Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch

A remarkable girl moves through past and future timelines to connect disparate, marginalized characters in Lidia Yuknavitch’s imaginative otherworld.


Lidia Yuknavitch’s Thrust is a complex novel of great imagination, outside of time but very much concerned with it. At its center is Laisvė, also known as the Water Girl. In the late 21st century, she and her father hide away from what is left of society in a submerged New York City where only the tip of Lady Liberty’s torch is visible at low tide. Laisvė has a fascination with curious objects and an unusual set of skills. “She knew not to be afraid to go to water, because time slips and moves forward and backward, just as objects and stories do.” Laisvė is a carrier, who can move not only objects but people, through time as well as space. In Yuknavitch’s lovely, weird prose, Laisvė will eventually connect Frédéric, the French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, and his captivating, beloved cousin Aurora; a violent, abused boy and the social worker–the daughter of a war criminal–who hopes to save him; and a tight-knit crew of three men and one woman who help build the Statue, and who represent “an ocean of laborers.”

Yuknavitch (Verge; The Chronology of Water) moves between worlds as her chapters follow different characters in turn. Some are labeled ethnographies, and form an ode to unrecognized workers, immigrants and misfits. “The story of workers is buried under the weight of every monument to progress or power. Our labor never reaches the height of the sacred. No one ever tells the story of how beautiful we were. How the body of us moved. How we lifted entire epochs.” Characters come from all over the world, speak a range of languages and concern themselves variously with history, the arts, social welfare and the body. Their stories are intertwined and connected by Laisvė’s travels. Laisvė “wants the words to rearrange, to locate differently, the way language itself could if you loosened it from human hubris and let it flow freely again as a sign system, as the land and water did, as species of plants and animals did, everything in existence suddenly again in flux, everything again possible.”

Yuknavitch’s writing style is recognizable to readers familiar with her lyricism, coined words, love of the downtrodden, and water as an emphatic theme. Thrust is many things: a speculative history of the United States, a recognition of forgotten classes, a fluid song about the power of love, a celebration of the power of language and storytelling. It is an intricate novel in its interconnections, plotlines twisting away and back together again, but readers’ attention will be well rewarded by profound, thought-provoking and deeply beautiful observations about humanity in an ever-changing world.


This review originally ran in the May 10, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pennies.

Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin

Set in a village where mothers vanish, this atmospheric novel encourages contemplation of differences and commonalities, and thinking bigger than the boundaries into which one is born.

Alexis Schaitkin creates a chilling, mesmeric world in Elsewhere, a novel that questions motherhood, community ties and individual agency. The village at its heart and the options of a larger world will stick with readers long after the final page.

“We lived high above the rest of the world. Our town sat in the narrow aperture between mountains, the mountains forested, the forests impenetrable.” Vera has grown up in this setting, in a town with unknown origins (“Our streets and park and river carried names in a language we did not speak”) but strict rules. No one goes out after dark, when the ubiquitous clouds descend. Girls form friendships in threesomes, not pairs. And every girl lives in anticipation of becoming a mother, which carries the greatest risk and reward the village knows, because some mothers will stay and some mothers disappear. “One minute she was here, as solid and real as any of us, the next her body faded, faded, until she vanished into the clouds. Gone.”

Vera’s mother went when she was a small child, and she spends her youth wondering what kind of mother she might possibly be without a mother of her own to guide her, if it’s possible that she can be a mother at all. Her obsession echoes that of all the townspeople, who thrill at guessing which mother will be next, and what makes the difference between one who stays and one who goes. “Impossible to predict, what motherhood would bring out of a woman, what it would show her about herself, the end to which it would carry her.” Vera has always known this as blessing as much as curse. “Our affliction opened us to pain, yes, but also to heights of beauty, and of love, that people elsewhere would never know, because they did not know what it was to love in the shadow of our affliction, our love deepened and made wild by the threat that hovered over it. Our affliction was terrible, but it was not as terrible as living without it.” But when motherhood indeed comes for Vera, and she finds herself fully in the unimaginable thrall of her child, the town’s affliction haunts her in a new way.

