Sedgwick County Chronicles
In Amanda Wen’s sensitive Christian novel Roots of Wood and Stone, a nineteenth-century diary draws a Kansas pair closer as they unearth personal pains.
Sloane, the curator of the Sedgwick County Museum of History, is an adoptee, drawn to the past because she herself was abandoned. Garrett is a financial planner who’s helping his sister to declutter their Grandmother Rosie’s farmhouse, even though he questions whether it’d be better to place her in a memory care facility.
When Garrett drops a satchel off at the museum, he meets and sparks a friendship with Sloane. She finds the diary of Annabelle, a frontier woman, inside of the satchel. Together, they delve into the details of Annabelle’s life, and how her story ties into Rosie’s farmhouse—a project that invites the thrills of piecing together the past, and brings surprises, too. Meanwhile, Sloane learns more about her birth mother, and she wrestles with feeling unwanted.
Throughout, vulnerable and multifaceted characters deal with the heartbreaking realities of eldercare, but also learn to trust God’s plans over their own well-intentioned decisions. Characters’ thoughts and emotions are pulled between their desires to cling to old habits and fears and their needs to risk opening up to others. And Wichita’s historical charm and pioneering past faces the threat of suburban development: Rosie’s farmhouse’s legacy is a poignant point of contention when its future is in doubt. Coincidences suggest that God in pulling Sloane and Garrett through their setbacks, and their story’s joyous culmination is restorative.
With a resonant, alternating timeline that highlights the past’s continuing influence on the present, Roots of Wood and Stone is a satisfying, moving novel that combines ancestral stories with a new romance.
KAREN RIGBY (December 27, 2020)
In Ilaria Bernardini’s artful novel The Portrait, Valeria is an author who needs a jacket picture for her new collection. This becomes her excuse to enter the house where her secret lover lays dying; there, his wife, Isla, will paint Valeria’s portrait. Between sittings, Valeria and Isla discuss their lives, travels, work, and love, reaching something like understanding.
Comprised of short vignettes that move in swift, restless succession, the novel addresses the past and the present alongside one another, so that time becomes a spiral that closes in on itself. Memories of Valeria’s departed sister haunt the narrative, and Valeria’s stories are included throughout.
The characters are developed as mirrors and refractions of one other, especially as Valeria and Isla study one another during the portraiture. Several echo the refrain that “everyone is everyone.” But even as they verge on becoming facets of one universal character, they retain their individuality: Valeria is elusive; Martin, her lover, bears his twin brother’s pain; Isla can’t be alone; and Isla’s angsty teenage daughter runs away, resulting in a climactic, desperate search for her across London.
As the characters tangle, their story becomes desperate, even claustrophobic. In conversation, they are afraid to reveal themselves, answering questions with questions and changing subjects. The world beyond them is seen in glimpses: of inner-city depravities, refugees in Aleppo, and hyper workout videos. This is a threatening backdrop to their precarious work toward being authentic and seeing others for who they truly are. Valeria and Isla’s unlikely relationship is an alternative: by melding the ghosts of their pasts, their stories, and their anxious, intimate scenes pierce the heart, reaching beyond solipsism to find healing and hope.
The Portrait is a meditative, illuminating novel that pushes the boundaries of love and art.
MARI CARLSON (December 27, 2020)
Portraying an unsuccessful artist’s glide into washout and reinvention after capitalism’s unequal demands erode their ability to create, Yxta Maya Murray’s novel Art Is Everything is a candid critique of society’s usurious relationship with BIPOC, queer, and working-class women artists.
Narrated by Amanda, a Latinx, bisexual conceptual performance artist, the novel reads like an experimental, unauthorized didactic on the lived reality of marginalized artists and their relationship with institutions, whether they be the art world, the working world, or the expectations of a “normal” life. Its chapters include interstitial internet search histories with time and date stamps—raw glimpses into the anxieties of Amanda’s heart. These interludes undergird the chapters’ meat: bravura essays that blend confessional journaling with art criticism, which Amanda posts in the most inappropriate online places, from Wikipedia to the Met’s online catalogue.
