Thirty-Four Must-Have Spring Books | Editors’ Picks 2017

ljx170202webCoverThe 34 new books that are tickling our imagination this season

From the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the future of American journalism after Edward Snowden, from psychological thrillers featuring unreliable narrators to a beloved romance author’s final novel, the titles chosen by my review colleagues reflect both our professional “beats” and personal passions. A new biography about L.M. Montgomery reveals SELF-e community coordinator Kate DiGirolomo’s fangirl crush on the Anne of Green Gables author. Senior editor Liz French, who handles art books, is psyched about a forthcoming volume of photographs that celebrates the American library. Associate editor Stephanie Sendaula, who edits the cookery column, shares her favorite baking book of the spring, while managing editor Bette-Lee Fox finds a personal connection to poet Allen Ginsberg. Wishing you a season of happy reading!—Wilda Williams

McKenzie-Ledwell2Longtime Loves

The first thing people usually learn about me is my eternal adoration of Anne of Green Gables, so I was thrilled to find a new biography about its author. In L.M. Montgomery and War (McGill-Queen’s Univ., May), editors Andrea McKenzie and Jane Ledwell investigate the connections between Montgomery’s experiences and efforts during wartime and her writing—World War I was brought to Anne’s door in the last book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside. The editors offer a unique take on a Canadian literary icon typically known for her whimsical and dreamy heroine.

Like many, I have always had an appreciation for all things Jane Austen, whether it be her original novels, their many retellings, or watching Colin Firth as Darcy famously emerge from a lake in a billowy white shirt. Now I’m awaiting Lucy Worsley’s At Home with Jane Austen (St. Martin’s, Jul.), which sees the author on an enviable research trip through Austen’s many residences, including childhood and holiday houses, schools, and the abodes of relatives. ­Worsley connects these spaces back to the fictional dwellings of Austen’s characters, emphasizing the thematic importance of home.

Still as obsessed with the musical Hamilton as ever, on occasion I like delving into some of its historical influences. Mike Rapport’s The Unruly City: Paris, London, and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic: Perseus, May) caught my eye as both being Hamilton-adjacent and expanding out to the related political unrest also felt in England and France at the end of the 18th century. History is never far from my mind, so I’ve also added The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone (Dey Street: HarperCollins, Jun.) to my ever-growing reading list. Here, Fagone tells the story of Elizebeth Smith, whose genius helped to form modern cryptology and expose Nazi spies during World War II, and gives another amazing lady her due.

For fiction, it appears I will be doing some traveling. First to a small—and secretive—Irish village where orphan Mahony hopes to find the truth behind his mother’s disappearance in Himself (Atria, Mar.) from debut author Jess Kidd. Then The Wanderers (Putnam, Mar.; see review, p. 79) will have me looking to space as Meg Howrey has her characters prepare for life on Mars in this excellent read-alike to The Martian. Finally, it’s back to the only zombie apocalypse I’ve ever enjoyed with The Burning World (Emily Bestler: Atria, Feb.; LJ 12/16), Isaac Marion’s sequel to the brilliant Warm Bodies. Having recently recovered from zombiehood, R is trying his hand at being alive, and I am delighted to be cheering him on once again as he navigates those choppy waters in Marion’s usual poetic prose.—Kate DiGirolomo

ljx170202webPicKBetteLeeFollowing My Heart

I discovered Anita Shreve’s Sea Glass (LJ 3/15/02) years ago and then devoured what
I could of her other titles (I reviewed three of them for the magazine). When I read in Barbara Hoffert’s December 2016 Prepub Alert column that a new Shreve title was on the way, The Stars Are Fire (Knopf, May), I immediately requested a copy. Subsequently, I was invited to the United for Libraries Author Luncheon to be held in Atlanta at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting. And who should be among the highlighted speakers? Shreve. Unfortunately, I didn’t go to Atlanta, though meeting her and chatting about the book would have been a bonus. The story deals with the largest fires in Maine history, back in the late 1940s, and the repercussions for families engulfed by the tragedy. It focuses on Grace Holland, a young wife and mother who loses so much yet gains a new sense of who she can be.