The village is profoundly insular: “What could the stories and histories of lives elsewhere offer us?” But it turns out that “elsewhere” is a place as well. Elsewhere is unsettling, thought-provoking and lushly detailed, a memorable inquiry about attachments to place and to family, and what happens when a person has to choose between her family and herself.


This review originally ran in the April 29, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 crystal pendants.

Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler, Kevin Conley

This shocking study by the creator of the podcast Cults recounts and dissects the leaders, followers and histories of 10 extreme cults.

“Everyone wants to believe in something or someone: a higher ideal, a god on earth, a voice from heaven…. When this appetite for belief combines with the need to belong, great things can happen…. But what about those rare moments when the dark side of human nature takes hold?” The shocking Cults, based on the Parcast podcast of the same name, surveys some of the most famous and disturbing examples of small, extremist, ill-fated sects. Parcast founder Max Cutler is joined by Kevin Conley (Stud; The Full Burn) in writing this roundup of frighteningly charismatic leaders and their followers.

Ten chapters cover 10 cults chosen for their impacts on the world’s imagination, beginning (naturally) with Charles Manson and his “family.” Cutler’s focus is both narrative, detailing the story of the leader’s upbringing and the cult’s rise and fall, and also probing: Cults is interested in motivations and, to the extent possible, diagnoses. “With so many cult leaders who died suddenly or violently, any diagnosis of psychological disturbance is purely speculative,” but the temptation is strong. “Cult leaders make such good case studies: because the gruesome facts of their biographies are both widely known and easy to connect to a psychological disorder.” Cults are labeled in the table of contents by the root cause Cutler has identified for each leader’s actions. According to this system, Manson was motivated by shame, as was Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, whose Narcosatanists were responsible for at least 16 deaths in Mexico in the 1980s.

Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple was driven by exploitation, taking advantage of his followers financially and sexually until the deaths of 908 Americans (including Jones) in what was called “Jonestown” in Guyana. Likewise exploitative was the bizarre Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose ashrams in India and then Oregon supported his desire for both nitrous oxide and Rolls Royces (he owned 93 at one point), and who laced Oregonian salad bars with salmonella in a bid for local political control. Pathological lying, megalomania, sadism, escape and denial of reality cover the remaining cults: Claude Vorilhon’s Raëlism, Roch Thériault’s Ant Hill Kids, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, Keith Raniere’s NXIVM, Credonia Mwerinde’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate. Manipulative, self-aggrandizing, compelling and lacking in empathy, these characters (in every sense) are by turns laughable, inexplicably strange and chillingly, brutally cruel. Not for the faint of heart but absolutely for the true-crime junkie, Cults is packed with details and unafraid to posit theories to explain these superlatively weird and scary stories.


This review originally ran in the April 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 mixtures containing applesauce.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Another one hit way out of the park by Liz. I no longer remember what she said, but I think it involved some superlatives; I bought the book and finally got around to it and now have some superlatives of my own. It was just early April when I read this book, but I’m confident stating this will be the best book I read all year.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one sort of book I love, in that it involves several threads woven together. In her prologue, Lulu Miller pits our most precious loves against the force of a capitalized Chaos. “Chaos will crack them from the outside–with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet–or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories…” Etc. Then we first meet David Starr Jordan, as Miller did. He was a taxonomist specializing in fish. An earthquake destroyed his collection of thousands of specimens, dashing them in their glass jars to the ground, separating them from their identifying tags. To which he responded by hand-stitching tag to fish specimen, and starting over. Miller is entranced by this “attack on Chaos.” She struggles herself with the forces that tend to defeat us, and wonders of Jordan: “Who are you?… A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

From here we accompany Miller on her study of Jordan – his life and his thoughts – in search of a model for how to be, how to live with joy and be indefatigable in the face of all frustrations, all forms of Chaos. Why Fish Don’t Exist is thus partly a biography of Jordan and a layperson’s introduction to fish taxonomy and its principles. (The title is not a joke. There are existential arguments and philosophies to be discovered, too.) It’s also part memoir, as we get to know Miller better, the demons she’s faced and the tools she’s used to try to mend herself. Her father is a delightedly nihilistic scientist, with some parallels to Jordan, which is of course fascinating. The book is perhaps most of all an inquiry into Miller’s original concern: how to live and not despair, not choose to die, in such an overwhelmingly imperfect world as this one.

