When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, trans. by Steve Schein

A rocky childhood on the Danish North Sea is rendered in weird but apt terms by an extraordinary young narrator.

Mads Nygaard’s When Me and God Were Little, translated by Steve Schein, is a stark portrayal of a hardscrabble childhood in a blue-collar, small town in Denmark, on the coast of the North Sea. Its narrator is seven-year-old Karl Gustav (who would rather be called Big Ox), and his distinctive point of view is filled with preposterous details that make perfect sense to him. “In our town you couldn’t drown barefoot,” he begins, and yet his big brother, Alexander, has managed to do just that, permanently upsetting Karl Gustav’s worldview.

His father is a drunk, but owns his own business building houses, and “Our house was so big that Mom still hadn’t gotten around to vacuuming all the rooms.” “Dad weighed 250 pounds and it was all muscle, except for the hair,” but then Dad goes to jail (something about the papers in his file drawers; the young narrator isn’t concerned with the details), so Karl Gustav and his mother move into a county-owned house in a new town. Unperturbed, the child carries on obsessing over soccer (he plays alone over four fields through the winter) and terrorizing his teachers. Years pass, very few friends come and go, and readers follow Karl Gustav’s experiments with porn, disastrous employment, grifting, a doomed love affair with another damaged young person and a developing relationship with his father. The loss of his brother will always loom large, for Alexander was a hero: “He just smiled, knowing everything.” But other losses accrue, as Karl Gustav learns more about the wide, perplexing world. By the book’s end, the narrator is a teenager, perhaps still ungainly, but wiser for the trials he’s seen.

This is an unusual novel, its narrator’s voice colorful, unpolished and unforgettable in Schein’s gruff translation. It is Karl Gustav’s singular perspective that makes When Me and God Were Little the memorable, bizarre, poignant adventure that it is. It’s absurd and often fantastic, as this narrator delivers an earnestly nonsensical account of events that readers know to be impossible. And yet it rings true, because what is childhood if not nonsensical? Karl Gustav is all bluster and pain, bluffing in the face of forces bigger than he is. His story is gritty, messy but real, and there are no happy endings on this harsh coastline. The novel is filled with cigarettes and swagger and masturbation literal and figurative, often unbeautiful but somehow still lovely in its authentic, unvarnished view of a difficult coming-of-age.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hedgehogs.

Dark Night by Paige Shelton

Piles of intrigue and secrets populate a remote town in Alaska, where an amateur sleuth hopes to reinvent herself, in book three of this cozy mystery series.

Dark Night, book three in Paige Shelton’s Alaska Wild series, continues the adventures of thriller writer Beth Rivers in the insular small town of Benedict, Alaska. Like Thin Ice and Cold Wind, this installment offers intrigue in a low-gore, cozy package.

Beth is known to the rest of the world under her pseudonym, Elizabeth Fairchild, but after an abduction and skin-of-the-teeth escape, she’s retreated to this remote hamlet to live quietly and anonymously: only the local police chief knows who she really is. With winter closing in and a few friends kept at arm’s distance, Beth tries to heal from the trauma and go on with her writing, hoping to hear that her abductor will eventually be caught. Instead, her mother turns up unexpectedly. Mill Rivers is a loose cannon, on the run from the law herself–and she may be Beth’s best hope at finding peace and finally feeling safe again. A local murder, of course, spices things up. Between Beth’s reluctant romantic interest in the comically named Tex Southern, the propensity of Benedict’s residents to keep their secrets, an ill-mannered, unwanted census taker and yet another fugitive in town, mother and daughter will have their hands full solving mysteries large and small.

Beth’s relationship with local law enforcement (and Benedict’s unconventional boundaries in this regard) allow her to act as an unofficial investigator. Mill is a force to be reckoned with in every way: another amateur detective, but with a violent streak, she still seeks her husband (Beth’s father), who has been missing for decades. The librarian is a special-ops dark horse, and the local dog sledder and tow truck driver may have a checkered history of his own. Beth is a by-choice tenant at a halfway house for female felons; the list of eccentrics lengthens from here. Benedict is the town where people go to keep their secrets, but Beth may have to open up if she’s going to learn the truth of her own past.

Shelton’s plot is twistier than a path through the dark Alaska woods. Her characters may be bumbling, but they are generally well-meaning, except when they are revealed as decidedly otherwise. Suspicions shift and suspense builds in this novel of discovery, growth, relationship building and investigatory hijinks. As a bonus, Dark Night ends with a lead-in to the next episode: Beth Rivers’s trajectory will surely extend and continue to complicate as she deepens her roots in the captivating town of Benedict.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 cheese-foraging adventures.

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.

The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

A young woman must chart her own way, even while quietly craving belonging and home, in this subtle, wise debut.

Kyle Lucia Wu’s first novel, Win Me Something, is a wrenching evocation of yearning in a slim, artful package. The story of Willa Chen, a young woman unmoored in New York City, is defined by liminal spaces and a wish to belong.

In the opening pages, Willa interviews to become a nanny to a wealthy family in Tribeca, even though she can’t quite conceive of what a nanny does. “Maybe I couldn’t imagine these moments because when someone asked about my childhood, my mind clenched and closed like two fists in a pool–fingers squeezing for something to come up with when everything around them was a different kind of matter.”

Willa’s father is a Chinese American immigrant whom she barely knows, her mother a blonde-haired white woman, detached and depressed, who can’t comprehend the microaggressions her daughter faces. Since their divorce when Willa was very young, each has begun a new family, and she feels she belongs to neither. Thus adrift, she enters the Adriens’ household, where she cares for the charming, innocently privileged, nine-year-old Bijou, who studies Mandarin and the violin and cooks coq au vin. Willa feels as unbelonging as ever, but also entranced by the family’s ease, their wealth, their things. “When I looked around their apartment, my veins filled with rushes of want, as if I could see the price tags on everything, as if they would increase my own value.” It’s not that Willa is materialistic, but that she is drawn to the idea of worth suggested by those around her: “I often found myself in friendships with people like this, self-absorbed and sparkling.”

Readers will be engrossed by Willa’s troubled desire to please and her pervasive unease, as she seeks and then deflects the slightest attempt at connection. As she begins to meld into the Adriens’ household, she reconsiders her own childhood and family homes in a series of flashbacks. The subtle racism she encounters is but one thread of Willa’s distress; her estrangement from both of her half-families, and her half-hearted attempts to join the Adriens’, presents a greater challenge on its face, but also stands in for the larger estrangement she feels everywhere she goes, as the in-between spaces of family and race in culture echo each other.

With an eye for just the right detail, Wu offers an understated protagonist, self-defeating but still searching. Win Me Something is a nuanced story of longing, of the paired desires to belong and to strike one’s own path. Willa is a quiet heroine, but unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the September 28, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dresses.

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.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.
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