Staff Pick

For most people, death casts the world in shades of darkness. For Kang, it conjures the blank nothingness of white. Focusing on the death of her older sister who lived for just two hours, Kang’s book is an unsettling, yet beautiful, meditation on mortality by way of a close focus on the color said to contain all the others. It begins with a list of fifteen kinds of white that, ranging from swaddling bands to shroud, serve as shorthand for the infant’s brief experience of the world. The rest of the work, in short bursts that rarely reach a page, expands on these items. Kang links the facts of her sister’s premature birth and even more premature death to snow, white doors, sugar, salt, ashes, a white dog, white hair, and so on. While always spare, the prose achieves a remarkable tonal fluidity, sounding by turns harrowing, matter-of-fact, questioning, and painfully lovely. A stretch of frozen sea was “like layer upon layer of dazzling white flowers captured in the moment of unfurling”—another image of nearly simultaneous life and death, but one very different from the sister’s. While at one level Kang is exploring timeless existentialist questions—none of the characters are named, emphasizing the narrative’s universal concerns—the book is also a powerful, highly literary, exploration of identity. The opening section is recounted by “I,” probably Kang’s persona, the second by an omniscient narrator following a “she,” likely Kang’s sister as the writer imagines her had she lived. But several parallels in the protagonists’ experience suggest that these two characters are one and the same, as if Kang, who talks of survivors “containing” the lost, has merged with her dead sister. The book leaves this and other possibilities open, just as the generous white space throughout implies a host of things unsaid and presences unacknowledged.

The White Book Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525573067
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Hogarth - February 19th, 2019

Staff Pick

Written in the cadences, if not the actual language, of water, Johnson’s shimmering first novel unfolds along a river. The narrative borrows from fairy tale and myth, telling a story in which everything is fluid and shifting, from relationships and identities to gender, language, and reality itself. This is a realm where conventions come unstuck, where a mysterious creature called the Bonak lurks, and where things and people are easily lost. Much of the action focuses on Gretel’s efforts to find Sarah, her mother, who went missing sixteen years before; now suffering from Alzheimer’s, as well as still harboring a number of secrets, Sarah remains elusive even when present. But Gretel, a lexicographer, is used to delving into the past (though often with ambiguous outcomes—the Bonak “might never have been there if we hadn’t thought it up,” she says). As her story widens to include those of others lost and found, Johnson spins an ever richer tale that meditates on ancient questions of fate vs free will as well as contemporary questions of family and sexuality.

Everything Under: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555978266
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Graywolf Press - October 23rd, 2018

Staff Pick

Starting with his mesmerizing recreation of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed hundreds of Watkins’s glass plate negatives, Green’s phenomenal rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), once the nation’s most famous photographer, is full of stunning set pieces on topics as varied as the economics of the 19th-century butter business in Otsego County, the processes for quartz- and hydraulic-mining during the Gold Rush, and the fights over the Transcontinental Railroad. Green’s enthusiasm and authority make all of it fascinating. What little we know about Watkins himself comes from his thousand-plus photographs and from the records of famous friends such as Jesse Frémont, Frederick Law Olmstead, John Muir, and the many industrialists he worked for. Watkins left Central New York for San Francisco at age nineteen. There’s little information about how, why, where, or under whom he learned photography, but suddenly the photographs are there. From the late 1850s, when he was hired to take pictures as evidence in a mining dispute, through his truly pioneering picture-taking expeditions to Yosemite, Mendocino, and Mt. Shasta, to his last pictures of Phoebe Hearst’s estate in the 1890s when he was almost blind, Watkins was essential to how the rest of the country saw the West. Tyler is an excellent close reader of Watkins’s images, mining every detail for what it conveys about Watkins’s artistic vision as well as pointing out the physical challenges of these shots, which often required steep climbs, long hikes, and precarious cliff-edge perching—all while schlepping hundreds of pounds of fragile equipment. Green puts the work in several larger contexts as well, showing how Watkins’s focus on landscape for its own sake echoed Emerson’s thinking about nature and fostered evolving notions of conservation and national parks. Watkins also helped inform scientists about the botany and geology of the west, contributing information vital to the understanding of glaciers. Finally, Tyler makes Watkins key to the nation’s idea of itself; showing Easterners the West, he shaped popular ideas of what “America” was, wasn’t, and could be. To Watkins, all this was beside the point. He was first and foremost an artist, presenting his pictures framed, like paintings, something unheard of at the time.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American Cover Image
ISBN: 9780520287983
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: University of California Press - October 16th, 2018