Miller’s writing style is colorful, phantasmagoric, impassioned, with high highs and low lows. She sees beauty and desolation in the world, and describes them evocatively. Among Jordan’s discoveries are

A small lantern fish with glowing spots, “which had risen from the deeps in a storm.” A tiny, rainbow-scaled fish that was found inside the belly of a hake, which was found inside the belly of an albacore. A crimson fish with yellow stripes that they nicknamed “the Spanish flag.”

The only fish he ever named after himself, “breathtaking, absolutely, but frightening, too, in the way of an M.C. Escher drawing.” “Its fins look like dragon wings, serrated and sharp.”

Without ruining too much of the story, I will say that Jordan, like all our heroes, is not purely heroic. He turns out to be in fact profoundly problematic, as our heroes tend to, and so Miller must wrestle with that, too. Chaos again. His methods are ruthless –

He began inventing more aggressive techniques for capturing fish. Blowing them out of the water with dynamite, hammering them out of coral, and perhaps most ingenious, for the “myriads of little fishes” that hid inside the tiny cracks in tide pools: poison.

and he’s harder on people than he is on fish. In more than a few ways I won’t give away here he will disturb our modern sensibilities. He disappoints us, as he disappoints Miller – horribly – but her own perspective never disappoints.

Illustrations by Kate Samworth open each chapter and advance their contents; these lovely black-and-whites resemble woodcuts (if that’s not in fact what they are) and will be part of what makes this book memorable for me. I think Samworth deserved to have her name on the book’s cover.

Transcendent. Best book of the year. Wrecked me, but in the best way. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.


Rating: 10 holotypes.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is my first Ishiguro novel, and I found it magical. I usually avoid all writing about a book, even down to back-cover blurbs, once I’m committed to reading it, but in this case I’m glad I took a look at the back cover, where it refers to protagonist Klara as an Artificial Friend; in the book itself Klara and others like her are AFs, and I think it’s well into the book before that acronym gets clarified. (I was just telling a student that I need all acronyms spelled out in his paper!) So, armed with this knowledge…

We first meet Klara when she is living in a store, mostly in contact with her friend Rosa (another AF) and a woman known as Manager. Klara is deeply curious and observative, well above average in these ways, and Manager tries to help her and Rosa to be chosen (and promote the store) by placing them in the window, which is also an advantage because AFs are apparently solar powered. Klara refers to the Sun as if he is a higher power, sentient, a god of sorts; ‘he’ is not capitalized but it almost feels as if it should be. The reader doesn’t get any background information, but gradually understands that Klara is for sale, to serve as an Artificial Friend to a child who chooses her. There are a few hiccups in her path, but Klara does eventually go home with a girl named Josie, who is mysteriously and intermittently ill, and who treats Klara rather better – rather more as a real person – than most AFs can expect to be treated by the families that choose them. This is somewhat earned by Klara’s unique powers of observation and understanding. She follows not only human actions but also emotions closely, searching for the connections and causations in relationships. She doesn’t always read cues correctly, but her interest is genuine and… I’m going to say her empathy is genuine and innate.

