Maximum Shelf author interview: Julia May Jonas

Following Monday’s review of Vladímír, here’s Julia May Jonas: Upending Assumptions.


photo: Adam Sternbergh

Julia May Jonas holds an MFA in playwriting from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family; she teaches theater at Skidmore College. Her first novel, Vladímír, will be published by Avid Reader on February 1, 2022. Set on an insular college campus during the #metoo era, Vladímír is a sensual, thought-provoking novel about power and desire, gender, aging, art and much more.

Where did this narrator come from? What makes for a powerful protagonist?

The idea for this narrator came to me around 2018, when there was a slew of allegations against prominent men coming to public attention–and I was thinking about the wives of these men. I realized how many assumptions I had about these wives (that they were saintly and long-suffering, among other things) and how reductive my unexamined opinion of them was. So I wanted to explore, and perhaps upend, those assumptions.

I started working with this character inside of a play at first, which I ended up putting in a drawer–but the character of The Wife stayed with me. When the pandemic struck and I had a large theatrical project postponed, I decided to try and write prose–something that I had attempted many times but had always put aside when I would be called to work on a play. After I wrote the first chapter in this narrator’s voice, I knew I had a novel.

My narrator is a person who is undergoing immense changes, both internally and externally, passively and actively, spiritually and physically. I think a powerful protagonist is always going to be on the verge–someone who is in the process of transforming, in either subtle or (in the case of my narrator) drastic ways–and who is confronting that process of transformation.

How did you channel the perspective of a 58-year-old woman anxious about her aging? That’s a perspective we don’t frequently see handled in fiction.

Many months before I began working on the novel I had been thinking about desire, in all of the varied senses of the word. I’m the mother of two young children, which brings the process of aging more prominently to your attention (you start doing the math–when my daughter is this age, I’ll be this age, etc.). I realized I had this subconscious belief that as I grew older I would desire less, that my vanity would be cured, that I would achieve some sort of docile peace with my place in the world. And immediately I realized how wrong and maddening that idea was–I didn’t think my desire would fade, I didn’t expect my vanity would be cured, I doubted that some kind of peace would rain down on me from above. You don’t have to be 58 to notice all the negative stereotypes that are ascribed to women as they age–from sexual invisibility to being thought of as doddering or incompetent. I’m younger than my protagonist, but I occasionally feel a sense of chagrin when I mention my current age in certain circles (though I wish I didn’t). So, I wanted to explore a character who feels a real sense of rage about those stereotypes and expectations, especially given everything she’s going through. Perhaps if we had caught her at a different, more peaceful time, my narrator might have been more accepting of the aging process. But given everything that is happening to her when the novel takes place, the cruelty of aging as a woman in this society weighs heavily on her mind and plays very much into her actions.

Do you think of your protagonist as an unreliable narrator?

Only insofar as she is very rooted in her perspective, and every perspective has blind spots. I don’t believe she is trying to confuse the reader, or that she is deliberately untruthful–more that she sees things the way she does because of her background, upbringing, generation and experiences, which is probably very different from how someone else with a different background, upbringing, generation and experience may see it. Which is not to say she is right–but she doesn’t intend to mislead.

How does your background in playwriting inform your work as a novelist?

I imagine I’m more inclined to think in terms of scenes and events when I’m writing and using them as a container for the other pleasures of fiction (memory, digression, perspective, internal reactions, emotional insights–all that wonderful character development you can’t write out in a play). Plays are often about the spaces between the lines (or the scenes)–the unsaid, the skips and the jumps–and I think that informs how I move story forward.

I think playwriting also informs how I think about the rhythm–both in the prose style (As Virginia Woolf says: “Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm”) and in the structure–of a book from start to finish. A good play is an exercise in sustained energy (getting the audience to sit happily in their seat for 90 minutes or more). As a novelist, I want to get deeply into a character, to be truthful, to be a good bedside companion, but I also want to maintain an energy that makes a reader want to turn the page. And, of course, being a playwright helps with dialogue, because I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about how people talk, the emotion behind it, what they say, and what they leave out.