On a decidedly different note, Allen Ginsberg (1926–97) took his show on the road in the late Seventies, and the result is The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats (Grove, Apr.). Launched at Colorado’s Naropa Institute, Ginsberg’s first foray into teaching was intended to create “a Beat Literary canon while most of his compatriots were still alive,” according to co-teacher Anne Waldman in her foreword. The tour also encompassed Brooklyn College, my alma mater. By the time his course was in full swing, I was already well ensconced at Library Journal, but I’m sure the folks who took that class will never forget it. Aside from its literary genius, it was also most likely a “howl.”

As you might expect, LJ staff find themselves with an abundance of books to read, and at one time I kept a Word document of the titles I finished. Though I gave up the list years ago, per my sortie into “book-keeping,” I had read ten works (including ultimately the entire “Company of Rogues” series) by Jo ­Beverley (1946–2016), the lovely and highly praised ­British romance author who died last year. We met at my first Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference in 2004, and for years to follow I sat in on her various workshops, for example, on the writing process and English naming conventions in historical romances. We also hit the dance floor at the annual over-the-top Harlequin party. (She and I were of a similar sensibility when it came to our moves.) As well, she always invited me to the reception held by her Word Wenches writing buddies following the RITA Awards event. Her final book (Merely a Marriage, Jove) is being released this June, and her editor Claire Zion calls it one of Beverley’s best. “As England mourns the death of Princess Charlotte [in 1817], Lady Ariana Boxstall has another succession in mind.” Jo Beverley will indeed be missed.—Bette-Lee Fox

Past Secretsljx170202webPicKAmanda

I’ve long been interested in the U.S. government surveillance revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (and reviewed a few books on the topic for LJ), but the upcoming essay collection Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State (Columbia Univ., Feb.), edited by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen with Smitha Khorana and Jennifer R. Henrichsen, has me particularly excited. The book comes from the Journalism After Snowden project at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. It’s organized into four parts—The Story and the Source; Journalists and Sources; Governing Surveillance; and Communications Networks and New Media—and features a bevy of noteworthy contributors, including Glenn Greenwald (whose No Place To Hide is the definitive story of the Snowden leaks), ­ProPublica’s Julia Angwin, Freedom of the Press Foundation cofounder Trevor Timm, and former Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger, as well as an excerpt of a conversation between Bell and Snowden.

Another book that has me thinking about aftermaths, though in this case fictional and personal, is Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay (Dutton, Feb.; SLJ 12/16). LaCour is one of my favorite authors, and her latest YA novel is quiet and contemplative, beautiful in its dark and light moments. Marin was raised by her maternal grandfather, who died the summer after her senior year of high school. She learns a secret about him and flees to New York for college. The story alternates between winter break and the summer before. Marin is both emotionally and physically isolated from her old life, until her best friend Mabel comes to visit and she is forced to reconcile her grief, her anger, and the past. From the bright California summer when Marin’s late mother’s friends give her pink shells she keeps in mason jars to the bleak New York winter as Marin sits in an empty dorm, LaCour’s writing powerfully sets the scene with realistic emotion.

The mentions of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in We Are Okay—“The ghost told Jane Eyre she was alone,” Marin thinks, echoing her own loneliness—have made me want to reread that book, but I also picked up a copy of John ­Pfordresher’s The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece (Norton, Jun.). Last year was the bicentenary of Brontë’s birth, and while I’ve seen other books on the author, this one pinpoints her life in relation to her best-known novel. Pfordresher draws on Brontë bios and letters to create parallels between the author and her character, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to reading it.—Amanda Mastrull

Timeless Thrillersljx170202webPicKAnnalisa

Mining the past and present and glimpsing the future, my picks move across America, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, and over to London, where a Russian operative may hold the key to preventing a major terrorist attack on British soil. All of these works, whose authors I discovered while reading for this article, hooked me from page one and didn’t let go until the very end.

