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I love a good book about books, bookworms and/or an independent bookstore. Think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive Thursday Next series. And when I read Abbi Waxman’s debut novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings, I could not stop laughing at the witty lines and reading them aloud to my husband.

So when I had the chance to review Waxman’s upcoming third novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – about a bookseller – and interview the author herself, I jumped at it. (Spoiler alert: the book and Abbi are both witty, warm and delightfully irreverent.)

Here’s part of my extended Shelf Awareness review, and a few snippets from my Q&A with Abbi, who was such a joy to talk to:

Bookseller and consummate introvert Nina Hill lives alone (with her cat, Phil) in a small guest cottage in L.A.’s Larchmont neighborhood. She earns a living working at Knight’s, an independent bookstore nearby. When she’s not selling books or reading them, she spends her evenings killing it at trivia competitions (as part of the crack team Book ‘Em, Danno) and intending to go to yoga or spin classes.

Raised chiefly by her beloved nanny while her Australian photographer mother travelled the world, Nina has never felt the lack of a family. But when her estranged father, William Reynolds, dies suddenly, his lawyer tracks down Nina and drops several bombshells, starting with the fact of her parentage. Now, Nina stands to gain both a potential inheritance and a large, unruly extended family that she isn’t sure she wants. At the same time, Nina meets Tom, a fellow trivia whiz who might just prove interesting–and sexy–enough for Nina to embark on an actual relationship.

Nina’s story unfolds in a series of intended-to-be-ordinary days, annotated frequently by pages torn out of her day planner. These are crisscrossed with notes, information, grocery lists and aspirations (including those spin classes), and they provide a clue to Nina’s emotional state, especially regarding the new relationships she’s juggling. Waxman captures the internal back-and-forth between Nina’s rapacious intellect, her fairly sturdy self-esteem and her high levels of anxiety, which has led her to seek out constant ways to stimulate her brain.

As Nina gets to know her family, she comes to understand there’s more at stake than a simple fight over an inheritance. William Reynolds was married three times and had children by at least four different women, and he seemed to be an entirely different man in each incarnation of family life. Every one of his ex-spouses and their children, understandably, have strong (and strongly expressed) opinions about their particular version of William, while Nina, never having met him, ends up sifting through the conflicting reports and trying to make up her own mind.

Waxman has the gift of writing wisecracking, breezy novels that nevertheless contain some real growth for her characters. Nina is forced to re-examine the carefully constructed boundaries of her introverted life, and decide for herself which ones she wants to loosen and which ones she wants to keep. She doesn’t undergo a radical personality change, nor does Waxman (or indeed anyone else) suggest that she should. But by the book’s end, Nina is more able to function in the world as herself–and she’s getting better at explaining to other people when she just needs a moment (or a day) alone.

KNG: Nina struggles with severe anxiety, but she’s mostly learned to manage it. How did you write a protagonist with anxiety, but address it in a fairly light-hearted way?

AW: Anxiety is so common, and we don’t really talk about it–though maybe we are starting to talk about it more, as a society. Nina has essentially sorted out her life in a way that works for her, so she’s mostly able to manage her anxiety.

I wanted to write a character who was happily introverted and didn’t feel any pressure to change who she was. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and being the kind of person who prefers her own company to that of other people. I wanted to write a character who was comfortable with herself, not just trying to fit in.

Certainly there are struggles–and you always have to ask yourself, “What does your main character want?” Nina, at the beginning, just wants to be left in peace. To be left alone. But then she meets a man who she maybe wants to spend more time with, and the struggle is within herself. Can she get out of her own way enough to try something new?

Nina is a trivia whiz. Tell us about this part of her personality.

I think millennials consume media and creative output of all kinds in a more meta way than my generation did. They’ll go see a movie and then they’ll read lots of reviews about it, and discuss it online. With the constant news cycle, trivia has become like conversational glue–like squirrels sharing nuts, little nuggets of cultural information. For Nina, it’s a self-soothing activity as well.

Nina’s day-planner pages appear throughout the book, and they are so entertaining–a window into her emotional state at times.