What is your favorite part of this delightfully discomfiting narrator?

She was such a pleasure to spend time with, so it’s hard to choose. I loved writing her digressions–whether they be about her past, her role as a mother, her opinions about her students, her thoughts on meal preparation, or her insights about her colleagues. I appreciate that wrongly or rightly, amid all her insecurity and anger, she acts. She’s flawed–she can be harsh, myopic, selfish, judgmental, impulsive (among other things)–but she also has moments of real self-awareness. She’s able to examine her own mind and explore how she might be falling short. I enjoyed writing about a woman, no longer young, who is still exploring her relationship to ambition. And lastly, the fact that she is an English professor allowed me to make many references and allusions to other works of literature that are dear to me while still staying true to her voice.

What are you working on next?

I had a production of a five-play cycle I have written that was supposed to premiere in the fall of 2020. It has now been delayed to the spring of 2023, so development and planning for that production continues, which will be interesting given my now very long interruption from working in the theater. And I am very happily working on my second novel.


This interview originally ran on October 18, 2021 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: Vladímír by Julia May Jonas

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 October 18, 2021.


Julia May Jonas’s Vladímír is a compelling debut, discomfiting and riveting, and timely in its themes. With dark humor, pathos and sly references to art and literature, this smart, edgy novel challenges assumptions and forces fresh perspectives.

In small-town upstate New York, an unnamed narrator teaches English at a small college. She lives an easy enough life, reading, writing, teaching, exuding “Big Mom Energy” and enjoying the admiration of her students, whose earnest eagerness for improving the world she appreciates. Then a scandal erupts: her husband, John, chair of the English Department, is revealed to have had sexual relationships with a number of his former students. The narrator herself is quick to point out that these all took place before such relationships were explicitly forbidden. She and John had always had an understanding about their extramarital activities. She is surprised to find that her colleagues and students disapprove not only of John but of the narrator as well, and finds herself increasingly resentful: of John, of the academic machine, of her students and of herself.

Into this upheaval comes Vladimir Vladinski, newly hired junior professor and up-and-coming experimental novelist. Vladimir is 20 years or so the narrator’s junior, sexy, flirtatious and married. The narrator is quickly captivated, then obsessed. A two-time novelist with generally disappointing reviews, she has largely turned to literary criticism and book reviews, but now feels inspired to write fiction again. For the first time she feels the work flowing from her effortlessly, and credits Vladimir as her muse. “There was a burning in my body, an extra level of excitement keeping part of me fed and running that required no sustenance. It was longing for the love of Vladimir.” She writes, masturbates and surreptitiously follows Vladimir one day and her beleaguered husband the next, and then even Vladimir’s wife–beautiful, traumatized, a masterful writer herself. Sexual, romantic, literary and workplace jealousies overlap. Things fall apart: John’s hearing (people keep calling it a trial) at the college looms as their already distant and fractured relationship continues to crumble. Their adult daughter moves back home, in dual personal and professional crises of her own, which throws the narrator into new light as a mother. She neglects her work, becoming increasingly reckless until, consumed by her fantasies, she finally commits a shocking act that precipitates a life-changing event for all involved.

That this narrator is a 58-year-old woman is significant, and provides opportunities to consider issues of gender, age, societal and literary expectations and subversions. Her troubled body image provides an undertone from the very first pages, with near-constant references to weight control and her evening skin care regimen. “I prefer to conceal my neck,” she confides, as she compulsively grooms and criticizes her body before each meeting with Vladimir. “A man could always make me feel worse than anything a woman could ever say to me,” she reflects, as she struggles to align her own sexual revolution with the values of her students. Vladímír questions gender and generational tensions, and the intersection of art and morality within the bubble of academia. In the family, household and larger social realms, it addresses every permutation of human relationship and the relationship between power and desire, while also carrying a strong thread of disturbed body image and issues around aging. In other words, this novel is as varied and harried as life.