The final volume in Greg Iles’s sprawling “Natchez Burning” trilogy (after Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree), Mississippi Blood (Morrow, Mar.; starred review, LJ 12/16), might for many readers reveal what’s long been hidden, what Iles prefaces in an opening letter to readers as “the ways that white and black have always interacted beneath the surface, with both tenderness and violence, and how fraught with hidden meaning those interactions have always been.” Providing a kind of road to reconciliation, Iles’s trilogy took eight years to write and will soon be adapted to a TV series from Sony Pictures. Set in modern-day Natchez, MS, the author’s hometown, Blood hinges on the murder trial of Dr. Tom Cage, who is accused of killing Viola Turner, his former nurse and the love of his life. As the investigation unfolds in nearly 800 pages of swiftly moving prose, Iles reaches back into history and unpacks the Jim Crow era, zeroing in on the actions of white supremacy groups still active today, specifically the splinter cell of the Ku Klux Klan known as the Double Eagles. Based on true events, this highly ambitious work raises the call for accountability, forgiveness, and healing.

Another title I couldn’t put down was Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In (S. & S., Feb.; starred review, LJ 1/17). Ahlborn is the author of several horror thrillers (Brother; Within These Walls; The Shudder), and with this book, she’s made a lasting first impression on me. Also evoking an ­atmospheric small town—Deer Valley, OR—this supercreepy yet sophisticated and straightforward tale presents a layered investigation of truth and right and wrong. It chronicles cousins and best friends Stevie Clark and Jude Brighton. When Jude disappears into the nearby woods, Stevie believes he’s sighted the monster-human responsible, resolving to capture and destroy the elusive creature himself. What starts out as a noble pursuit ends up going terribly wrong. The magic of this book is Ahlborn’s elegant narrative and very real and relatable characters, who want to do the right thing but seem to be trapped in a dangerous reality unlike our own—except that it’s just like our own, which is the most terrifying part of all. Taking horror to a higher level, ­Ahlborn weaves a slow-building nightmare made even more believable by its unexpected and truly inventive ­denouement.

Speaking of dangerous realities, British writer Charles Cumming takes us inside a life I can only begin to imagine in A Divided Spy (St. Martin’s, Feb.). Such an existence, built on deception and distrust and involving extended periods of isolation and waiting in soulless hotel rooms, was experienced firsthand by intelligence officer–turned–­author ­Cumming. This third book featuring former M16 spy Thomas Kell sees the intuitive and trustworthy, if a bit insubordinate, patriot giving up the game after two decades and a botched operation that took the life of girlfriend Rachel Wallinger. Yet, given the opportunity to exact revenge on Russian SVR officer Alexander Minasian, whom Thomas holds personally responsible for Rachel’s death, means a change of heart for the spy, who’s soon back in the field, no questions asked. In the world of espionage, however, nothing is what it seems, and in this shadowy game of cat and mouse, following one’s heart too often means losing the things we love. And like Thomas, who in the end promises to call it quits for good, “I just want to live.”—Annalisa Pesek

ljx170202webPicKStephanieElusive Theme

My picks never have a theme, and this season is no exception. I’ve been breezing through Holly Tucker’s City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris (Norton, Mar.; see review, p. 102), which is part true crime, part history, and all scandal. Spotlighting the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King), the narrative follows police chief Nicolas de la Reynie as he sought to transform Paris from a city of mud, dirt, and grime to a city of light. Besides installing streetlights, through his travels de la Reyniebecame the keeper of people’s secrets, including affairs, abortions, and abandoned children. What happens to these secrets when de la Reynie dies? We’re about to find out.

Another page-turner I’ve been enjoying is The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (S. & S., Apr.; see review p. 99). Jeff Guinn traces the preacher’s troubled path from aspiring civil rights star to fabled cult leader, from Indianapolis to California to Guyana. Combining history, biography, and true crime, this personal narrative explores the people and places in Jones’s life and the series of events that led him to the remote commune of Jonestown. We’re left with more questions than answers, and that’s a good thing.

Hope Nicholson says The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History (Quirk, May) contains some of the “weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics.” I like the mix of history, pop culture, and a little bit of reference. This is more akin to a heavily illustrated coffee-table book, allowing for browsing short entries about superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones and cult favorites such as Emily the Strange. The book ends with the 2013 appearance of Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); let’s hope we have even more women superheroines soon.

