Stephanie Feldman’s novel Saturnalia is a twisted, ethereal dispatch from a climate change point of no return.
Nina was born in a row house in Philadelphia, in a time of submerged coastal cities and tornadoes tearing through towns. She was malcontent with meager living:
I wanted to be bright … like the moon … I wanted to be made of anything other than the dust of a dying earth.
Nina’s solution was to climb. She attended Penn and pledged the elite Saturn Club with friends. But when a Saturnalia celebration went sideways, she was propelled to retreat.
Now, Nina ekes out a living telling fortunes with a stolen tarot deck. In her growing need, she accepts a commission to infiltrate the Saturn Club and retrieve a box, contents unknown. But her memories are not her greatest obstacle: she is pursued through the night by desperate capitalists; by friends turned enemies; and by a monstrous, golemesque root creature whose voice brings death.
The novel revels in absurdities, especially the insatiability of those with money and power, even as indulgence ensures a faster arrival at their ends. It exposes the dark sides of glamour and the blind spots of dark magic: Nina’s former compatriots find a way to create life from nothing, but forego awe in their rush to exploit their creation. And amid these whorling wonders emerges the ache that Nina tried to suppress—the result of violence as banal and life-altering as the greed that threatens to destroy the world around her.
“We say the earth is dying, but it’s not; it’s changing. We’re the ones who are dying,” Nina reflects midway through her transformative night. Such humility, coupled with reverence for that which remains innocent in the ever warping world, becomes the novel’s true prima materia. Saturnalia is a piquant, eerie, and alarming tale.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)
Lars Mytting’s epic, enchanting historical novel The Reindeer Hunters ushers a remote Norwegian village into the modern age.
In the twenty years since Butangen’s stave church was removed and Astrid Hekne died giving birth to twins, Pastor Kai Schweigaard has mellowed. Because his past rigidity had a high cost, he’s more forgiving to his parishioners, some of whom still nurse ancient beliefs, than he once thought himself capable of. Indeed, the more they acquiesce to modern developments and doctrinal logic, the more he finds himself wishing that some of Butangen’s “shadowy corners” had been preserved: “Memories, thoughts, quirky impulses … had taken strange shapes and influenced the way people lived. Veins of silver and slag intersected with each other.” In allegiance to Astrid, he still searches for the Hekne Weave, which is said to foretell the end of times.
As the found family around him grows, Kai also laments that his relationship with Astrid’s son, Jehans, fell apart. Jehans—quiet, sturdy, and sharp—halted his education to eke out an existence on his foster parents’ farm. He hunts reindeer each season, marveling at their dignity. In the course of these excursions, Jehans meets Victor, a visitor from England who’s chasing a trophy—and vague family lore. Their instant connection bursts Butangen’s secrets open once more.
In the background of the Hekne family’s continuing tale is the march of history. Jehans marries a brilliant woman who helps him to bring electricity to the village’s high, rocky farms; they open a dairy with modern accouterments. In a steady way, they meet old prejudices with fresh reason, upending centuries of inequalities. And as WWI and the Spanish flu force a final reckoning, the bell beneath the lake peals out—mournful, defiant, and eternal. In this spellbinding historical saga, love and lore have an alchemistic effect.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)
The Mexican Vegetarian Cookbook is a dazzling, rich text that highlights the skill of maestras throughout Mexico’s diverse regions, relating how vegetables and herbs are the foundation of disparate dishes in the national cuisine.
The book covers favorites like tamales and enchiladas alongside intriguing versions of soups, mains, snacks, and starters. Some of its breakfast dishes include eggs, while others involve plump tortillas packed with nopales and potatoes in smoky guajillo pepper sauce, in addition to a recipe for Oaxacan Mushroom Turnovers. Its soups include vegetarian ceviches, fresh tomato soup with fried potato balls, and Chihuahuan Patron’s Pecan Soup, a creamy concoction spiced with cinnamon and clove. Forget eggs and mayo in potato salad; try Arronte’s visual symphony of white and green with new potatoes, watercress, and avocado in a refreshing lemon dressing.
