Staff Selections


Great Circle
Maggie Shipstead

This epic, historical novel moves between the lives of Marian Graves who, along with  her twin brother, was virtually orphaned after having been rescued from a sinking ocean liner in 1914 and Hadley Baxter, a troubled young actress in Hollywood in 2014.  At fourteen Marian becomes obsessed with flying and against  all odds pursues her dream of aviation and world travel.   A century later, Hadley is chosen to portray her in film - a role which ultimately changes her sense of both herself and the world.  This stunning, impeccably researched saga feels like it could only have been told  by Maggie Shipstead whose uncanny sense of character is in thrall to  her large vision and her own experience as traveller and travel-writer.  It is proof that gender role-defying women— both historical and contemporary - have much to tell us of bravery and perception  in relation to the human and to the natural world.   Coming at a time when we all need something to expand our vision, “Great Circle,” is a novel to both relish and devour. 


Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury
Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award winning novel, The Friend, was one of the best books I read last year, and as soon as I finished it, I was left wanting more of Nunez’s voice--poignant but not sentimental, whip-smart but never cynical. That’s how I came to know Mitz, the Marmoset of Bloomsbury, re-released in 2019 by the inimitable Soft Skull Press. This fictionalized biography of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's pet marmoset (yes, the Woolfs really did have a pet marmoset) is unsurprisingly delightful. While definitely not lacking in adorable animal antics and scenes set in the picturesque English countryside, this tender, whimsical book also dares to broach more complex topics, such as the Woolf's personal lives as writers, the spread of fascism and the outbreak of WWII, and the cruelty that humans enact upon each other and non-human animals alike. This darling yet challenging book gave me much to think about in terms of devotion, dependence, and the ways we care for one another in times of need.


So Long, See You Tomorrow
William Maxwell

Maxwell’s decisive and delicate evocations through language- and equally through a deep understanding of human emotions- make this a book that you think about long after the pages unapologetically pierce your conscious with beauty and subtlety.


Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is a story of love, secrets, desire and disappointment during and after World War II. The characters are intelligence agents and civilians fighting a war, but the action of the book focuses on their relationships with family, lovers, friends, and co-workers.

It is an anti-thriller: no chase scenes, very little violence, and never any evil masterminds to thwart in the nick of time. The only mystery is why people leave their family to fight wars and why people step back from danger and excitement to care for strangers in mundane but reliable ways. And yet there is a carefully constructed plot that engages and surprises the reader. You will care what happens to Nathaniel and his sister Rachel when their parents leave them in the care of others in 1945. An excellent novel.


Once There Were Wolves
Charlotte McConaghy

Migrations author Charlotte McConaghy has written another gorgeous book -  Once There Were Wolves, involving the reintroduction of a pack of endangered wolves into the Scottish wilderness by wolf biologists. Conflicts ensue between wolves, biologists, and local farmers, and female protagonist Inti Flynn narrates the tale from her passionate environmentally focused perspective. Add a mysterious trauma from the past, a love story, and McConaghy’s lush and reverential descriptions of the natural world, and you have this massive literary achievement, in a modest 272 pages.


Like a Mother
Angela Garbes

This is a must read for anyone interested in science, medicine, intersectionality, or women’s studies. Garbes explores the contradicting and complex politics surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood while debunking traditions, illuminating unethical healthcare practices, and cultural influences on childrearing. Garbes strengths are many but her genuine curiosity and willingness to use herself as guinea pig are an emotional, fact-based slam dunk.

Read this book. Your mother said so.


Grant Wood: A Life
R. Tripp Evans

 Evans' fresh and forceful biography hacks through half a century of misconception and smokescreen obscuring essential truths about Iowa's most famous artist, Grant Wood. Thoroughly researched, generously illustrated and vastly readable Evans' book helps us decode not only Wood the individual's art and life (particularly the effecs of his closest homosexuality) but also the fascinating rise and fall of the American Regionalist Movement that Wood came to symbolize. Evans exposes the conflicting agendas that the art world, the media and the general public wanted this supposedly all-American home-grown art--and artist--to serve.


Wild Milk
Sabrina Orah Mark

Though these surreal, childlike, and often unsettlingly funny pieces are billed as stories, they have a deep poetic sensibility. Each one is short, usually a few pages at most, but covers wide ground, like dreams do. Family is overwhelming, omnipresent: nine sons turn into nine unwanted daughters after a bath, a woman marries Poems, and a mother is always calling, asking (among other things) why she has to keep going to the dentist. Tender, strange, and affecting. For fans of Bruno Schulz and Leonora Carrington.