I’m glad you think so. Sometimes it was easier for me to show what was going on than to write it. Nina’s trying so hard to sort everything out, and I thought readers could read into the way she was doing things. I could show rather than tell that she’d had a big fight with someone, for example, and was going to turn over a new leaf. And then real life intervenes, inevitably.

Nina’s workplace faces a crisis, but–mild spoiler–she is able to save the day in the end.

I had to go for a happy ending. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s fun. And I hope people like Nina and feel empathy for her. She’s inspired by all the booksellers I meet when I go around to bookstores. They are without fail intelligent, thoughtful, snappily dressed young women. I would have liked to be like them when I was their age. Ultimately, the novel is sort of a love letter to independent booksellers, and young women in particular.

The kind of books I like to write are a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and with a happy ending. All of my books are the books that you pick up, read and then loan to a friend. I want to be escapist! That’s the best possible outcome for me. I ask myself: Is this a pleasure to read? Is it a pleasure to write? And if my sister thinks it’s funny–that’s the ultimate test–then we’re good.

I originally conducted this interview and wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness. Nina’s story comes out July 9. 

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Among explorers, hunters and fishermen, Alaska was long perceived as a man’s world. Women have often had to fight for the chance to love this harsh, beautiful land and prove they can handle its challenges. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’ve ended up reading a spate of books about it recently – all written by, and featuring, strong women.

Sophie Forrester, military wife and aspiring photographer, is initially denied her chance to see Alaska when her husband Allen is assigned to explore the Yukon Territory in 1885. But she faces her own challenges at the barracks in Vancouver, and (mild spoiler) does eventually get to see Alaska. Eowyn Ivey tells Sophie’s story in her stunning second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. I raved about this book earlier this winter – my first five-star read of 2019.

For memoirist and obituary writer Heather Lende, Alaska is home: she’s spent decades living and working there. Her three books (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs; Find the Good) offer a welcome balance to Alaska’s lonely wildness: the warm, colorful community of fellow residents that is necessary for survival.

Kristin Knight Pace ended up in Alaska almost by accident, as a heartbroken divorcee. But her initial five-month stint turned into a decade, and now she runs a dog kennel with her husband. She chronicles the wonder, challenges and the grit required to complete two storied 1,000-mile dog races (the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest) in This Much Country. (I was particularly gripped by the contrast between her Alaskan life and her childhood in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.)

Adrienne Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life when she moved to Alaska after college. Nearly two decades later, she’s carved out a home for herself and wrestled with fundamental questions about identity and motherhood. Her luminous memoir, It Happened Like This, chronicles her journeys out and back in, exploring her efforts to live and thrive in a gorgeous, demanding inner and outer landscape. (I read Lindholm’s book in Spain last summer – a different kind of gorgeous and demanding landscape, at least for me.)

I originally reviewed three of these books and wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it ran last week.

 

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For thousands of years, human beings have watched the stars–to observe their beauty, to navigate across uncharted oceans, and (sometimes) to seek guidance for important decisions. But do the stars truly affect our lives? Does a person’s zodiac sign determine his or her personality and fate, or are human beings the masters of our own destinies?

Australian novelist Minnie Darke takes a playful approach to these questions–and the havoc that sometimes results from pursuing them–in her big-hearted and witty debut, aptly titled Star-Crossed.

Darke’s novel centers on Justine (Sagittarius, possessed of a near-photographic memory, thoroughgoing star skeptic) and Nick (dreamy Aquarius, struggling actor, true believer). Born nine months apart to mothers who were best friends, the two spent their childhoods together, but lost touch after Nick’s family moved across the country.

Darke sets up this shared history in a few breezy chapters, then leaps ahead to when Justine’s and Nick’s orbits overlap again in their 20s. Justine is an aspiring reporter at a quirky monthly magazine, and Nick has just landed the lead in a local avant-garde production of Romeo and Juliet. As the two reconnect and become friends, and as Justine’s responsibilities at the magazine shift, she starts to wonder if there’s any harm in tweaking the monthly astrology column, just a little. The results – predictably – go a bit beyond what she expected.

I read Star Crossed back in December so I could review it for Shelf Awareness – the above paragraphs are the first part of my extended review. I also got to interview Minnie via email (she lives in Tasmania). She was charming and warm and funny, like her novel (and most of its characters). Here are a few fun excerpts from our conversation:

KNG: What inspired you to write a novel focused on astrology and the stars?