The cookbook I keep returning to is A New Way To Bake: Classic Recipes Updated with Better-for-You Ingredients from the Modern Pantry (Clarkson Potter: Crown, Mar.; see review, p. 108), compiled by the editors of Martha Stewart Living magazine and featuring several recipes that use natural sweeteners such as fruits, dried or fresh. While there are multiple desserts, too, I’ve been savoring the variety of muffins and granola-like bars, which have become great on-the-go breakfasts. I’m looking forward to making (and sampling) the breads and desserts as well.

My fiction pick is Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men (Ecco: HarperCollins, Mar.; LJ 12/16), about 13-year-old Nelson Doughty, who “Has no friends. Not just here, at Camp Chippewa, but also back home in Eau Claire, in his neighborhood, or at school.” Butler narrates Nelson’s life as he tries to befriend fellow campers, serves in Vietnam, and returns home a changed man to a changed country, becoming a scoutmaster at his former childhood sanctuary. There isn’t much else to say other than Butler writes a great novel.—Stephanie Sendaula

Character Mattersljx170202webPicKWilly

I’m usually a sucker for a strong narrative voice when I’m deciding what book to read. But this year for my spring/summer fiction picks, two out-of-the-box female protagonists called out to me. Meet Aliki, the elderly narrator of James William Brown’s My Last Lament (Berkley, Apr.), who introduces herself as “the last professional lamenter in this village of ours in the northeast of Greece.” As a mirologia, she honors the dead of mourning families by composing dirge poems. “It’s not exactly grieving they want,” explains Aliki, “but the marking of a life.” When an American ethnographer asks her to record examples of this fading tradition, Aliki sings her own story instead. And what an epic tale of heartbreak, loss, and survival she chants, taking us from the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Greece through the postwar chaos that threw the country into civil war to the economically troubled present, which holds no room for the old ways.

After her abusive husband dies, a much relieved and newly independent Cora Seaborne, the unconventional heroine of Sarah Perry’s UK best seller The Essex Serpent (Custom House: Morrow, Jun.), leaves 1890s London with Francis, her very odd son, and Martha, the boy’s nanny, and moves to coastal Essex, where rumors of a rampaging sea-dragon are terrorizing the villagers, much to their vicar’s frustration. The inquisitive Cora, who is more interested in fossils than the latest fashions, sets out to investigate with the minister, Will Ransome, discovering in the process a mutual attraction. Short-listed for the 2016 Costa Book Award, this highly original novel is both a glorious salute to such gothic classics as Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm and a gimlet-eyed contemporary take on Victorian manners in the style of Sarah Waters and John Fowles.

The primal bond between a mother and her child is at the heart of Gin Phillips’s painfully intense thriller Fierce Kingdom (Viking, Jul.). A pleasurable afternoon at the zoo turns into terror for Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, when they are forced to hide from a pair of active shooters who roam the exhibits, hunting both human and animal prey. Joan’s fierce love for Lincoln will remind readers of Ma and Jack’s relationship in Emma Donoghue’s Room. This terrifying read (I had to put it down many times) is bound to be one of this summer’s most suspenseful reads.

It’s all about the story, or rather the story within a story, in Magpie Murders (Harper, Jun.), a crafty salute by Anthony Horowitz to the golden age of whodunits. Editor Susan Ryeland has worked on all eight of Alan Conway’s best-selling mysteries featuring private detective Atticus Pünd (think Hercule Poirot), but when she finishes reading his latest manuscript (which comprises this novel’s first 200 pages), she discovers the final chapter is missing. Worse, she learns that Alan is dead. As Susan searches for the lost pages, she begins to suspect that Alan’s death might not have been accidental and that clues may lie in the unfinished book. With allusions to contemporary publishing, this fun, twisty puzzle mystery is Harper’s Lead Read for the ­summer.—Wilda Williams

Turning Inwardljx170202webPicKMahnaz

Girls, Broad City, Frances Ha: with the slew of films, TV shows, and books capturing the experience of twentysomething college graduates, we’ve come a long way since Mr. McGuire gave graduate Ben Braddock one word of advice—plastics. The latest title on the subject is Princeton alum Caroline Kitchener’s Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year out of College (HarperCollins, Apr.). Part memoir, with a bit of sociology thrown in, it tracks the experiences of Kitchener and several others from her graduating class. With candor, the author discusses how she and her high-achieving, competitive cohorts adapted to life after the Ivy League, from navigating changing familial bonds to forging new romantic relationships to considering—and reconsidering—career options. As a Millennial who still wonders if she really has any accomplishments worth submitting to her alumnae magazine, I found it engrossing and (at times a bit too) relatable.

