Green Shoots and Silver Linings in the Ashes
Robin Lee Carlson’s enchanting, enlightening, and colorful nature book charts the renewal of life after wildfires ravaged a remote Northern California canyon.
An exquisite sketchbook capturing several years of observation, the book depicts resurgent wildlife in Cold Canyon following the 2015 Wragg fire—and also addresses the impact of a subsequent wildfire in 2020. Hundreds of delicate watercolors of birds, wildflowers, butterflies, mammals, and other canyon inhabitants underscore the message that, while wildfires seem devastating, these ecosystems have “come to need [periodic fires] for their biodiversity, health, and resilience.”
Carlson’s prose is as luminous as her artwork:
Having watched each flower appear in its own season and seen the vigor of life reasserting itself in this stark, opened, breathing landscape, I find my own ideas of beauty expanding.
The narrative tracks the progress of various species in the charred terrain. Wildflowers including poppies, lupines, delphiniums, and penstemons “respond exuberantly” after a fire, soaking up the sunlight. Other plants, including whispering bells, emerge only after a fire, “in a continuum of long, patient waits and fleeting emergence.”
Carlson notes that birds that rely on the cover of heavy foliage, such as Anna’s hummingbird, may be scarce for a few years, but they do return; others, such as Nutall’s woodpecker and towhees, thrive on the newly exposed seeds and insects. The shrubs, insects, fungi, and other inhabitants of this chaparral landscape also evolved ways to recolonize. But these hopeful accounts are shadowed by a warning that, if fires become too intense or too frequent due to climate change and other issues, this delicate balance may be disrupted.
Enthralling and vibrant, Cold Canyon Fire Journals is an exceptional tribute to the strength, diversity, and beauty of the natural world, championing the importance of protecting our wild places.
KRISTEN RABE (June 27, 2022)
Corie Adjmi’s captivating novel The Marriage Box is situated among the opulent but restrictive culture of Syrian American Jews in the 1980s.
Casey was a cheerleader at her New Orleans high school, and she mingled with a diverse range of students. Angered by her recent involvement with a drug dealer, Casey’s father insists that the family return to its Syrian Jewish roots in Brooklyn. Now, sixteen-year-old Casey attends a Sephardic yeshiva, with separate classes for girls and boys, and few secular subjects.
At the yeshiva, many girls of Syrian heritage chat together like privileged “Middle Eastern goddesses.” Uninterested in academics, these teenagers instead want to be married as soon as possible. Casey refuses to be part of the “Marriage Box,” which is the name for a special section of her parents’ beach club. Here, other Syrian American young women lounge in bikinis, showing off their tanned bodies to attract devout and wealthy husbands.
Despite her wariness, Casey falls in love with brash, passionate Michael, who believes that being Jewish is “the core of his identity.” Their lavish wedding is like “’‘Fiddler on the Roof’ spiked with ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’” Soon after her nuptials, however, twenty-year-old Casey finds her housewife role to be confining. She and Michael argue with increasing intensity, as Casey objects to her husband’s extramarital adventures and his refusal to let her go to college.
The Marriage Box develops Casey’s conflicted emotions with finesse, contrasting the allure of 1980s music, fashion, and television with the strict rituals of Sephardic Orthodox Judaism. Strong-willed Casey craves independence, yet she also feels an innate pull toward her cultural heritage.
From the spicy scent of cumin to the gleam of gold bracelets and silver Shabbat candlesticks, The Marriage Box recreates a defiant young woman’s vibrant and insular world.
MEG NOLA (June 27, 2022)
Food Shaming and Race in America
Written from a womanist liberation perspective, Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s Eating While Black calls a cease and desist on policing Black Americans’ food choices and habits.
Unpacking the ugly history of racist stereotypes, exclusionary agricultural policies, and the cultural assumption that Black people’s lives need monitoring, this is a book that celebrates the diversity of Black American food culture across the United States. It covers different religious backgrounds and eras to dispel common myths about what constitutes “soul food,” holiday meals, and other foodways. It also notes that Black Americans are too often criticized by doctors, school officials, food bank workers, and coworkers who say that the foods that they enjoy are “unhealthy, unclean, and even harmful.” Indeed, Williams-Forson names food shaming as a way of asserting privilege and power—an extension of racial aggression.