As a novel so rooted in English departmental affairs should be, Vladímír is also jam-packed with literary references. Vladimir is compared to Jay Gatsby. “Enraged at my vapidity,” the narrator laments, “I forced myself to sit down and read several articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.” Insisting she’s not jealous or bitter about her own novels’ failure to impress, she notes however that “Margaret Atwood wrote exciting books that practically lived inside of a uterus.” Vladimir’s wife says of her own mental health struggles, that her story is “like Nurse Ratched, like Girl, Interrupted, like The Bell F**king Jar.”

Jonas’s narrator has a strong, assured voice, incisively thinking through her decisions and the surrounding issues while simultaneously–and with self-awareness–mucking up her life. The narrator and the novel take on any number of thorny topics. Were the college students who slept with John seizing agency and free love in an empowered, feminist stance? Or were they taken advantage of by an older man with the power structure on his side? What are the pros and cons of an open marriage? Is our cultural hang-up about intergenerational affairs perhaps a little overblown? Some of these questions and perspectives are decidedly uncomfortable, but Jonas consistently pushes those edges, leaning always away from easy answers and toward nuance. Vladímír‘s central characters are rarely likable but they are always captivating; this story harnesses formidable momentum to pull readers through even its most uncomfortable moments. It is a rare victory in a novel to wrestle with such prickly issues and yet be as entertaining as this. Jonas’s prose is clear, forceful and unflinching, and highly sensual: food, drink and sex are ever-present and frankly, complexly evoked.

The narrator writes of Vladimir’s own debut: “The book was funny, clear, awake, vivid. The prose was spare but the voice was not sacrificed in his exact word choice. It felt both like life and beyond life.” The same comments might be made of Vladímír, a clear-eyed treatment of academia and the human condition.


Rating: 7 caipirinhas.

Come back Friday for my interview with Jonas.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Xochitl Gonzalez

Following Friday’s review of Olga Dies Dreaming, here’s Xochitl Gonzalez: Essential Characteristics.


Xochitl Gonzalez was an entrepreneur and consultant for nearly 15 years before earning her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She won the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize and her work has been published in Ninth Letter, Joyland magazine, Vogue and The Cut. She serves on the board of the Lower East Side Girls Club. A native Brooklynite and proud public school graduate, Gonzalez received her B.A. in Fine Arts from Brown University, and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.

You beautifully handle an immense amount of content–personal, family/community and geopolitical. How do you keep all those threads straight?

Xochitl Gonzalez (photo: Mayra Castillo)

From a conceptual standpoint, something that really frustrates me about the political situation in our country and in the world is that, for my friends of color, things feel very personal. The personal is political for lots of us. It’s not just a news story. The genesis of this topic is that I had been planning to go with my friends to Puerto Rico for my 40th birthday, and the whole trip got canceled because my birthday fell between Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In terms of the technical, the answer is that I was a really good wedding planner. You can’t really lose threads–like, wait, I never called the band back! Gut instinct, we should pick this up again, you forgot about this thing.

To be super technical, part of the divinity of this project: I got to Iowa when I was halfway through the first draft, and Sam Chang was doing a novel workshop. She showed us how she’d outlined points of tension in The Brothers Karamazov. (Her new novel, The Family Chao, is somewhat of an interpretation of that book.) I went back and I did that: wrote every point of tension, and I broke down every chapter and if I felt that I’d dropped a thread, or it had gone on too long since you’d heard a note of it, I went back in revision and cleaned that up.

Olga is certainly at the center of this story, but she’s not the only one. Why switch perspectives?

That was really important to me, and I got a lot of pushback originally. If you really want to be nutty about it, Pink-Floyd-listen-to-the-album-backwards type of thing, every character represents a different political point of view. I don’t want to bog us down, because you don’t have to get that to enjoy the novel. I needed to have Prieto’s point of view because I felt it was important to see the different ways that people can experience their Latinidad and their Puerto Ricanness, and relate to a place that they are extended from. Within a family, I’m always so fascinated by the different ways that a trauma can be experienced by someone four years older, or younger. And of course, [since he’s] a queer man, I wanted his perspective voiced. I think it’s an important perspective in our community.