For me, this is the crux of the story. It seems that this is not true of most AFs (although Klara’s is the only mind we get inside of, as she is the novel’s first-person narrator), but Klara definitely feels. She is puzzled by human feelings and relationships, which she must consciously learn and study, but she already – naturally – feels something for them. Josie matters to her from the beginning. Josie’s mother (“the Mother”) likewise draws her empathy, although she is slower to treat Klara like a real person. I’m reminded of The Robot in the Garden, a very different book but one that also addresses questions of humanity via nonhuman characters. It’s a neat trick. Additionally, the outsider’s perspective (here, a person who’s not quite human) allows for direct observation of the human experience that a human character couldn’t make in a work of fiction without it feeling weird and forced.

Other details of Klara and Josie’s world that we slowly puzzle together: Josie is “lifted,” or (in some unexplained way) genetically modified for higher academic/intellectual performance, which is an advantage that most children apparently receive – or most in her social milieu? This comes with some disadvantages, too, though, including social ones. Josie’s lifelong friendship with a neighbor – which they would like to develop into something more – is hindered by his not having been lifted. There’s plenty to explore here metaphorically, too, not only about what constitutes advantage (and at what cost), but also about relationships across societal boundaries. I find many parallels with the story I’ve just finished teaching this week: “Who Will Greet You At Home,” by Leslie Nneka Arimah, which also literalizes some metaphorical real-world truths to illustrate them more clearly. I am a fan of this technique.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book, clearly written by a master. Evocative, with lovely descriptions. Klara’s voice (again, in first person) has a formality to it that nods toward her extra-humanness, but also highlights the observations she can make that a human cannot. Her appreciation of simple vistas is sublime. I am charmed by her Sun-worship. There is something about her – vision? or her appreciation of sunlight? I’m still not sure what it is – that sometimes divides her view into grids, which I found fascinating; I wish I understood better what was going on there, and wonder what else I’m missing here.

I love it. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but I love it: the magical wonder of Klara’s unique voice, the precocious sweetness of Josie’s relationship with her mother, the curious rules of this world. Definitely interested in more of Ishiguro’s work.


Rating: 8 alcoves.

Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do by Tracy Dawson

Humorous profiles of more than 30 women in history who broke gender barriers offer righteous inspiration.

In 2013, television writer and actor Tracy Dawson was passed over for a job writing shows because they didn’t have any “female needs.” Naturally infuriated, she became interested in women over the centuries whose opportunities and options have been limited by their sex. From this curiosity is born Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do, in which Dawson profiles several dozen women from the 1400s BCE through the present. In a pithy, one-liner-laden style, she brings these remarkable and little-known histories to light with comedic flair.

Some of the women are classics: Joan of Arc, Kathrine Switzer and a chapter’s worth of once-anonymous literary figures who are now household names (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, George Sand). But the majority are more obscure: Maria Toorpakai, professional squash player born in 1990 who defied the ultra-conservative norms of her region of Pakistan when she disguised herself as a boy to play sports; Hannah Snell, who served as a Royal Marine in the 1750s; Ellen Craft, who fled slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male slaveowner. A teenaged Dorothy Lawrence, rejected as war correspondent in World War I, took herself to the front by boat, bicycle and soldier’s garb. The 1890s entertainer and male impersonator Florence Hines, 1941 comic book creator Tarpé Mills and 1980s miner and entrepreneur Pili Hussein are among these diverse, colorful stories. Others are antiheroes, like witch-pricker Christian Caddell or all-around scoundrel Catalina de Erauso. Dawson is careful to point out that her focus is on “women who dressed as men to gain access and opportunity, not on gender identity,” since the latter is notoriously difficult to parse from a historical perspective, particularly since many of the women she profiles have left scant records. Their motivations vary as widely as other aspects of their identities and stories, but each of these women pushed boundaries in ways that remain inspirational for Dawson and her readers today.

Let Me Be Frank is peppered with punchy jokes in an informal, conversational tone that suits Dawson’s background in television. Joan of Arc is compared to Beyoncé; U.K.-born Annie Hindle’s stage name is received with “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Dawson delivers these historical profiles, born of research, in a lighthearted voice. Tina Berning’s portraits evoke the women’s personalities and literally color the narratives. The result is an easy-to-read, eye-opening look at female bravery amid the sexism and misogyny throughout history; it is funny and rousing and proud.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 clusters of tanzanite.