MD: The idea for the novel came to me quite a long time ago, when I was a journalist at a small newspaper. Because the staff were few, and it was handy for everyone to be able to make changes to the paper right up until deadline, I had a login that gave me access to the entire publication.

I was working late one night when I had the idea that I could, if I wanted to, fiddle about with the astrology column. Hmmm, I thought. I could make the entries spookily relevant to my friends’ lives, or perhaps take a hand–invisibly–in their decisions. I’m not saying I definitely ever did any of that, but it was a seductive idea. It was also, I thought, a good basis for a novel.

We humans are reliably interested in questions of fate. Are we living out a preordained pattern? Or are we just drifting, bumbling along? We know that there are forces acting on us all the time, but are some of them as far away as the stars? Could these forces be known, and therefore harnessed in the service of our dreams? These are all interesting questions.

Justine is a Sagittarian skeptic and Nick is a true-believer Aquarius. Many of the other characters, no matter their signs, fall somewhere in between. What about you? What’s your relationship with the stars?

I don’t know if I believe in astrology, but I certainly like it. I like the way people enjoy fulfilling, and also confounding, the stereotypes of their sign. And I like the way people use astrology to understand others and their relationships. Just as humans like to seek out systems of meaning, we’re also pretty interested in classificatory systems.

As classificatory systems go, astrology is pretty good fun, and I learned this from my grandmother. She kept two very well-thumbed and dog-eared books on a shelf near her favourite chair. One was her crossword puzzle dictionary and the other was a copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. She was a great one for saying things like, “Oh, your grandfather’s just being a miserly old Capricorn.” Or, “Your dad’s not one for risks; he’s a Cancerian after all.” She was a nurse, and a classic Virgo–always ready to patch up people’s ailments, and to take a close interest in their personal affairs.

The novel is lighthearted, but it asks big questions about decisions, fate and the surprising twists our lives often take. What are your thoughts on the relationship between decisions, free will and destiny?

One of the things I love about being a writer is that it’s not my job to come up with answers or solutions to tricky questions. My job–and I think it’s the best job of all–is to keep asking those tricky questions in new and hopefully entertaining ways.

Perhaps the way the plot of Star-Crossed resolves suggests that there is such a thing as fate, or destiny. Or, perhaps Star-Crossed is simply a depiction of a series of events that take place in a world full of lucky, random chaos. It really will be up to the reader to decide.

I’d like readers to know that Star-Crossed was written in a spirit of joy and mischief, and I hope with all my heart that they will be amused, moved, uplifted and entertained by it.

You can read my full review and interview with Minnie at Shelf Awareness. The book comes out in the States in May, and – in case it wasn’t obvious – it’s really good fun. I recommend it if you’re looking for a charming, witty read with lots of heart – no matter how you feel about the stars.

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Delight, according to poet Ross Gay, is underrated: its very existence, the multiplicity of delights present in the world, the noticing and celebrating of said delights. (For what it’s worth, I agree with him.)

Between his 42nd and 43rd birthdays, Gay decided to capture as many delights as possible, and spin them out into a series of “essayettes.” The result, The Book of Delights, is a kaleidoscopic collection of joy–an accumulation of blessings that, piled up, create a larger enchantment.

I interviewed Ross via email for Shelf Awareness after reading The Book of Delights – the paragraph above is the first part of my review. His answers to my questions, not surprisingly, were a delight, so I wanted to share them with you. (And I highly recommend the book itself, which came out last week.)

KNG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Book of Delights.

RG: I was–this is not a joke–walking back to the castle I was staying in for the month of June in Umbria, at an artists’ residency. I was delighted, and acknowledged it. I was like, “Oh, this is really delightful!” It might have been the wildflowers at my feet swooning with bees, or the fig trees (unripe) everywhere, or the way Erykah Badu singing in your headphones usually makes things more delightful. Or the castle, I guess.

But I think catching myself in delight that day made me think it would be interesting and challenging and fun to do every day for a year. It was close to my birthday, so that was an easy form: birthday to birthday. And, too, the fact that I am always hungry, like deeply hungry, for writing about and thinking about and theorizing about and singing about that which I love.