While I was born in the 1980s, when it comes to music, my heart belongs to the baby boomer generation. I’m a huge fan of Beatles biographies in any form. However, the newest selection to draw my attention isn’t chock-full of information on the group; rather, it’s a look at the emotional effect that the Beatles have had on us. By turns contemplative, amusing, and nostalgia-inducing, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (Blue Rider, May) is an anthology of essays by writers exploring influential Beatles offerings. The pieces range from fond remembrances of early songs such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to more incisive examinations, including journalist Chuck Klosterman’s provocative analysis of “Helter Skelter,” a cacophonous composition perhaps best known for its association with the Manson murders.

Sticking with the theme of exploring our inner lives, there’s Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin Pr., May). This sprawling yet incredibly accessible work examines human behavior through multiple lenses—neurobiological, cultural, genetic, and evolutionary—for an absorbing response to that age-old question: Why do we do what we do?

Finally, there’s B.A. Paris’s The Breakdown (St. Martin’s, Jun.). Last year, I devoured the author’s best-selling Behind Closed Doors, a truly unnerving thriller that, with hints of the folktale Bluebeard, depicts the darkness lurking behind a seemingly perfect marriage. Paris’s latest introduces a woman who, believing she was witness to a crime, obsesses over whether she could have prevented a death. An unreliable protagonist, guaranteed suspense, and a tried-and-true author: What’s not to love?—Mahnaz Dar

ljx170202webPicKLizUtopias/Dystopias

Bibliophiles will eagerly immerse themselves in the fabulous libraries in photographer Thomas R. Schiff’s The Library Book (Aperture, Apr.). The photos are huge, 360° panoramas of 100 American libraries, from the earliest to the most futuristic. Here are glorious cathedrals and tiny specialized collections; libraries that were transported across oceans; Freemason libraries, bedecked in symbols and opulence; the National Archives in Washington, DC, proudly displaying the Constitution and other U.S. treasures; architects’ collections; science centers; and a lot of beckoning, beguiling bookshelves. With brief descriptions accompanying the photos and an appreciative introductory essay by author Alberto Manguel, this coffee-table volume could even be the basis for a library lover’s road trip.

Speaking of road trips and centennials, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Among the many Russia-themed titles coming out this year, two caught my eye: nonfiction and award-winning “weird fiction” author China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, May) and University of Texas prof Julia L. Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (Univ. of Chicago, Apr.).

Miéville’s novels are smarty-smart yet kickass excursions to the outer limits; I haven’t read his (left-learning) nonfiction, but October seems like an excellent place to start. (The press materials call this “a breathtaking story” as well as “a book for those new to the events” of 1917 that instated the “first socialist state in world history.” Miéville starts with the first revolution in February 1917, also known as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, which led to the downfall of the Romanovs and the rise of a provisional government. He then tells of the months between the February Revolution and the October Revolution (aka Red October), which ousted the provisional government. I read on the Internet that the actual Soviet Union didn’t coalesce until 1922, but who wants to wait until 2022 to “celebrate”?

American Girls covers a later period in Russia’s history, the 1920s and 1930s, when free-thinking, adventurous American women moved or traveled to Russia to witness and experience the “Soviet experiment” for themselves. The women—some famous, most not—dreamed of building a new society, one that was more just and equitable than that of their homeland. Spoiler alert: most of these women were disappointed, some terribly so. Mickenberg’s collective biography tells the forgotten stories of these “girls.”