South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz

I bought this book years ago because it was called by Haven Kimmel “simply the finest novel ever written about the Midwest” (on her blog), and I’m finally getting to it. It is a very fine, bleak novel, set in 1990s Indiana. Thirty-year-old Arthur has returned home from Michigan after work ran out up there; now he’s camped out in his family’s abandoned farmhouse, on the edge of their former farm. We meet him at this moment, as he rigs lighting and heat, reencounters his brother and sister-in-law, and takes a job as hired hand to Gerry Maars, successful farmer and local big man in some complicated ways. Arthur is taciturn and simple in his tastes. He seems as surprised as perhaps the reader is, that he is so contented to run Gerry’s big machinery for him up and down the wintry fields at all hours and fall into bed tired for short spells in between. He also finds himself in a few damaging love affairs (least damaging to Arthur himself).

At well over 300 pages, South of the Big Four is a quiet novel in terms of plot. There are a number of events, but the overall impression is that of rhythmic, nearly numb repetition: the tractors go up and down the field; their parts break and are repaired or replaced; corn and beans are planted and harvested and sold and planted again. Gerry Maars is a fascinating character. City councilman, large personality, workaholic, self-aggrandizing and insecure, he casts a huge shadow and takes Arthur in completely, in ways that Arthur never quite articulates. The portrayal of north central Indiana is stark and desolate, and feels real enough to me (not that this is a region I know well at all). Its people are chapped and stark as well. No one in this story is happy. Remembering his 4-H steer, Arthur muses, “the last time I saw Sunshine he was frolicking his way out across that wide slaughterhouse holding pen, cantering and capering, glad to just finally be free.” That about captures the tone.

With Arthur as first-person narrator and protagonist, this is very much a book about the male experience; women are sexual partners and helpmeets. The perspective felt limited to me. It’s certainly a beautifully written book, and one that kept pulling me back: I was magnetized by its hypnotic pulse, “back and forth across an empty winter field.” It holds wisdom. But also not much beauty, or hope, and nary a likeable character. Rather, what it offers is perseverence. “The better, it seemed, in an ever more impatient world, to venture on anyway–unheralded and unprofitable; mortal, but still unaccountably alive.” I was not left feeling uplifted – and that’s not something I generally require of a book, but I felt the absence here of… something. A very fine novel, indeed. If I figure out what I’m missing, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 farm magazines.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tom Perrotta

Following Monday’s review of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, here’s Tom Perrotta: ‘I Could Not Write It Any Other Way.’


Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of 10 works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies, and The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher, which were adapted into HBO series. His work has been translated into numerous languages. Perrotta grew up in New Jersey and lives outside Boston.

Do readers need to know Election to follow or to enjoy this novel?

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

I don’t think of it as a straightforward sequel. Tracy tells you all the facts that you absolutely need to know. The two books are in a dialog, and reading them together can tell you a lot about the intervening years, not just for Tracy but for the country as a whole. Election was a bit ahead of its time in its focus on the relationship that Tracy has with her teacher, disputed elections, the teacher who abuses his power–a lot of things that were undercurrents back then and now they’re mainstream discussions. The two books are bookends of all that social history.

How do you explain that prescience?

There are many reasons why Tracy has persisted as a character. Reese Witherspoon put her on the map with that amazing performance. But, weirdly, I think when I wrote that book–and maybe I’m wrong and somebody can give another example–but I think there weren’t novels about women politicians. (There were of course women politicians.) As a novelist I think I got in early on that. Then it became this memorable movie, and as a result, when journalists wanted to use an example in popular culture for a certain kind of woman politician, Tracy would come up. Over all those years she was compared to Hillary Clinton, to Sarah Palin, to Kirsten Gillibrand, Elise Stefanik; she just became a kind of catch-all for an ambitious woman. But the idea of an unapologetically ambitious woman–she’s young, but she has a goal, and she’s not afraid to express it. Her mother has raised her to pursue it. And that felt like something new in the world.