Dick is representative of America’s role in Puerto Rico, which is passive ambivalence. In his mind he’s just kind of doing what he wants. He’s just moving through the world, looking out for his objective, not actively seeking harm but just not considering the byproduct, right? It’s an exploitative relationship that he has with Olga. I thought it was important to voice that.

What makes Olga so magnetic, do you think?

She is so flawed but keeps trying. She fails but keeps trying. And she’s got humor.

I was thinking about all the characters that kept me company when I was young. Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, Franny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, all these plucky young women. When I got to be a certain age I had nobody to turn to, and I was like, what happened to Esperanza? I wish I knew. I imagined what qualities that person would have to have. She would have to be ambitious and have a sense of humor to weather the circumstances, the uncharted territory. And strength, because she’s headed places that nobody’s been to and nobody can warn her about, and every step she gets a little further from home, right? That humor, and her resilience–that’s one of the essential characteristics of Puerto Rico. She’s lived so much and just keeps going, with humor. Like a lot of us, a lot of her life, she hasn’t been self-actualized. And this discovery of power is one of the beautiful things about being an American: we actually have some say.

Your various settings share such detail, and such love for these places.

I am a rooted Brooklynite, but I love both places. My Puerto Rico got better on revision. During my winter break my first year of Iowa, I went down and stayed in a one-room Airbnb with a roof deck in San Juan and I wrote out in the sun. I wrote day and night. I walked and I went on trips, and that helped me get it more detailed. I watched a lot of videos of the hurricane and did a lot of visual research.

For Brooklyn, it’s in my soul. I bleed. I had to correct the record. I’ve been reading Brooklyn so much the last couple of decades, and I understood that Brooklyn, because I’ve gentrified myself, right? I know that that exists. But I needed people to see my Brooklyn, the Brooklyn that’s being taken away by gentrification. I wanted to write it tenderly because I feel tender about it. I hadn’t been back home, because of the pandemic, for months, and when I came back I was counting the places that had been torn down. There’s a sense of it fading away, and I felt angry, and I wanted to preserve it with love. I wanted people to see that place that is rooted in working-class families and the rhythms of that kind of life. I wanted to pay homage to that before it changes even more.

Is this a novel with a message to convey, or a novel of individual human stories? Or are those false categories?

I feel polemic writing reverse-engineers a story around a message. It’s the difference between having an agenda versus an organic unfurling of story.

Elizabeth Bowen has an amazing essay on novels, and essentially it says the character is the root. Character makes plot inevitable. I knew who Olga was. I wanted to talk about a Latina woman with some agency and some power but that still is trying to walk in the world with some difficulty, and I knew I wanted to make people give a bit of a sh*t about Puerto Rico. We should care that we have a colony, and because you’re born happenstance one place you have fewer rights than somebody born a three-hour flight away. That should upset us, as people, as Americans. So, character makes plot inevitable. When they hit the circumstance, they can only act in one particular way. This is a book about characters that were specifically chosen to have the background they have because I wanted to discuss what was of interest to me–governance and the experience of Latinx people in the States and in the diaspora. So it’s a bit of both, but it’s designed to be about characters, and they’re engaging around this time, and I picked that point of time to make this all of concern to me. But I didn’t know in the beginning how it would all play out.

I’m so excited about this novel, Xochitl.

It’s very touching that it’s resonated with people who are so different from me and my life experiences, and that’s the beauty of art, right? You take the stuff that happens in life and you turn it into this other stuff that people can appreciate. It’s a powerful thing, really.


This interview originally ran on September 15, 2021 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: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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 September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

Maximum Shelf: in the words of Richard Powers

Following Monday’s review of Bewilderment, here’s Richard Powers: ‘Homesick for a Place They Never Knew.’