Having and Being Had
Eula Biss

After years of struggle as a working writer, which included living in Iowa City with curbside furniture, Eula Biss feels pride and relief securing a solid place in the middle class with the purchase of a house in Evanston and prestigious job as a writing professor at Northwestern. She becomes a mother as she enters her middle age. However, her new societal position is uncomfortable for her and the values she is living are problematic.    She began a diary, examining her experience in relation to money, gender, class and race.  This catalog of observations addresses this moment, and, as with all of her work, is an inspiration for living the examined life.  Can be illuminated by cross-referencing with Wilkerson’s CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS.


The Natural Way of Things
Charlotte Wood

This is an Australian, feminist, post-apocalyptic novel of rare quality and intensity.  If you were taken away by Margaret  Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tail, as I was, this dark atmospheric novel will scratch the same itch.  Do not miss this one.


Golden Hill
Francis Spufford

I’m not generally a reader of historical fiction but since the  talented Frances Spufford has offered up his first novel, I opened Golden Hill and I am not sorry. He sets the story  in New York, 1746.
Richard Smith, a young man of some sophistication arrives from London with a large promissory note and he is secretive about what he intends to do with this fortune. As New York is still really a small town he is the subject of much speculation and rumors abound.  Richard's multiple misadventures, unspool at a breathtaking  pace. His characters emerge from all strata of society and he deals with a number of social issues on the way to a bang up conclusion.  Spufford writes with a rare energy and wit and I think many will read this in one long sitting or wish they could.



The Obelisk Gate
N. K. Jemisin

Sometimes, it’s nice to sit down with a book that doesn’t demand too much attention. Unfortunately, this can often translate into a book that feels unfinished. Or that supplies its conflicts with too many easy solutions. None of this is the case for N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, a novel that is at once breathtaking in scope and yet intimate in its many characterizations. Moving at a pace that feels more like a modern film than standard prose, Obelisk correspondingly has no extraneous parts. Everything, from the early introduction of what are identified as “boilbugs” to the mysterious inclusion of sporadic paragraphs that break into the first-person perspective, comes to have a lasting importance throughout Jemisin’s swift, spare plot. In many respects, it’s better to think of this second novel in the Broken Earth series as a kind of short story than a full fledged epic. One of the few shortcomings of this book is that it expects you to remember all of the events of The Fifth Season, to the point that readers might become lost in the opening chapters if they haven’t very recently finished its first installment. But for fans of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, another Orbit Books publication, this will be a very familiar experience—once you start considering each entry as part of a larger whole, as opposed to something more self-contained, this issue becomes muted.
Just as with Fifth, and as so many of the best fantasy books do, Obelisk ends at an even brisker pace than it began, answering the previous pages’ most pertinent questions with higher and higher fantasy elements while still opening up all new questions, in a process that feels much like solving a difficult but satisfying puzzle—confusing at first but obvious once all the pieces have fallen into place. However, this fantasy book exists in a world all its own. Whereas so many other entries in the fantasy genre are beholden to authors like Tolkien or Martin, Jemisin’s world is consummately unique. The further the book progresses, the more ambiguous its setting becomes. To the point that a looming question becomes whether or not this book should be considered as science fiction more than fantasy. A question that may become mute once the third book hits, but that nevertheless provides a sense of sublime uncertainty once the story really kicks off. However, Obelisk’s best moments are purely character-driven. While this book is certainly short on new characters, the ones already established in Fifth are elevated to new levels of complexity. And it provides plenty of room for its flatter characters to become just as interesting as the main protagonists. For a book that involves floating obelisks and living, ten-thousand year old statues, Jemisin’s most insightful sections are profoundly, universally human.
This book isn’t without its faults. The plot does occasionally feel rushed and the setting is often detrimentally left to the reader to fill in the details, but more so is this an equally brilliant sequel to Jemisin’s Hugo award winning 2015 novel, and is yet another example of how fantasy is a genre all too often overlooked.



Red, White and Royal Blue
Casey McQuiston

Not your usual Prairie Lights bookseller selection!  After hearing about this one from a bookseller in another store, I picked it up—and oh, what a  wickedly funny, sexy, edgy, frothy, smart book it is.  It’s a haters-to-lovers romance between the son of the US President and the Prince of Wales, and it features both supportive and dysfunctional family relationships, political neepery, loads of witty banter, and characters to fall in love with (as they fall in love with each other).

In her acknowledgements, the author notes that she wrote this book as an antidote to the toxicity that followed the 2016 election—so if the current presidency has got you down, this book will lift your spirits while giving you hope and a spark of joy.  An absolute delight. 


Bad Blood
John Carreyrou

Carreyrou was the first journalist to cast a critical eye on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.  Here he fleshes out the story, not only of deceit but also willing suspension of disbelief.  Holmes remains an enigma, but he writes compellingly about the employers, investors, Board of Directors, and CEOs of partner corporations whose fear of missing out and desperate desire to believe in the technology overrode due diligence and just plain common sense.  Perhaps saddest is the account of George P. Schultz, whose family was torn apart by his refusal to believe, despite evidence, his own whistleblower grandson.  A cautionary tale and necessary antidote to Silicon Valley fairy tales.



