Where’s Waldo? But such levity isn’t unwelcome, and it serves only to intensify the fact that humans can appear eerily camouflaged in nature. Fortunately, Arbor has a remarkable eye for how light and shadow shape the viewer’s experience of texture, and some pictures are every bit as powerful and haunting as Edward Weston’s images of bell peppers—or, for that matter, of trees. Forest giants from Tasmania to South Africa to Anatolia have never seemed so alive.
In this comedic novel, a man vainly tries to get people’s attention.
Hollywood actor Tad Mortriciano receives too much devotion: from his fans, from his dog, and from his overbearing mother. But that all starts to change once the odd, shuttlecock-shaped birthmark on his shoulder begins to darken. Suddenly he can’t get anyone to give him the time of day. He gets rejected for movie roles; fans start to snub him; and his relationships fall apart. People seem unable to grasp what he’s saying or to focus on him at all. His new anonymity is so strong he’s able to resolve a police standoff by simply walking in and freeing the hostages. It gets to the point that when he is greeted by a woman in the library sporting pigtails, dental headgear, and a boom box, Tad just assumes that she’s speaking to someone else. It turns out Angela is in the exact same position as Tad: they are both “Low-Impactors. Folks who others have a hard time paying attention to.” She even has the same shuttlecock-shaped birthmark that appears to be the key to their peculiar situation. One theory is that they’re demons. Another, that they’re aliens. All Angela knows is that they’re being pursued by the Monitors: the only people who can see Low-Impactors and, for some reason, mean to harm them. Angela is helping to organize Low-Impactors who seek to protect themselves in an existential struggle that they are only just beginning to understand. In this first installment of a series, Harris (Tall Grass, 2008, etc.) writes in a sharp, playful prose that fills out this absurd world with color and humor. “It’s obvious,” goes one ally’s alien theory. “You both have red hair, you’re of similar ages, both put up for adoption about the same time, you both have the lunar orbiter birthmark.” The author leans into the strangeness of the premise, delving into an adventure that is simultaneously cartoonish and compelling. The characters are big and fun; the stakes are high but tongue-in-cheek; and the reading experience is escapism of the best variety.
A delightful, amusing fantasy about folks whom everyone ignores.
A business professor challenges the conventional belief that the father of economics endorsed key assumptions used to justify greed and oppose regulation.
As corporate scandals and financial crises have harmed millions and eroded public trust, debut author Cox (Marketing, Univ. of Texas, Austin) wants business schools to emphasize ethics and social responsibility to offset curriculums that foster a culture of avarice and radical individualism. Mainstream economics, he argues, embraces a political philosophy that promotes the “twin pillars of market capitalism: greedy and rational economic man and the self-regulating power of perfect competition.” Both concepts supposedly find authority in Adam Smith, whose “invisible hand” transforms the personal vice of avarice into the public virtue of economic growth. But Cox effectively describes how these theoretical economic models break down in practice, often harming free enterprise. He persuasively argues that Smith would not recognize or accept them. Cox confesses that for decades as a student and professor he had not read Smith’s 950-page Wealth of Nations, accepting what others attributed to it. Intensive study of works by and about the economist and philosopher convinced Cox that Smith distinguished between healthy self-interest and that which was “vulgarly understood”—greed. Cox cites numerous government interventions that Smith endorsed, from a minimum wage to progressive taxation, to show that his philosophy was not laissez faire. While Cox aims his work at academia, he writes clearly in mostly jargon-free language that anyone should be able to understand, striking a good balance between scholarly theory and everyday business practice. His case is thorough, well-organized, well-researched, and documented with footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a basic index. The prose conveys a passion born of regret that the author might have served his own students better; he laments that he presented them “with a hash” of “two conflicting business philosophies.” Particularly effective is his juxtaposition of two former students at the school where he is now professor emeritus: Rick Causey became Enron’s chief accounting officer and went to federal prison; Sherron Watkins, who pens the volume’s afterword, became an Enron whistleblower and Time magazine “Person of the Year” in 2002.
A needed and overdue corrective, this book should be essential reading for business and economics scholars and for anyone interested in these subjects.
A debut literary novel addresses issues of identity, family, and personal history.
Returning to her alma mater as a professor is a mixed bag for Nickie Farrell. Windfield College is a liberal enclave in a conservative section of northern Virginia and holds warm memories for her. But as a transgender woman, she must grapple with the fact that she presented herself as male when she attended the college. Her history becomes a more pressing issue when Cinda Vanderhart, an overzealous student reporter, violates her privacy. Nickie grants her an interview, and Cinda reveals that the professor is trans in the school paper. At the same time, Collie Skinner, a waiter in town, struggles with his grief over his mother’s serious illness and her recent revelation—that his biological father was a Windfield student who seemed to disappear shortly after their affair. Matters only escalate from there, as violent bigots follow and menace Nickie; Collie and his co-worker and confidante Robin Thompson start digging into his past; Cinda investigates the abnormal heterochromatic eyes Nickie and Collie share; and they all become embroiled in a deadly threat to the entire campus and all it represents. The prose in Woulff’s novel is solid, but its true strength is in giving multiple perspectives their own unique voices. Nickie communicates her uncertainty, anxiety, and pride as she deals with her trajectory and shifting relationships. Early on, she’s optimistic about teaching at Windfield (“Maybe she had finally discovered her niche, her purpose in life. After everything she’d been through, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be at peace with herself and the world?”). Collie’s story has a resonance through his sense of loss and the difficulties of self-knowledge without fully understanding his roots. And Cinda too has sympathetic turns even as her thread demonstrates how a passion for truth can be harmful and how attitudes within LGBT communities can threaten trans people. That said, the book contains much more than a character study, and readers who enjoy a good thrill should be happy to be along for the ride even as the more emotional segments tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately, this novel is a deft and nuanced study in contradictions, clashes, and mismatches and a stirring reminder that so often that’s exactly what life is.
A rich web of complex questions, rendered beautifully in this tale of a transgender professor.