The book is enlivened by incisive examples of how Black American food is demonized and scrutinized. These come from scholarly and popular culture sources, interviews, newspaper articles, social media surveys, and pointed personal anecdotes. The text is deft at gliding from summarizing academic and theoretical ideas into lively dissections of scenes from television series like The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. A noteworthy chapter about urban farmer’s markets digs into the messaging to Black residents, shoppers, and potential market vendors, underscoring the need to redirect preachy lecturing about eating more vegetables and locally grown produce to actively listening to, and working with, targeted groups on market designs and operations. Doing so, Williams-Forson says, will cultivate more inviting “Black food energy,” as well as expanding affordable, healthy food options at neighborhood stores.
Written to raise awareness, Eating While Black is a thoughtful text with insights into how much unwelcome extra tension and “heaviness” lands on Black Americans’ plates.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (June 27, 2022)
The Moonday Letters wraps a lament for Earth’s damaged ecosystems into the story of lovers at an interplanetary crossroads.
Lumi grew up in a resource-starved holiday village on Earth. She had few prospects before a healer, Vivian, arrived there. Vivian recognized Lumi as a kindred spirit, giving her a way off-planet. Lumi traveled to a Moon base, then to Mars; her skills later took her to Europa and beyond. They brought her to Sol, the brilliant, mysterious scientist who became her spouse.
But Lumi’s fairy tale wavers: Sol makes a cryptic declaration on a televised interview that’s followed by a possible terror attack on a Martian facility. Sol disappears. As Lumi tracks Sol, she’s forced to take closer looks at facts once relegated to her periphery—beginning with the couple’s escape from Fuxi, an off-Mars contained colony whose ecosystem was also compromised in the style of the recent attack. Such facts become clues, building to the question of whether Sol is a victim of someone else’s nefarious plan—or a contributor to an ecoterrorist plot with implications that stretch across the stars.
Letters between the parted spouses undergird this melancholy, lovely, and alarming tale about humanity in crisis. Earth has become near uninhabitable by Lumi’s time, but those with the resources to leave it are clumsy, repeating past mistakes. Notes from future-set scholarship look back on Lumi’s days, discussing “radical” notions like the principle of inviolability—ideas that make increasing sense as human beings continue to stain and strain the new spaces that they occupy. Lumi’s love for Sol is a beacon through these troubled, troubling considerations; hope for their reunion sustains her, and the question of whether their love can survive Sol’s secrets carries through to the intriguing end.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2022)
W. A. Simpson’s fantasy novel Tinderbox invokes magical powers and the possessive motives of the ruling elite.
Isbet returns home and finds that her grandmother, a powerful witch, has been killed, and the killer stole the Box, a powerful item that can summon three hounds of immeasurable power. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Rhyvirand, Prince Bram oversees a ceremony in which a young prince is transferred to the service of King Wilhelm. Bram is keen to protect the boy, having been kidnapped himself after Wilhelm murdered his own father, the king of Tamrath. As an outsider, Bram faces pressing dilemmas: whether to betray his brother to prove his loyalty to Wilhelm; whether to fight for the greater good. Both he and Isbet are motivated by vengeance and self-preservation.
Supernatural beings, including Isbet’s soul-eating staff, Gaemyr, add a mischievous, entertaining twist to this world that’s dominated by religion, politics, and gendered rules. Isbet and Bram are on opposite sides of this division—until they realize that the Celestial Vine, the source of all magical power, has begun to grow. Many factions seek to abuse its power—snakelike creatures called naga and humans among them.
The duo’s descent into the Underneath, a secret society where all manner of magical creatures dwell, introduces malicious Serval, whose lecherous desires for Bram reveal the thorny politics of the Underneath—and Isbet’s and Bram’s place in it. Battling magical beasts and his own insecurities, Bram frets over Wilhelm’s dominion over him and his own helplessness; and as one of the Gifted, Isbet is torn between her desire to avenge her grandmother, her duty to the Celestial Vine, and her growing affection for Bram.
Tinderbox is a riveting tale about personal strength and hidden magic.
ALEENA ORTIZ (June 27, 2022)