Richard Powers’s novels include The Echo Maker (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2006) and The Overstory (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019). His work often explores the connections between human lives, the natural world, science and technology. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, among many others, and he has taught at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. Bewilderment (coming from Norton on September 21) is his 13th novel.

Powers wrote a special “Note from the Author” for the advanced reader copies of Bewilderment that explores the meaning of his novel’s title and inspiration, reprinted here.

A Note from the Author

Richard Powers (photo: Dean D. Dixon)

I read the classic “Flowers for Algernon” in sixth grade, when I was eleven years old. Written the year I was born, the story lit up my imagination and settled into that permanent place children reserve for those fables that capture the mystery of life.

In my early sixties, when I came across an account of a remarkable new therapeutic technique called decoded neurofeedback, Daniel Keyes’s story returned to me, every bit as vivid as it had been half a century earlier. “Algernon” told of a cognitively challenged man who is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. Decoded neurofeedback raised the prospect of a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence? What might we humans learn to become?

Children possess enormous emotional intelligence, but adult illogic can defeat it. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I kept reading accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. A new word, solastalgia, seemed to take hold overnight. I began to see how we were raising a generation of troubled kids born homesick for a place they never knew. And we adults were relying more and more on a single response for treating the epidemic ravaging our children’s mental health: medication.

All children are natural scientists. At the same time, they’re also pantheists who know that God is crawling over every inch of the backyard. I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn’t stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to “critters,” but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans. The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not. Could another kind of emotional therapy have made a difference?

Bewilderment was, in part, my way of remembering those two, along with so many other troubled children whom I loved without being able to reassure. The reward of writing this story lay in the daily chance to recover my own childhood joy in the endless replenishment of the living world. The word bewilder means to perplex or confuse. But in its origin, it also means to head back into wildness. A childlike love for our wild, entangled home is the only thing large enough to cure what is wrong with us. As Thoreau puts it, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Bewilderment to be published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. September 21, 2021.


This author’s note originally ran on August 23, 2021 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: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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 August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tracey Lange

Following Monday’s review of We Are the Brennans, here’s Tracey Lange: Family Loyalty.


Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, Tracey Lange comes from a large Irish family. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, then, with her husband, owned and operated a behavioral healthcare company. Lange lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband, two sons and their German shepherd. Her captivating debut novel, We Are the Brennans, will be published by Celadon Books on August 3, 2021.

Did this family come to you whole, or did it begin with Sunday?

(photo: Natalie Stephenson)

It started with Sunday, really, and with the idea of someone coming back into the family fold after being gone for years. And then all the questions started, like, why did she leave? What’s going on? Why’d she come back? And it just went from there. I pictured a big-ish family; but she was the one I started with.

Or, really, it started with the situation. I wasn’t even sure if this would be a male or a female character at first, it was just the idea of someone coming back into the family. And then the more I sat on it, it just started to present itself. It’s the situation I landed on first.

Is Sunday your favorite, or the one you feel closest to?

That’s a tough one! I suppose I relate a lot to her in some ways, but I also relate to Denny, I love Kale, I love Jackie! Jackie was fun. I would have liked to actually spend more time with him. It’s hard to say, but I guess when I think of who I relate to the most, it would be Sunday.

What do you feel makes the Brennans so compelling?

It’s just that idea of family and what it means to them. That’s what fascinated me. Because every family works so differently, and it gets passed down through generations, and it changes as it goes. Part of that is my own experience: I have a huge family, and a lot of them are in Ireland–they’re spread out, really, but we try to stay in touch. And we’ve got our messes and dysfunction, too, but at the end of the day I feel like I could knock on any of those doors and be welcome, or if they needed something, I’d do anything I could to help. There’s just this loyalty that I see with the Brennans, which is why they’re able to work through this stuff and ultimately forgive each other and come together. It just starts with family and what it means to them.