Men Without Women
Haruki Murakami

An intriguing collection of stories by the Japanese master that examines the lives of several men and their often fraught relationships with women. It includes an interesting take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis.


Leaving Berlin
Joseph Kanon

Four years after the end of WWII, the city of Berlin is still divided into sectors and struggling back to life.  Enter Alex Meier, a Jewish writer who fled to America during the Nazi regime but now, recently divorced from his American wife and denied citizenship, finds himself back in Germany.  The CIA has made him an offer:  become a spy for the US and perhaps you can return to the States.  But Alex knows nothing about how to conduct espionage and his very first meeting with a contact goes horribly wrong.  Filled with historical detail as well as artists and intellectuals who actually returned home to East Germany after the war (a wonderfully climactic moment takes place on the opening night of Brecht's Mother Courage), Mr. Kanon writes some of the most exciting post-war thrillers in print.  Listed by NPR, the Washington Post and the NYT Book Review as one of the best books of the year (2015), this is a fantastic read!


My House Gathers Desire
Adam McOmber

My House Gathers Desires is a creepy collection of dark and dreamy stories. Exploring themes of sexual identity through historical and Biblical lore, fairy tales, science fiction, and nightmares, Adam McOmber’s beautifully crafted stories are both hauntingly familiar and entirely original.


Ecodeviance: (Soma)Tics for the Future Wilderness
C. A. Conrad

Ecodeviance will harness you, as it harnesses hatred, for poetry. Or, for itself, which with adequate crystallization means: 'for us all.' The book's somatics (prose exercises designed to force embodiment) & the resultant poems, (spiral-staircases for bodies to trespass), yell/sing into your mouth. Because, human, the somatics believe in you, & in us, the wrong us, the wronged us.


An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace
Tamar Adler

Reviving the message of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, Tamar Adler writes about summoning mouth-watering meals from the humblest of ingredients.  Part cookbook, part cooking philosophy, Adler simplifies the cooking process while at the same time elevating something as basic as an egg, stale bread, or even the rinds of cheese.  One of the best food-related books I've ever read.


We Are Not Ourselves
Matthew Thomas

This is a novel set in Queens about an Irish American family of three generations.  Eileen is the main force of incredible strength.  She marries Ed Leary and he is basically a scientific genius with a personality that only a few people could deal with.  Eileen and Ed have a dysfunctional but a very devoted bond to one another.

Things change.  Ed becomes more eccentric.  To read this, you don’t know what could possibly happen next.  One of the finest books to read about passion and perseverance.


All the Birds, Singing
Evie Wyld

This is a haunting modern take on the Gothic novel by a writer whose prose is shrewd, razor-sharp, and relentless. Told through a series of flashbacks to and from a life grotesque, heartbreaking, and sometimes, in rare moments, quietly beautiful. We the readers occupy the same places Jake occupies, be they old farmhouses, the venomous Australian landscape, or in the company of human beings one never hopes to encounter. This novel is certainly not for delicate sensibilities, but for only those brave enough to face the harsh lights (and deep darkness) that we harbor inside us.

Emily J.

My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante

The hype is real.  Drop everything and start reading this series, and then wonder what you’re going to do until September, when the final book comes out.  My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay form a long coming-of-age tale centered around Elena and Lila, two best friends growing up poor, female, and intelligent in post-war Naples.  This painful and wonderful female friendship forms a thread that carries us through the entire series.  Ferrante’s writing is rare: precise, painfully honest, visceral, propulsive.  She creates a world that is perfectly rendered, down to the smallest detail.  The characters are real enough to hurt us terribly.  And, rare for a multi-novel Bildungsroman, there is a real plot that keeps us turning the page.  This is a perfect series for the long hot slightly suffocating days of summer.


Gaute Heivoll

Warm up February with this semiauthobiographical novel about a string of arsons in a small town in Norway in the 1970s.  A unique, absorbing book based n true events, Before I Burn delivers the shadowy intrigues and psychological suspense of a Scandinavian crime novel on the one hand, and highly personal ruminations on family, place, and the author’s life as a writer on the other.  The result is a “whydunit” that’s both an artful investigation into the psyche of an arsonist and a profound, poetic memoir.



Left Coast Roast
Hanna Neuschwander


Well over half of Left Coast Roast is a coffee enthusiast’s travel-guide to West Coast coffee. Author Hanna Neuschwander includes 55 nerdy roaster dossiers that chart the coast’s current and historic coffee cultures. The book is also a coffee primer. It explains coffee jargon, the seemingly mysterious seed-to-bean processes, and how one can roast and brew coffee at home. For anyone interested in coffee or wanting to be, Left Coast Roast is a bookshelf essential.



