Civil Unrest, Civil War, Fantasy, Fiction | What We're Reading & Watching

In this edition of “What We’re Reading & Watching,” LJ and School Library Journal staffers look backward and forward and even out of this dreadful new normal to find answers and pose new questions.

In this edition of “What We’re Reading & Watching,” LJ and School Library Journal staffers look backward and forward and even out of this dreadful new normal to find answers and pose new questions.

Sittenfeld Rodham book coverMahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

The premise of Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham gave me pause at first—it's work of fiction that asks the question: What if Hillary Rodham had chosen not to become Hillary Clinton? Given that Clinton's loss four years ago is still stinging, and we're steeling ourselves for another election soon, it seemed to hit too close to home. But Sittenfeld pulls it off deftly. I'm loving the book, just as I appreciated American Wife, a fictionalization of the life of first lady Laura Bush. It's one I'll be thinking about for some time, though it still hasn't replaced Sittenfeld's debut, Prep, in my heart.

Kimberly Olson Fakih, SLJ

By this week, I can't have any conversation about now that doesn't take me back to the question of "how we got here," and then, my dad died. And while we mourn him, I've taken up his interest in the Civil War. So I've been rewatching Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. The fiddle music of the soundtrack put my newborn to sleep at night when it first aired, decades ago. And I've been rereading Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils, and picked up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds's Stamped. Death and birth, hate and love, old wars and continuing injustices are sort of making each day a reverie of fear and wonder and to me, the new question: What do we do next?

James Wade book cover All Things Left WildLiz French, LJ

Last week I moderated the “Top Historical Fiction” panel for LJ’s Day of Dialog and spoke with five top-notch authors about their books. Like my colleague Lisa, I’m still thinking about each of them. I’ll just touch on one here. James Wade’s debut novel, All Things Left Wild, is set in the still–Wild West of 1910, and it’s a chase novel/spiritual journey for all involved. Brothers Caleb and Shelby Bentley are on the run from wealthy rancher Randall Dawson after accidentally killing Dawson’s young son while stealing horses from the Dawson ranch. Dawson, an East Coast–educated poet and writer who is ill equipped for frontier living, saddles up and takes off after them. He is joined by young Tad and Charlotte, an expert markswoman who has survived the worst of Western brutality and racism. Basically they save Dawson’s butt. Wade moves between first-person narrative by Caleb, the sensitive, “thinking” brother, as he confronts Shelby’s evil ways and his own guilt over killing the Dawson son, and third-person telling of Dawson’s journey. Everyone is transformed by the end; some die. (I guess that’s a transformation, too.)

Wade writes skillfully about the brutality and bloody history of the West, and of the United States. Every person his travelers meet has a story and a philosophy of life. My favorite character (and Wade’s, he said on the DoD panel) is an outlaw leader who’s another “thinking man” like Caleb, but he’s also a bad-acting man, and his rationale for the violence and mayhem he commits is just a tad self-serving. This is anything but escapist fare, and some of the players might remind you of current leaders.

Justin Nathan, LJ/SLJ

I’m wrapping up The Eye of the World, the first book of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” fantasy series. It’s an oldie but a goodie.

Lisa Peet, LJ

Day of Dialog is over, but I’m still thinking about the books I read and the authors I spoke with. I talked about the first two in the last WWR column. The third I read, Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, was a very meta true crime/memoir—the crime being the 50-year-old murder of a young Harvard archaeology student, and the meta part the author's nuanced dive into of her own motives, assumptions, and context for pursuing the case. As Cooper digs deeper into the murdered girl's story she turns up any number of loose and dead ends, and a large cast of tangential characters whose stories become intertwined with hers—as well as a look at the power structures in academia. I'm dancing around the story itself because it is, at bottom, a crime story that has a resolution—or does it? And I wouldn't want to spoil that for anyone. But it's the many ripples and reverberations set off by the murder that make up the substance of Cooper's story, and keep it weird and slightly off-kilter.

Eula.Biss.HavingandBeingHad book coverSpeaking of hard to classify, Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had was most definitely that, but really well done and hit a lot of true notes for me. It’s an exploration of Biss's relationship to capitalism and its many incarnations: money, possessions, class, leisure, value, art, investment, and work. The book cycles, in short chapters, from personal reflections to broader inquiries through other writings and literature. It's a neat approach, and while her experience might not be yours—though it's very much like mine in a lot of ways, which made the book particularly relevant for me—there's enough of a wide-angle take that stays rooted in lived life, pop culture, and what it is to be an adult in a world where you're expected to know the worth of things, but need to figure out how to assess that as you go. Good stuff, interesting and engaging.

Meredith Schwartz, LJ

I’ve just finished all four of Rosemary Kirstein’s “Steerswoman” books currently in print and am stuck waiting for the next to be published. In the meantime, next up are the two free ebooks I downloaded this weekend from Haymarket and Verso books, respectively: Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? edited by Joe Macaré, Maya Schenwar, et al., and The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. I anticipate needing something very escapist in between, but I’m not sure what yet.

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Liz French

Liz French is Senior Editor, LJ Reviews.  Email:; Twitter: @lizefrench

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