There’s a real sense of magnetism in this family center, an alchemy.

That’s what I was going for. My dad was one of 15–he has this huge family in Ireland, and that’s how I felt whenever I’d spend time there. They were just such a special clan unto themselves, and it was very cool to be part of that and around it. I’m sure that helped influence what I was going for here.

Is West Manor based on a place you know?

In terms of location and size and the flavor of the place, it’s largely based on Briarcliff Manor in Westchester. But I felt like I needed to change it up a little bit. I couldn’t call it Briarcliff Manor. That’s where I pictured it; it’s loosely based there. I grew up mostly in the city, but I spent a lot of time in Westchester, Long Island, that whole part of New York, and I felt like I had a good feel for that kind of town and that environment, and who would be attracted to living there and what they would be looking for. I didn’t grow up in that town, it was more the city for me, but I had a sense of that place.

Influences have come in from my family members. Mickey’s history is a lot of my dad’s history, coming in from Ireland and working in construction, but my dad was not a member of the IRA or anything like that.

How do you manage the task of switching between points of view? Is that an organizational challenge, or one of voice?

I worried a little bit about distinguishing between each voice, because it was a lot. And of course I got a lot of warnings, you know, oh, that’s a lot of points of view, it could be distracting or throw people off. But for this story it helped me put it together. It gave me a structure. Moving immediately to that next point of view was helpful. Sunday’s the protagonist, but it’s about this family, and they all have secrets. And this was a great way to get in on those secrets without the other characters knowing. So at least in this story, it felt like that worked, because it is so much about the dynamics between all these people.

It might have been Hemingway who is credited with saying you should stop writing each day right before you want to, so you know where to start when you pick back up…

That’s a good idea. I should do that more. Then I wouldn’t procrastinate when it came time to sit back down.

What are you working on next? Will we get to check back in on the Brennans?

I’m not closed off to that idea. I’ve thought a little bit about where they might go, but I haven’t started that project. I do love visiting them–whenever I have to make another pass with the book it’s so fun to get in there with them again.

I’m well into my next project now, which is another messy family drama, but quite different in terms of what they’re dealing with and the dynamics. That’s what fascinates me, what I read a lot of and what I love to write about, is family dramas.

You’ll never run out of material!

Yeah. No kidding.


This interview originally ran on May 12, 2021 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: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

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 May 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Following Friday’s review of Kin, here’s Shawna Kay Rodenberg: The Timing of Revelations.


Shawna Kay Rodenberg is originally from Seco, a tiny former coal camp near the headwaters of the Kentucky River in Letcher County, Kentucky. She is a mother, grandmother, community college English instructor and a registered nurse. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, the Bennington Review, the Crab Creek Review, Kudz and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel; she won a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award in creative nonfiction. Rodenberg is also a vocalist; she and her husband, David, are collaborating on an album, a mix of original Americana, vintage country and traditional mountain songs. Her memoir, Kin, will be published by Bloomsbury on June 8.

Your story moves freely backward and forward in time. Why this format?

Shawna Kay Rodenberg

(photo: Joshua Lucca)

Kin was born, at least in part, from an obsession with the past, which is not to say I romanticize it, at least not anymore, but I definitely used to. My little niece, Norah, once walked into my house, looked around, and exclaimed, “I just love the way your house is full of past things!”–the best compliment I can imagine. I think maybe my love for past things has something to do with an early realization that they extend infinitely just as the future does, just in a less explored, and often darker, direction. I love uncovering family members who have died as much as I enjoy imagining future generations. No matter how much I research my family’s history, I can never get to the bottom of all the mysteries that inevitably crop up, begging to be solved, and I love a good mystery. I think I grew up, thanks to the elderly folks in my life, knowing there was a treasure trove of information to be found there, and that it was disappearing, or at least access to it was becoming more limited with each passing year. Families change, or at least the stories they tell about themselves do. Places change, too. Schoolhouses and family homes crumble and return to the earth, especially in places where money for maintenance is scarce.