Mexico’s ancient cultivation of corn, beans, and peppers makes them the natural stars of many dishes, alongside a resplendent variety of other plants, including chayotes, zucchini flowers, prickly pears, wild greens, corn fungus, jicama, and oyster mushrooms. And the Mexican love of fruit and sweets is evident in chapters on breads, drinks, and desserts, including a festive showstopper cake of sliced figs over a chilled froth of whipped cream and homemade meringues.
This culinary opus concludes with basic recipes for tortillas and sauces, as well as clear instructions for prepping vegetables. Its bilingual chapter and recipe titles, snippets of food history, vibrant photographs of food and marketplace scenes, and a colorful design contribute a sense of Mexico’s culture. The recipes note regional origins, vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free designations, and whether dishes can be made in one pot, in thirty minutes or less, or with five or fewer ingredients.
The Mexican Vegetarian Cookbook does a brilliant job of transforming formidable vegetable bounties into sophisticated cuisines.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (August 27, 2022)
Making a Life on Moving Water
Chris Dombrowski’s poetic memoir The River You Touch captures the natural beauty and drama of Montana.
Dombrowski was nineteen when he moved from central Michigan to Missoula, Montana. He was enticed there by the writing of fellow Midwesterner Norman Mclean, as well as by the panorama of the Big Blackfoot River and the towering mountains. He writes that “the continent turned briefly on its axis and the West became my True North.” After earning his MFA, he pieced together a life as a river guide, poet, writer, and teacher. He and his wife bought a home with a view of the Bitterroot Mountains, raised three children, and lived close to the land, pledging that they would “handcraft birthday presents” and never “own a minivan.”
In slow, eddying prose, the memoir mines an ordinary life for evocative reflections on family, friendship, and the meaning found in a rugged landscape. It includes lengthy discourses on fly fishing, hunting for deer and pheasants, exquisite meals of game and foraged food, and the wisdom attained in “resonant quietude.” It also features graceful passages about Dombrowski’s float trips and lavish feasts with poet Jim Harrison. The writing is at its most compelling, though, when its lines are taut, as with Dombrowski’s wistful reflections on his visits with two close friends before they died, on the anxiety of almost losing his second child, and on his conflicted feelings upon returning to northern Michigan for a year-long teaching job.
Suggesting that, like a river, a life well lived includes “headlong shots through roaring box canyons” in addition to “the hypnotic, elliptical movement of water running back on itself,” The River You Touch is a profound, moving memoir that contemplates the earth, family, and community in its tributes to the intimate beauty of western Montana.
KRISTEN RABE (August 27, 2022)
In Andrew Miller’s historical novel The Slowworm’s Song, a British family reckons with their patriarch’s military involvement in Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Though raised as a Quaker, Stephen joined the British army when he was young and aimless. He was stationed in Belfast, where he committed an unthinkable act. After that, he returned to England and fathered his only child, Maggie. Now a chronic alcoholic in his fifties, Stephen works toward sobriety, but he struggles to come to terms with his actions in Belfast—and with his abandonment of Maggie.
As the story opens, Stephen receives a letter inviting him to reconciliation hearings about the Troubles, which causes him to panic. Suspense is activated by the question of what, exactly, he did in Belfast—a question he delays answering in his explanatory letters to Maggie.
The novel’s epistolary form proves fitting. It is both quiet and introspective in its treatment of Stephen’s back story. Accustomed to silence from his childhood, he is a vulnerable and haunted lead. Musing about his younger self, he writes, “I don’t know how much I can claim to know about that young soldier, what I could tell you about him that would set him apart from the others. He must have had his worries but I’d have to guess at what they were.” Figurative language is used to convey his obsession with a past that’s too murky to comprehend. In “the looking glass world of the Troubles,” he writes, a summer day “was falling on our heads like a tower block.”
An exquisite, tender novel that insists on the dignity of others, The Slowworm’s Song follows a father’s attempts to reconcile with his daughter—and his attempts to understand his own past.
MICHELE SHARPE (August 27, 2022)