How did you decide which delights to capture and expound upon? (You note that stacking delights is itself a delight, but at the same time, you cant write about them all!)

Today, outside my window, is what looks like a weird kind of poppy shrub–a cardinal just flipped by, and there goes her fella–which amazes and delights me, you know, because it’s January and, thank god, very cold outside, much too cold for a poppybush to be growing, whatever a poppybush is.

Then I realized I’d chucked a couple clementine peels out of the car when I was coming home from the store, and the way they landed behind the bald shrub, and from this distance, makes it look as though they are flowers on the tree, as though they are a poppybush, which they are. And one of those cardinals is so bright, looking right into this window from across the street, that he looks like a red light bulb. I mean, I don’t know. There is, along with all else, so much to delight upon, the way I see it.

I remember trying to write about things that really delighted me, but they just kind of spun out as essayettes and didn’t go anywhere. So probably I needed the delight to take me somewhere, which could mean associative wandering, or musical wandering, or digging really hard on a thing. But I guess the delights needed to offer a certain amount of puzzlement in addition to delight. They often had to make me ask why a thing delights me, which often took me far from delight–often took me nowhere I would have anticipated.

You talk about delight, and the noticing of it, as a muscle that can be strengthened, or a radar that grows more sensitive over time. Tell us about about the process of finding more delight as you went along.

I think I was prepared for a kind of scarcity of delight. To need to be scouring my life for delight to write these essayettes. And then, as I turned it on, it was like this is what Im doing, attending to my delight.

I found, with that attention, that I am often kind of delighted. And often delighted by things I didn’t realize delighted me. And that is a gift–to be like, “Oh, shoot, I love that jade plant that my student gave to me and I have spent all these years never realizing how much I love it!” Or, “I love that candy because it reminds me of my father, who could be so ridiculously sweet to us.” To do that again and again. But it took me giving myself the task of attending to and articulating the experience of delight to myself to realize that. Because, the truth is, my inclination has been kind of melancholic plus.

Delight, or at least the public celebration of it, has often been denied to black people in the U.S. Can you talk about writing a book of black delight. Daily as air?”

I think there’s a very clear desire (and industry) by some to crush the experience, or to imagine the experience, of black people into, simply, suffering and pain. Like if it isn’t pain, it isn’t black. If it isn’t about pain or reacting to or resisting pain, it isn’t black. Something like that. That’s bullsh*t, and it’s poisonous, all around. (Black pain as a salable product, a good, that’s familiar, huh?)

I’m interested in the full, weird, complex, surprising, tender humanity of my life, our lives. Which includes delight. (And I recommend Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet.)

Theres a perception that delight, joy or playfulness arent serious, or that celebrating them forces people to ignore the harsher realities of life. But your collection draws together the dark and the light, and takes joy and pleasure seriously. Were you consciously trying to strike that balance or was it more organic?

It’s a mistake to imagine that what is brutal or awful is the only thing worth talking about. Primarily because the brutal and the awful and the harsh are not the only thing.

I mean, what is the world in which the only thing worth talking about or thinking about or meditating on or studying, the only thing worthy of our fullest attention, is that which sucks? What are the results of thinking and counseling that joy–which, in my opinion, comes from the realization that we are utterly interdependent, we are utterly connected (part of that connection being that we all die)–is not worth studying? F*ck that.

I want to study the zillion ways we care for each other so that I can get better at caring. I want to study the ways we collaborate, the ways we interdepend, whether we acknowledge it or not, which we damn well better do.

Do you have advice for readers who may be inspired to start their own delight-noticing projects, or write about their delights?

I’m not that good for advice, but I will say there was something useful to me about dailiness, about making writing these delights a practice. I also think having a little time constraint was useful for me; it helped me to think in a looser, non-precious way. I loved writing them by hand, too–that helps me to think more bodily, which I think is more delightful, frankly. And then you can have these notebooks full of meditations on things that have delighted you–how lucky!

I originally conducted this interview and reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness, where both pieces appeared last week. 

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As regular readers know, there are few things I love more than a long walk, in any season and almost any weather. My walking and reading inform each other: the books I’m reading often provide fodder for ambulatory reflection, but some books capture the pleasures of walking itself.