It felt like the culture wasn’t done with Tracy. I was really intrigued by a couple of high-profile essays kind of reckoning with her legacy–Rebecca Traister wrote one and A.O. Scott wrote another–seeing her in the light of #metoo, and realizing that the first wave of interpretations that saw Tracy as this kind of ego-monster came from a sexist lens. And suddenly this character was being interpreted from a whole new perspective. It was fascinating for me. When #metoo really came into being I was thinking about how I had portrayed Tracy in the first book, especially in relationship to her “affair” and her sense of her own sexual agency. I saw so many women in these stories who said “I had an affair with a teacher, and at the time I felt that it was my choice, it was all consensual… this was almost part of a feminist agenda, that I can pursue what I want. I see myself as an independent sexual agent in the world. Then 20-30 years later, wait a second, maybe the power imbalance was more complicated and nefarious than I believed.” And I wondered if Tracy would undergo a similar revision of her past. We all revise our pasts as we get older. We simplify, we turn it into a story that we can live with. And I think one of the things that #metoo did was it forced a lot of people to revisit their pasts and say, was that what I thought it was? Do I have a narrative that can accommodate it; was I deceiving myself? Tracy is reacting and I am reacting to an incident that happened, fictionally, 25 years ago or so, and looking at it in this new light, through this relatively fresh cultural lens.

Did you always know Tracy would be back?

No, and I’m glad that it took this long. Funny thing is, when I wrote Election, Tracy was not the central character. When I started, I knew that it was about Mr. M, and the way I conceived the book was a brother and sister running against each other for class president. Tracy was there as the favorite. That happens sometimes: you write a character that seems smallish, and they take on a kind of energy that you didn’t expect. And then Reese Witherspoon took that energy and ran with it. I felt like the culture took that character over, beyond the pages.

Writing this “sequel” was an accident, again. I started with the story of Vito Falcone. He also relates to #metoo: these formerly powerful male figures who had this sense of entitlement that was given to them in those past years, the football heroes. Now he’s coming back to his high school to be honored, but he himself is a wreck of a man. That was the idea, to examine the wreckage of toxic masculinity. But I kept wanting to write it in the style of Election, with multiple perspectives, short sections. And I really resisted. I thought, why am I quoting myself by stealing this form that I used back in the ’90s? It felt like I wasn’t letting the book have its own shape, but I could not write it any other way. I started to see Tracy Flick. Why does Tracy want to be part of this book? And once I understood–oh, she’s at this high school, she’s part of it, she’s horrified that they’re going to honor this guy, because he brings back all these triggering memories of her own high school, where guys like this outshone her when they had no right to. And that’s when I had the book. But I didn’t know it for some time, and I was very annoyed by my inability to understand why I wanted to write it this way. It was as if Tracy was raising her hand saying, put me in!

Is humor a gift you’re born with, or can the rest of us learn it?

This one puzzles me. When I write, I am funny, but when I’m being myself, I’m not so funny. I tend toward serious. It’s enabled by the freedom of writing. I feel like a lot of funny people are really quick, and I’m not so quick. I do have a highly developed sense of absurdity. The reason I resist the word satire is that it suggests that the writer and the audience are looking down on the characters, saying aren’t these people ridiculous? Aren’t they deeply flawed? We superior beings, we’re almost like gods looking down at the mortals. And I never feel that way. I always feel that my characters are as troubled as I am and trying as hard as I am. And I don’t want my audience to look down on the characters. I want them to feel, I have that burning ambition in me. Or I remember what it feels like, or what it’s like to make a bad mistake. That is really the level I want: to engage my characters as equals, as people who are struggling with some of the same things that I’m struggling with. And I hope my audience reads them in the same way, and that’s it. That can be very funny. People can be very funny in that they never live up to their ideals; they lie and they cheat but they want to be better. Our imperfections can be disappointing, can be troubling, but they can be very funny. I had a friend years ago who said he thought I was very Catholic, in the sense that I believed people are sinners, and I didn’t think it disqualified them from love. It’s an outlook.