As a very little girl, I began “saving” things–relics, photos, family recipes, perfume bottles, letters–and I never stopped. Ultimately, in writing Kin I came to understand that my story began long before I was born, and that telling it well would be an effort of preservation, of saving. What’s more, it seems to me that often when people write about Appalachia, they usually begin in the middle of our collective story–they analyze our responses to difficult experiences, without addressing the historical moments that led us to the places, both physical and spiritual, that we inhabit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against this in her TED Talk, “The Single Story,” and references the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who said that “if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” So often when people write about Appalachia, they begin with opiate addiction, for example, rather than the marked efforts of pharmaceutical companies to ship more narcotics into the region than can safely be used by the population that lives there. Or they talk about poverty without discussing the decimation of the region by underregulated mining practices and extractive American theologies. Or they talk about violence without talking about our history of conflict, conscription and PTSD. More than anything, Kin was an attempt to get as close to the beginning of my story as I could.

You’ve closed the story of your life before it quite catches up with the present. How do you choose the memoir’s scope?

I wrote the first 20 years for a couple reasons. First, because it seemed like a natural stopping point, since I was 20 when I married and left the mountains. But, more than that, I admit I often wish women would write longer, lavish, indulgent memoirs like their male counterparts, like Knausgaard, for example, do. I’ve been told that women tend to write shorter books and poems. Maybe this is solely pragmatic, because we are often busy, but I also think we tend to be more self-conscious about taking up space and wasting a reader’s time. I tried to give myself permission to slow down and tell an indulgent, sprawling story. The next book, which I am already thinking toward, will likely follow the next 20 or so years.

How do you navigate the emotional challenges of writing about difficult memories?

I think I struggled most with this aspect of writing Kin, and I relied heavily on many creature comforts and rituals (British mysteries, too many dessert coffees, miles-long walks in the woods) to carry me through the five-plus years it took to plumb the first years of my story. Even harder to manage than my own discomfort was my worry about the overlapping of my story with the stories of many beloved family members I knew might not appreciate me running my mouth. Privacy is important anywhere but particularly in small communities where there is no anonymity, nowhere to hide. In Evansville, Indiana, where I now live, I can go to the grocery without seeing a single person I know, but this isn’t true in the mountains. Even now, a couple decades since I’ve lived there, when I walk into the IGA in Fleming-Neon, people recognize me and call me by name, sometimes even by nicknames, and their conversations with me often include my parents and extended family members. I have worried myself to death about the responsibility of this, of telling the truth without becoming just another extractive, exploitative entity, especially since I no longer live there. Still, my story is my story, and I believe the entire world would benefit from more women, especially underrepresented rural women, telling the truth about our lives. It feels like navigating uncharted territory, though, and requires more courage than I thought I had.

You are also a poet. What does poetry bring to memoir, or vice versa?

I think it makes sound, the rhythm of a line, the timbre of language, paramount. I read this entire manuscript aloud many times, and not just for purposes of proofreading. I come from people who spin elaborate yarns whenever they get together, and it’s such an art, the telling, the timing of revelations, the tone of voice. Poetry is also by its very nature, because of the brevity of the form, about what isn’t being said, about the words that have been cut away, which tell their own story in tandem with the one that is actually being told. I think readers are smart enough to recognize this even if it’s happening on a subconscious level, that the story they’re being told is a fragment floating over unfathomable depths, and that those depths are part of the story as well.

Your acknowledgements express hope for more memoirs from rural-born women, with their “gorgeous, complicated voices.” What would you say to women in Appalachia and beyond about telling their stories?

That it’s the most important thing we can do, and that it’s worth every moment of doubt. When you’re a writer, the world becomes your family, and it desperately needs your voice.


This interview originally ran on February 17, 2021 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: Kin by Shawna Kay Rodenberg

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 February 17, 2021.


Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s harrowing memoir Kin leads the reader backward and forward in time and across an American landscape of trauma and healing. With a persistent focus on family and home, Rodenberg documents a process of learning and personal growth that is both unique and universal.