Universal Harvester
John Darnielle

Set in the disquiet of the rural midwest, John Darnielle's Universal Harvester is a book about mothers who leave, the men they leave behind, and the ways in which grief can breed an immutable and distinct urge to creative narrative where narrative cannot exist. The novel’s ensemble of protagonists, who span era, demographic, and origin, each find themselves at the mouth of the same cave: someone has spliced cuttings of cryptic, illegible, and sometimes-violent scenes onto dozens of VHS tapes, many of which have made their way back to the shelves of a sleepy video store in Nevada, Iowa. As they depart on the task of uncovering a dangerously well-kept secret, one that Darnielle, with his lyrical hand, situates beneath an undulating shroud of mystery, strangers become neighbors and neighbors become strangers. The book deftly explores the duende of midwestern landscape, the capabilities of surveillance at the brink of the Internet boom, and the tenuous nature of storytelling itself. Universal Harvester is a gothic Rear Window for the information age.


Poe Ballantine

available on 4-18-2018

After spending decades in a facility for the criminally insane that he probably didn’t belong in, Eddie Plum is assisted in escape by a sympathetic actor who is playing the part of the institution’s administrator. When refuge life in the tiny island village owned by the wealthy father who has disowned him becomes unbearably dull, he sets off for horse tracks and adventure. A chance meeting with an old friend opens up a mystery that leads him to question his own sanity, and everyone else’s. With the help of a telepathic dog Eddie manages to keep it together long enough to become a reputable antique vinyl record dealer and reunite with his long lost love before his life comes full circle.

In his latest novel Poe Ballantine serves up what his cult of loyal fans have come to expect, which is a fast-paced exploration of the gritty madness of underdogs and outsiders, told with a superb wit and artistry that blends Mark Twain and Hunter Thompson with Charles Bukowski and Carl Hiaasen while maintaining a distinct style of his own. If you enjoy screwball characters scrambling through the goat rodeo of their own questionable choices, and laugh-out-loud page turners, Whirlaway will spin you right where you want to be.


Imagine Wanting Only This
Kristen Radtke

This is one of those books that happened to find me when I most needed it. A memoir/graphic novel with haunting, poetic language, Radtke smashes the walls of genre. Imagine Wanting Only This would make a great gift for recent graduates or the struggling 20-somethings.


Courtney Maum

A very smart, very funny story about technology and intimacy. Made me ugly cry, several times, in public--this book gets at something very real and achy about what it's like being a human at exactly this moment.


Elect H. Mouse State Judge
Nelly Reifler

Like a twisted x-rated adventure with your kids’ toys…   H. Mouse is running for office but will not call the cops when his daughters are kidnapped on election day.  What’s he got to hide?  Barbie and Ken drag themselves from poolside (oh, what they do there!) leaving Skipper to wonder if her body will ever change.  They suit up in camo and head for the woods to rescue the girls from the strange robot-like fundamentalist family unit hiding out in a van, waiting for the next phase of Ordination fulfillment.   Crazy, a hoot, read in one sitting!


Elsewhere: A memoir
Richard Russo

Richard Russo blew me away with this memoir about his relationship with his mother, a self-proclaimed independent woman from a run-down upstate New York town.  Russo writes with a poignant simplicity, making us care about his relationship with a more than difficult woman. We follow them from Gloversville, NY, to Arizona, to Illinois, to Maine, all the while watching Russo struggle with doubts about how he cares for her.  It is so easy to be inside of the author's head, to see through his eyes, and yet see much more than he does. We want to help him, help her, shake their shoulders. A very thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking book, for anyone who's ever had a relationship with anyone. So, everyone.


Three Novels
Samuel Beckett

 In Beckett's trilogy, he almost writes without characters, scenes or plots, relying instead on each sentence to propel these novels forward into the oblivion of the writer's imagination. Perfect for a serious yet sensitive laugh, as readers might expect from a writer who was stabbed in the heart by a pimp in his younger years.


The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Elizabeth Letts

A true-life tale of man and horse literally leaping over inconceivable hurdles to fulfill their dreams. This is the story of immigrant Harry de Leyer and his rescued plow horse Snowman and their quest to win the jumping championship in the prestigious National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. This is one of the most heart-felt stories of the bond between a man and his horse that I have ever read  and I've read them all. Great reading for anyone in search of that rush you get watching anyone succeed against impossible odds.


Rules Do Not Apply
Ariel Levy

Compulsively readable. Ariel Levy, a staff writer for the New Yorker, writes breathtakingly of her life as a writer, the loss of her unborn baby while on assignment in Mongolia, and the end of her marriage. The book is perceptive, transcendent, and heartbreaking. Levy writes about with the same sort of reverence about her life and her writing assignments for the New Yorker. If you, like me, seek out her brilliant stories in every issue, or even if you don't, you will be mesmerized once again.