This interview originally ran on March 22, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 22, 2022.


Tracy Flick, the ambitious but unlucky protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election (and the 1999 movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), is back and still striving in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Familiarity with Election can’t hurt, but isn’t necessary to follow this next installment. Perrotta (The Leftovers; Little Children) serves up his signature black comedy and shrewd wit in an expertly paced novel of great cleverness and charm. The title character is now 40-ish and working as assistant principal at Green Meadow High School, in a shabby-idyllic New Jersey suburb. Life hasn’t turned out as Tracy had hoped. She left law school to care for her beloved mother, whose death 10 years ago still leaves a gaping hole. Instead of being a high-powered attorney on a rocket-like political trajectory, she serves as the hardworking second-in-command at an unremarkable public school whose football team disappoints everyone in town (except Tracy, who couldn’t care less). Then Principal Jack Weede announces his pending retirement, and it might finally be Tracy’s time to shine. But of course, nothing’s ever easy.

Kyle Dorfman, one of the town’s most successful alumni (he got rich off a virtual pet app) returns with the idea of putting together a Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame. He is also the new school board president, and therefore someone Tracy needs in her corner, but it’s not clear where his loyalties really lie (aside from with Kyle). The first meeting of the Hall of Fame selection committee immediately turns sour: the obvious candidate turns out to be a former star quarterback, and Tracy’s seen this routine before.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win is timely. It opens with a review of the #metoo era and headlines filled with “one powerful man after another toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator,” which gives Tracy unpleasant memories of high school: “It was ancient history, a brief misguided affair–that’s the wrong word, I know, but it’s the one I’ve always used–with my sophomore English teacher, a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life.” Tracy sees the world changing around her but hasn’t entirely figured out her own version of it yet.

This adult Tracy Flick is vulnerable, socially awkward, frustrated and disillusioned. “My mother had been wrong: fame wasn’t a reward for your hard work. It was a lottery, pure dumb luck, and it didn’t matter anyway, not in the long run.” She’s still ambitious but worried it may be too late for her; she’s been passed over for promotions, and not completing law school still smarts. Her romantic life becomes needlessly complicated when her supposed catch of a surgeon boyfriend turns clingy. Baking a cake for her daughter’s 11th birthday gives her a chance to reflect on their mother-daughter relationship, which disappoints her, by contrast to her very close bond with her own late mother. The maturing Tracy has taken up a meditation practice for her blood pressure, and is working to navigate the nuances and challenges of a life less sparkly and more complicated than the one she’d intended to lead.

One of Perrotta’s talents is obviously forming character. Tracy is delightfully complex; Principal Weede has secrets of his own, and a touching vulnerability as well as some less admirable qualities. Kyle is not well liked, but his attempts to compensate offer comic opportunities. The aging star quarterback nominated for the Hall of Fame, Vito Falcone, is now a recovering alcoholic working on making amends, his process by turns pitiful and hilarious. And the high school’s much-loved, longtime front desk lady, Diane, is perhaps the novel’s most rewarding surprise.

Chapters shift in perspective, mainly between Tracy Flick, Jack Weede and Kyle Dorfman, whose first-person voices are joined by those of the two students who serve on the selection committee. (It’s déjà vu for Tracy when these are an overachieving but under-recognized girl and an affable but less impressive boy who’d beaten her out for Student Council president.) Third-person chapters feature a few other characters, like Vito Falcone and Front Desk Diane. In contrast to Tracy’s justified bitterness, we get other perspectives: “The truth is, we’re all prisoners of our historical context. Anybody who says morality is absolute, that right and wrong don’t change over time, you know what? They just haven’t lived long enough.” These points of view paint Green Meadow–and Tracy–in different lights, and allow Perrotta’s comedic zings to shine. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is many things: of-the-moment cultural criticism, a darkly comic drama of human relationships in suburbia, a moving sendup and a novel of racing momentum. By its end, Tracy is headed either for the triumph she’s been seeking since she was a high school student, or a meltdown the likes of which Green Meadow has never seen–or maybe both.

