And a wealth of congratulations to Kamila Shamsie, who was awarded this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel, Home Fire!
Shamsie’s novelreworks Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone to tell the story of a British Muslim family’s connection to Islamic State was hailed by the judges of the prize as “the story of our times”. According to the 2018 Chair of Judges Sarah Sands, said: “This was a dazzling shortlist, it had depth and richness and variety. We were forcibly struck by the quality of the prose. Each book had its champions. We loved the originality of mermaids and courtesans, we were awed by the lyrical truth of an American road trip which serves as a commentary of the history of race in America, we discussed into the night the fine and dignified treatment of a woman’s domestic abuse, we laughed over a student’s rite of passage and we experienced the truth of losing a parent and loving a child. In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times. Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.”
It’s a good day for books, beloved patrons, so let’s keep celebrating by taking a look at some of the other super-terrific stories that have swung up onto our shelves this week, and are eager to make your acquaintance!
The Death of Mrs. Westaway: I don’t know about you, but Ruth Ware’s psychological thrillers are some of the highlights of my summer reading, so it’s with great pleasure that we introduce her newest novel, about a tarot card reader named Hal. When Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but a tarot reader needs to be talented at reading people and adapting to their needs, so Hal decides to take matters into her own hands. But at the funeral of the deceased, it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it. This book especially has earned Ware a number of comparisons to Agatha Christie, but there is also something delightfully modern about her unsettling plots and crafty, surprising heroines. It’s also been earned starred reviews left, right, and center, including one from Booklist, who cheered, “The labyrinth Ware has devised here is much more winding than expected, with reveals even on the final pages… a clever heroine and an atmospheric setting, accented by wisps of meaning that drift from the tarot cards.”
Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York: With the release of some 19th-century and early 20th-century medical records, it’s becoming possible to tell new, more compassionate, and insightful histories of madness, medicine, and the people who were caught up in medical and state institutions. In this book, Stacy Holt uses narratives from the inhabitants of Roosevelt Island–once known as Blackwell’s Island, a stretch of land in New York’s East River that was the site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. This was a site of terrible overcrowding; prisoners were enlisted to care for the insane; punishment was harsh and unfair; and treatment was nonexistent. Yet despite the aching human tragedies and horror that Holt describes, there are also stories of hope, including the work of Reverend William Glenney French, who devoted his life to ministering to Blackwell’s residents, battling the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, and testifying at trials, all while wondering in his diary about man’s inhumanity to man. This isn’t an easy read by any means, but it’s a significant one that asks a lot of pressing questions about today’s mental health treatments, as well as illuminating the past. Publisher’s Weekly agrees, describing this book as “a vivid and at times horrifying portrait of Blackwell’s Island…Horn has created a bleak but worthwhile depiction of institutional failure, with relevance for persistent debates over the treatment of the mentally ill and incarcerated.”
The Art of the Wasted Day: An ideal read for the summer, Patricia Hampl’s book is a delightfully different kind of travel story, describing her journeys to the homes of those who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of “retirement” in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne–the hero of this book–who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay. In the midst of this study, Hampl also recalls her own personal relationship with leisure, from her childhood days lazing under a neighbor’s beechnut tree to the joys discovered in quietly falling in love, which led to the greatest adventure of her life. A thoughtful, emotional study about the joys found in thinking, in wandering, and in exploring, this is a book for all of you armchair explorers who are looking for a new kind of escape. The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a glowing review of this book, calling it, “A wise and beautiful ode to the imagination – from a child’s daydreams, to the unexpected revelations encountered in solitary travel, meditation, and reading, to the flights of creativity taken by writers, artists, and philosophers.”
The Order of Time: Carlo Rovelli’s study, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, made scary science into something accessible, beautiful, and downright enjoyable, and now he is back to study time. We all experience time, but the more scientists learn about it, the more mysterious it remains. We think of it as uniform and universal, moving steadily from past to future, measured by clocks. Rovelli tears down these assumptions one by one, revealing a strange universe where at the most fundamental level time disappears. Weaving together ideas from philosophy, science and literature, Rovelli suggests that our perception of the flow of time depends on our perspective, better understood starting from the structure of our brain and emotions than from the physical universe. It’s a concept that makes sense when you consider that it was humans who made time and clocks and such things, but this journey ties those inventions into a much deeper, richer understanding of the world that will have you rethinking all the basic tenants of time that you thought you knew. Scientific American loved this book, noting in its review how “Rovelli, a physicist and one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, uses literary, poetical and historical devices to unravel the properties of time, what it means to exist without time and, at the end, how time began.”
Social Creature: Here’s another thriller to keep your summer sizzling–in fact, Tara Isabella Burton is already drawing comparisons to Gillian Flynn and Tara French, so fans of those compulsively-readable authors should be quick to add this to their summer reading list. Louise has nothing. Lavinia has everything. After a chance encounter, the two spiral into an intimate, intense, and possibly toxic friendship. They go through both bottles of champagne, and as they drink, Lavinia tells Louise about all the places they will go together, when they finish their stories, when they are both great writers-to Paris and to Rome and to Trieste…but Lavinia will never go. She is going to die soon. A modern twist on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, this book takes a razor-sharp look at our social conventions, all while telling a story that is addictive, dark, and scintillating in the ways of all good summer thrillers. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, praising “Burton’s exceptional character work…every individual is both victim and villain, imbuing their interactions with oceans of emotional subtext and creating conflict that propels the book toward its shocking yet inevitable conclusion…At once a thrilling and provocative crime novel, a devastating exploration of female insecurity, and a scathing indictment of society’s obsession with social media.”
Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!