Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: October 24-28, 2022

The Clown Said No

Book Cover
Mischa Damjan
Torben Kuhlmann, illustrator
NorthSouth Books
Hardcover $17.95 (32pp)
978-0-7358-4476-6
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Now with stunning new illustrations, this classic picture book centers on a circus clown who’s tired of being “the funniest.” He learns a word that everyone should be brave enough to wield: “no.” And once he lets his “no” loose, other circus performers feel freed to follow suit. Several self-advocate and leave, going off to dream their own dreams. Disarray follows briefly—until everyone realizes that letting living beings speak and live their truths makes for the best spaces possible.

MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)

Is Mother Dead

Book Cover
Vigdis Hjorth
Charlotte Barslund, translator
Verso
Hardcover $26.95 (304pp)
978-1-83976-431-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Is Mother Dead, a woman takes drastic action to figure out where her relationship with her family went wrong.

After thirty years, Johanna is finally back in Oslo, the city where she grew up. In all that time, she never even considered reconnecting with her family, who viewed her decision to abandon her husband, become an artist, and move to America as the ultimate betrayal. But now, Johanna’s physical proximity to her mother leads to an irresistible temptation—and to a relentless, remorseless search for the answers that may consume them both.

At first, Johanna seems like an ordinary woman with reasonable questions about the family who tried to mold her in their image, and who then rejected her for rejecting them. Over time, her preoccupation with her estranged family grows, driving her to extreme, invasive measures. Her obsession propels the story toward its tense conclusion.

The narrative moves between the present, as Johanna wonders what her family is like now, and the past, where the seeds of their estrangement were planted, one by one. Every old woman on the street becomes a potential window into her mother’s daily routine; every moment alone is another chance to reflect on her own lonely childhood, and its rare glimpses into her mother’s troubled psyche and broken dreams.

In the end, Johanna finds she cannot pry the answers she wants from the mother whom she still loves despite everything. All she has unearthed are her own complicated feelings about her family—and a way to move forward, unencumbered by the past.

Is Mother Dead is a Norwegian domestic thriller about the lengths to which people will go to dig up truths that others want to stay buried.

EILEEN GONZALEZ (August 27, 2022)

Looking for the Hidden Folk

How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth

Book Cover
Nancy Marie Brown
Pegasus Books
Hardcover $28.95 (288pp)
978-1-63936-228-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

For decades, cultural historian Nancy Marie Brown has been fascinated by Iceland, a nation of natural and supernatural wonders. Her book Looking for the Hidden Folk is a mischievous guide to reclaiming sacred connections to places as a way of sparking environmentalist commitments.

Brown first visited Iceland in 1986 and saw her first volcanic eruption there in 2010. The country’s dramatic landscape and endemic legends lured her back, time and again. Although Icelanders’ matter-of-fact talk of ghosts and witches took some getting used to, she suggests that science can be just as much of a matter of faith. And she posits that Iceland’s folk beliefs and sagas, and the fantasy worlds they’ve inspired, can promote belonging and spur protective actions. For instance, a Friends of the Lava group arose on the outskirts of Reykjavík to protest a planned road that would cut through the Galgahraun lava field—designated a protected natural area in 2009, though construction proceeded. Then Ragnhildur Jonsdottir wrote a letter on behalf of the Hidden Folk and sent it to prominent politicians. She earned Galgahraun a temporary stay of execution.

Brown’s points of reference range from Mary Oliver, whose poetry treats nature with reverence, to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose novels borrow Icelandic motifs. Brown asserts that legends make places sacred, not vice versa: “It’s the stories themselves that make Helgafell holy earth.” Her own writing is often lyrical, employing rhymes and alliteration: “the sea fog rolled in … A great, roiling, boiling, billowing gray mass lit to gold at its heart.”

Brown delights in the fact that, in Icelandic, the word for home is the same as that for world: heima. An impish literary handbook, Looking for the Hidden Folk takes Iceland as a model of how to treat the whole world as a precious, awe-inspiring home.

REBECCA FOSTER (August 27, 2022)

Muppets in Moscow

The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia

Book Cover
Natasha Lance Rogoff
Rowman & Littlefield
Hardcover $26.95 (304pp)
978-1-5381-6128-9
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

At the end of the Cold War, a television producer, Natasha Lance Rogoff, took on the challenge of creating Ulitsa Sezam, a Russian version of Sesame Street. In Muppets in Moscow, she chronicles the challenges of that endeavor, from political instability to figuring out how to translate the show for a post-Soviet audience.

The book is fascinating as it details the logistics of navigating the Russian television landscape in 1996. Assassinations were a common industry problem, and the production lost multiple business partners to violence. Bills went unpaid as supporters ran out of money, and the political situation repeatedly threatened to shut the show down before the first episode had filmed. The situation resulted in plenty of intrigue for Rogoff, which is conveyed in an in-the-moment manner.

But some of the book’s most fascinating sections also discuss the show’s creative process. Rogoff had to get Russian puppeteers and writers to embrace the Muppets despite their initial skepticism, and to help Sesame Workshop develop a trio of Russia-specific puppet characters. Rogoff’s team also had to navigate conflicts about topics like diversity, class, and even the notion of encouraging children’s optimism about the future. Those discussions and their resolutions are enthralling, and the book captures the methodical but inspired process of building new characters and a show with a Russian sensibility. As a memoir, it also covers Rogoff’s personal life at the time: she met a man, got married, and had a baby during the yearslong process of getting the show on the air, forcing her to juggle ever more responsibilities.

While Ulitsa Sezam ended in 2007, a generation of Russian children grew up with the fruits of Rogoff’s team’s labor. Muppets in Moscow shows how much work went into the show and how rewarding it was to bring such a popular export to the former USSR.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2022)

Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask

The Intasimi Warriors: Book 1

Book Cover
Shiko Nguru
Lantana Publishing
Hardcover $17.99 (228pp)
978-1-913747-93-0
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Rich in Kenyan culture, Shiko Nguru’s fantasy novel Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask follows as a girl finds her magic.

After years of moving around, Mwikali and her mother move back to Kenya to settle down. Upon their return, they eat fried dough mandazis and ride the crowded minibuses. In the background is Mwikali’s knowledge that, after her disastrous experiences at her last school, her mother is desperate for her to lead a normal life with normal friends. However, Mwikali does not feel normal.

As she attempts to blend in, Mwikali realizes that something strange is afoot at her new school. She ends up joining a band of fellow Intasimi descendants. Among them, Mwikali learns about her ancestors and the gifts that they left to her. But her new friends possess powers, too, and Mwikali wrestles with feelings of inadequacy. Still, even as Mwikali learns about her magical heritage, she realizes that being different might enable her to stop an ancient evil and save her friends.

As Mwikali learns to be unapologetically herself, she proves to be a fiery heroine whose greatest battles are not with the monsters who are trying to escape the underworld, but with her own inner doubts. Balancing action-packed scenes with moments of reflection, her story emphasizes the power of creativity: Mwikali’s powers are channeled through her sketchbook, and through visions that she recreates in it. Though she rebels against her talents at first, blaming them for making her a “freak,” she eventually embraces them. This leads to a sweet family surprise and the promise of more adventures to come.

With its important lessons about self-acceptance and its action-packed scenes of fighting monsters, Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask is a delightful fantasy novel.

VIVIAN TURNBULL (August 27, 2022)

Barbara Hodge

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