Perrotta’s classic combination of insight, humor and empathy is perhaps perfected in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. This novel has something for both the reader with a gimlet eye on the real world and the reader seeking an escape from it.


Rating: 7 bigger and better things.

Come back Friday for my interview with Perrotta.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is Book three of the Broken Earth trilogy (following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). I raced through this series and am now a firm Jemisin fan. I’m just trying to take a breather before I begin the next of her trilogies, to make them last.

Book two left us with a fairly clear trajectory for this last installment: mother Essun and daughter Nassun had been separated for some time (approaching two years) and were at odds. Nassun has found a new parental figure in – of all people – Essun’s former Guardian (and antagonist), Schaffa. She harbors great resentment toward her mother, who was hard on Nassun – for reasons we can perhaps understand, but still hard for a child. (Orogeny may be a fiction, but this parent-child friction is thoroughly familiar.) Essun wants to find her daughter, but sees practicalities as well, and has been developing her own bonds with the community of Castrima, which feels like both a gain and a liability to her. Still the two draw together, and not just because of the mother’s need to be with the daughter. They share an interest in opening the Obelisk Gate, although they mean to do two very different things with that power.

For me, this book fits all the needs of a final book in a trilogy. We got satisfying character development in several corners. The concerns felt like they deepened both in personal realms (Essun, Nassun) and in larger, world-scale areas (literally, the world ending again BUT BIGGER is what’s at stake here; also, development of secondary characters means I care more about the whole world than I did in some earlier installments). By the time we get to the final, highest-stakes scenes, I feel the impact at every level. Pacing is an interesting issue here: I always felt compelled to get back into this story, but I was also able to put it down several times even in the final few scenes. It had a draw on me, but not a compulsory, stay-up-all-night magnetism – and I think this worked out as a good thing, even if it sounds like a criticism at first. For one thing, this book is 400 pages long, so thank you, Jemisin, for allowing me to take breaks. Also, while I felt the momentum of the story, I also felt able to pause and luxuriate in it in a way I found really enjoyable.

Point of view is another super interesting question to consider. Book one, The Fifth Season, was told in third person, in all three subplots. Book two, The Obelisk Gate, was in second person (the “you” voice), with a specific character-speaker addressing a specific character – but I didn’t realize who each of them were until pretty near the end. Here in book three, that same speaker is still addressing the same “you,” but now I’m on board, and it changes the way the story unfolds. It also implies a future, an “after” timeline in which the speaker can address the audience, which is a fascinating trick.

As I consider this series as a whole, I don’t think I’ve given enough recognition to the themes around the environment and climate change, and major, disruptive climate events, which of course are what Seasons are in this world… They are more than the climate events in our “real” world, but analogous, with the addition of a bit more awareness and purpose. Here, Father Earth is a sentient (and sinister – or merely self-defensive?) being, with motivations, prejudices, and grudges. It’s yet another interesting aspect to consider about the world Jemisin has built (especially because I’m more accustomed to Earth being referred to as a mother – Mother Nature, certainly). So much to consider here! and maybe because I’m so enjoying teaching my literature class this semester, but I find myself thinking in terms of some of our elements of fiction – point of view, character, theme – as I write this review. (I just today, in class, compared this novel to Zadie Smith’s story “Crazy They Call Me.” There’s a connection, promise. Extra credit if you figure out what it is.)

I’m rambling now, but that’s still a commentary on this novel and this series, which sends my brain off in all directions. This is good stuff.


Rating: 8 light-starved mosses.
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