Scottish author Robert Macfarlane (whose work I adore) collected hundreds of “land-words” for his book Landmarks. Each section begins with a lyrical essay about a type of landform in the British Isles (mountain, coastline, forest), and contains a glossary of related words. Walkers and word nerds – or those who are both – will find much to love in Macfarlane’s treasures from “the word-hoard.”

For those who particularly relish a walk on a wet day, Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather is a celebration of misty treks through various landscapes and seasons. I picked it up, fittingly, at Blackwells in Oxford last year.

The octogenarian title character of Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, embarks on a different kind of journey: a zigzagging walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. Narrating her odyssey with the wry zingers that defined her advertising career, Boxfish takes readers on a tour of 20th-century New York on her way to a good steak at Delmonico’s. I’d walk with her any time.

And finally, Emma Hooper’s spare, lovely debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, follows Etta as she treks across the plains of Canada, determined to walk until she finds the ocean. Like Lillian, she is elderly, a bit lonely and fiercely stubborn. Like Macfarlane and Harrison, she walks with purpose and a sharp, observant eye.

These books celebrate the particular joys of a journey, whether it’s a stroll around the block or a cross-country peregrination. The call to interested readers is the same: let’s go.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared last fall. 

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You don’t need me to say it: by any measure, the last two years in American politics have been turbulent, if not downright disorienting. As politicians engage in shouting matches on social media (and elsewhere), I’ve been turning to an unlikely source of comfort: memoirs by staffers from the Obama White House. (This is a little easier to do now that I no longer work inside the maelstrom of politics every day.)

It isn’t just nostalgia, or denial. Whether they’re youthful idealists like David Litt (Thanks, Obama), who jumped on the former senator’s campaign and ended up spending years working for him, or veteran public servants like Wendy R. Sherman (Not for the Faint of Heart), whose career spans multiple administrations, these voices have helped me in two key ways. They remind me of what it was like to live in slightly saner–if no less complicated–political times. And they help explain, with their insider views of the Obama administration’s triumphs and failures, how the U.S. reached its current moment.

Ben Rhodes, who spent nearly a decade working on foreign policy and communications for Obama, chronicles the complex issues, impossible decisions and flat-out unbelievable moments of his political career in The World As It Is – one of my favorite books of 2018. His thoughtful accounts of the Arab Spring and the reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations make a great pairing with Sherman’s blow-by-blow of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and Litt’s breezy but sharply observed rendering of life as a speechwriter for Obama. These memoirs, plus Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, which I read last summer, offer insights on leadership and show their authors’ staunch commitment to hard work and public service.

Mastromonaco wins for best title (and most wry humor), but all four books provide fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the daily lives unfolding alongside massive world events. Even more importantly, they remind me that even in fraught and divisive times, the American experiment of democracy is still–à la Mastromonaco–an excellent idea.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

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In my work for Shelf Awareness, I occasionally get to interview authors, and we always talk about good books: theirs, and usually others. But this conversation might have been the most bookish one yet. I was talking to James Mustich, co-founder of the book catalogue A Common Reader and the author of the wide-ranging, ambitious compendium 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

If that sounds daunting, let me reassure you: Mustich isn’t out to shame anybody for the books they “should” be reading. Instead, his book is an invitation to explore and discover. Here’s a bit of the extensive review I wrote for the Shelf:

Many avid readers have a “book bucket list”: that hefty classic they’ve always meant to tackle, that series they’ll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they’ve just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he’s compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children’s books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list.

Rather, it’s an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And–almost certainly–enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way.

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, “Read at whim!” as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it’s good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

And here’s a bit from the Q&A:

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I’ve been a bookseller for many years, so I’ve also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It’s not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here’s a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture–from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I’ve spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I’m excited about that. The book is meant to engage people’s passions. It’s an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you’re walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it, and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn’t squeeze in?

There’s a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children’s bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, “Daddy, I want this one.” We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn’t get that one in here. But that’s another book, where I’d like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

You can read the full review and interview at the Shelf Awareness website. If you’re looking for summer reading inspiration, this is a great place to start.

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