Kin opens in 2017, as the author guides CBS reporters though her native eastern Kentucky. They seek to crack open what they see as Trump country, and Rodenberg hopes to complicate that story. The backdrop is “my family’s mountain, the mountain where my grandfather mined coal, where my father was reared with great love and brutality, where I picked my grandmother’s strawberries and my grandfather’s roses… the mountain on which my family sought refuge after leaving The Body, an end-times wilderness community, cloistered in the woods of northern Minnesota, that my father joined when he was red-eyed and mad with fear, following his tour of duty in Vietnam.” The narrative then moves back in time to Rodenberg’s childhood in Grand Marais, Minn., and the purposeful deprivations of The Body.

Rodenberg’s upbringing in this strict religious sect gives her a cultural background that will make it hard for her to fit in later, and she suffers more than one form of abuse within The Body, including her father’s recurrent rages. “Instead of following in alcoholic, workaholic footsteps, he made religion his primary vice, religion that was unconventional, ecstatic, even perhaps rebellious–and virtually militaristic, which must have felt familiar.” The family eventually moves back to the secular world, to Ohio, to Kentucky and finally to the mountain of family origin. The austere, often angry influences of The Body will follow them.

This memoir recounts family stories, some from Rodenberg’s memories, some passed down. She writes of each of her parents’ childhoods, and of her aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors. She recounts the history of her hometown, Seco, Ky., a former coal-mining camp. Kin begins well before the traumatic story of Shawna’s birth, “bruised-ass-backward into a world of chaos.” The chronology is disjointed, jumping back and forth, shifting timelines as well as locations, which can be disorienting for the reader, but that effect feels true to the narrator’s experience: Kentucky exerts a strong pull even in Minnesota, and pains felt by generations past are ever present.

At each stage, Rodenberg struggles with the meaning and shape of love and caring, and the confusing truth that those who love us most can hurt us most. Religion will continue to play a large role in her life, complicated by her father’s movements to and away from a strict adherence to The Body’s teachings. She will continue to wrestle with sex and the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, through her troubled first attempt at college and beyond. Kin closes with Rodenberg on the cusp of pregnancy and marriage, but hints at what is to come: “I wish I could tell [that earlier version of myself] she had come to the beginning, not the end.”

Rodenberg’s prose is graceful and effortless, vulnerable and raw, beautifully descriptive without drawing attention to itself. She emphasizes character of place, from coal country where women “kept the food covered and draped cribs with quilts to keep the dust off their babies” to “town-sized time capsules, stoppered and sealed…. Barns sank beneath fields of kudzu and the roofs of old houses bowed in the middle like the backs of the ancient, singular mares that waited outside to be fed and put away.”

While Kin is first and centrally a memoir of family, it is also about Appalachia, about histories more complicated than the opening scene’s reporters care to see. It is ultimately about forgiveness, understanding and love. Rodenberg seeks an emotional reconciliation with her parents, especially the father she has butted heads with all her life. Of that battle, “even now, writing about it fills me with worry that I might be inadvertently reengaging, and that is why talking about it, why telling was and still is the hardest thing…. This is what it means to come from people who have been broken and exploited, they see the world in sides, theirs and the other, and disloyalty is the gravest offense, the blasphemy of the mountains.” In a world of just two sides, it might be an act of rebellion to both love someone and hold them responsible.

As narrator, Rodenberg is intelligent and insightful. As character, she is resourceful, scrappy, defiant, brave and exposed. Her memoir is heart-rending and hard-won. “I didn’t know when I started writing this book that it would become my own book of Revelations, rife with warning and promise, an account of my own and other apocalypses that created me, end times that predated me but shaped me as surely as if I’d lived through them myself.” That sense of regional and filial legacy defines Kin, a work of nuance that complicates received narratives in all the best ways.


Rating: 7 skirts.

Come back Monday for my interview with Rodenberg.

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