Finally, The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins takes readers Into the Water (Riverhead, May) with her next novel. Can’t wait to see what she does with this new suspense title, and I’m certainly not the only one. In an interview in Australian paper the Herald Sun, Hawkins described Into the Water as a thriller about two sisters and the trickiness of memory, noting how siblings’ recollections of the same event can differ hugely. It sounds like more unreliable narrators are headed our way!—Liz French

Mahnaz Dar is Assistant Managing Editor, School Library Journal (SLJ). Kate DiGirolomo is SELF-e Community Coordinator, Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, and Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, LJ. Liz French is Senior Editor, Amanda Mastrull is Assistant Editor, Annalisa Pesek is Assistant Managing Editor, Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, and Wilda Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ Reviews

In Conversation: Vaddey Ratner

ljx170202webPicKBarbaraIn her incandescent first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner helped readers imagine the unimaginable: what it was like to suffer Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Yet she knew more work lay ahead, for she had to address survival—both hers and her country’s—after the killing was done.

For that, readers can now turn to Music of the Ghosts (Touchstone, Apr.; LJ 2/1/17), which tells the story of Cambodian American Suteera, who returns to her homeland after the Old Musician sends her a letter claiming that he knew her father in prison. Suteera’s confrontation with the Old Musician, whose life was deeply entwined with her family, and with a contemporary Cambodia still bound by poverty and corruption reveal what the country must face today.

As Ratner carefully weighed crime and punishment, justice and forgiveness, in a narrative both heartbreaking and vibrant, she determined that she would do something personal. With Cambodia’s postwar leaders having failed to bring to account those responsible for slaughtering more than a quarter of the population in the late 1970s, Ratner insists, “I had to find my own sense of justice, and writing this book is a form of that. As an individual, I am powerless against government but not in my own search.”

Before punishment, which she believes is overemphasized, before even the beauty of justice finally delivered, Ratner wants to talk about forgiveness. “What is forgiveness? What is possible to forgive?” she muses. “It means you must face the person who has done you wrong with your soul open, looking at that person’s humanity.” She’s not arguing for absolution, however, instead insisting that people must be held accountable for their wrongs and indeed must hold themselves accountable. Of Duch, the Khmer Rouge leader convicted of crimes against humanity as director of the Tuol Sleng prison camp, she says fiercely, “He said he was forced to do this, but choice is always there.”

In Ratner’s story, characters may act without fully understanding the implications or do wrong for what they see as the right reasons, but they are never without choice. The Old Musician acknowledges his crimes and wants not forgiveness but the chance finally to speak, and it’s his embrace of responsibility that makes him so compelling in the intensifying buildup to his full confession. “His willingness to reach out to Suteera and her willingness to come back—that’s the initial step, the path we can all take,” Ratner says of her fellow Cambodians (and all of us).

As Ratner points out, the Cambodian genocide was not a spontaneous outburst but resulted from long-standing grievances about social injustice that date back to feudal times and were carried through the colonial era, then exploited by the Khmer Rouge. “Had we been better as a society at addressing these miseries, the atrocity would not have come about,” she asserts. In Cambodia today, killers and survivors live side by side, barely acknowledging the anguish that lies between them; young Cambodians have little means of understanding what happened, as the educated classes were virtually eliminated by the Khmer Rouge and literature as a whole is scarce.

For Ratner, then, a driving force behind writing her book was to discover “how we can create a safe place for victims and possible perpetrators to come together and talk so that we can move forward.” She herself had hard questions to confront as she wrote. “The Old Musician was not just plucked out of the air,” she explains. “He came out of my desire to find out what happened to my father.” Ratner, a descendant of King Sisowath, who ruled Cambodia in the early 1900s, escaped the country with only her mother, and, however painful, imagining the Old Musician’s story proved fruitful. As she says, “To truly understand the past is to put yourself in a place you don’t want to go.”

Why a musician as protagonist? “So much Cambodian culture is expressed through music and poetry, as if somehow this were the language most native to our people,” says Ratner. Chantlike smoats, songs of loss that Ratner references, and the performing arts generally are not as easily censored as straightforward writing and have always flourished in Cambodia. With literature, Ratner has taken the harder path; her first book has yet to be translated into Khmer. But there are benefits. “Literature doesn’t answer the difficult questions but looks at problems closely,” she confides. “It’s a kind of mirror we hold up to society and to ourselves.”—Barbara Hoffert

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  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Some very intriguing picks!

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