Amanda exists among, and must negotiate in order to live, much less have any hope of doing her art, some tough realities. The contrasts between the different axes of access that Amanda inhabits are fascinating: the wealthy, swaggy dinner parties, gallery openings, and residencies, as well as occasional homelessness, lack of artistic remuneration, and a hand-to-mouth existence.
Throughout, Amanda struggles with the idea of freedom as a necessary component of artistry, and the tacitly male model of an artistic life without relational responsibilities is an ever-present ideal. When Amanda loses her girlfriend, who’s the love of her life, and her father at the same time, these twin losses counterpose the implication that art alone is everything. As Amanda navigates her own catalogue of losses, she questions what comprises art.
The novel evolves and transforms the idea that art is everything until it encompasses a state of being wherein art is the undeniable core of an artist’s existence and of all of the actions of their life.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (December 27, 2020)
Over 50 Handmade Projects to Liven Up Your Roost
Arne and Carlos are known for their whimsical knitting designs, and their Field Guide to Knitted Birds is a colorful, inspiring introduction to a habit-forming knit genre.
The book’s small bird projects are all worked in the same manner: from the tail up, in the round, and with short row shaping to form their bellies. The book starts with single color birds that can be embellished with duplicate stitches or by adding tiny knit hats and scarves; each has a name and, true to form, often silly characteristics are attributed to the creatures, too, such as that “They nest in dense spruce forests in eastern Norway, and their easily recognizable song can be confused with Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ on the pan flute.”
Basic patterns are given in written and charted form, and are also shown in a foldout section, helping to view the patterns and corresponding charts at the same time. There are birds with embroidery inspired by Mexican textiles, birds that look like birds from nature, birds with traditional sweater patterns worked onto them, and even an Arne bird and a Carlos bird, both with glasses and hair. The book’s “designer” birds are embellished with sequins, feathers, and beads, with instructions for attaching embellishments and forming the birds’ legs and feet.
The photographs of the finished products are gorgeous and immersive, making readers feel as if they’ve stepped into Arne and Carlos’s workshop in Norway. The birds are shown hanging from branches, in old cages, in the hand of a weathered saint, and nestled in plants, giving knitters ideas for what to do with all the birds they’re likely to knit after reading this book.
The tiny, intricate projects in Field Guide to Knitted Birds are exciting and engaging—sure to spur knitters to make their own aviaries.
SARAH WHITE (December 27, 2020)
In Mameve Medwed’s novel Minus Me, after receiving devastating news about her health, a woman decides to leave her husband detailed directions on how to live the rest of his life without her.
Annie lives in a small town in Maine, where she’s happily married to her childhood sweetheart, Sam. She was raised by her actress mother, Ursula, with whom she has a turbulent relationship. But she’s found peace and happiness, despite multiple miscarriages and a stillbirth. All of that changes when she receives a devastating medical diagnosis.
Annie decides not to tell her husband what’s happening. Instead, she begins writing him a manual, instructing him on how to live his life after she is gone: how to find love again, how to honor her memory, even how to do laundry. Post-It notes to Sam from Annie come at the start of each chapter; the narration is interspersed with handwritten lists and excerpts from the manual itself.
But when Ursula comes to town for a visit and discovers the manual, her discovery alters Annie’s plans. What starts off as a novel about marriage, loss, and carrying on in the face of devastation evolves into a sometimes lagging story about the work involved in relationships, the limitations and struggles of motherhood, and what really matters in life.
Though some questions remain about their motivations and story lines, Medwed’s appealing characters make Minus Me a thoughtful story about the promises that family members make to one another, about what it truly means to live, and about what people hope to pass on after they die.
JAIME HERNDON (December 27, 2020)