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 Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

September 13, 2020

Immigrant Family Story Mixes Science and Faith; Inept Hostage Attempt Creates Unexpected Bonds
   
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Born in Ghana, raised in Alabama, and a graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Gyasi brings a wealth of  varied experiences to this immigrant family story. The novel's narrator, Gifty,
is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford School of Medicine, studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. It's a more personal focus for her than it might be for many - her brother, a gifted high school athlete, died of a heroin overdose after an injury,  hooked on OxyContin, while her suicidal mother is trapped in an ongoing state of depression. Gifty is trying hard to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she and her family have undergone. And yet, even as she wraps herself in the hard sciences, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.
   
Transcendent Kingdom is a September Indie Next pick; here's the bookseller review: "Gifty immigrated from Ghana, grew up in Alabama, and is working on a PhD in neuroscience at Stanford, where she experiments with mice. She has always felt she wasn't cool enough or white enough, and tries to prove her value through her brilliance. She tells her raw and powerful story of racism, addiction, mental illness, and especially faith and prayer, all while trying hard to mend a complicated relationship with her mother. This second novel from the author of the award-winning novel Homegoing is compelling and so, so beautifully written."
- Sally Weitzen, Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA
 
 
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.  American readers first discovered Backman when his bestselling Swedish novel, A Man Called Ove, was published here in 2014. The story of a lonely old curmudgeon captured hearts and was made into a decent movie as well. Backman has written more novels, including one of my favorite reads of 2017, Beartown, and his new book is September's #1 Indie Next pick. It's more lighthearted (and lightweight) than some of his other books, but Backman has a knack for gathering offbeat and seemingly disparate people together and creating for them a sense of community that is often poignant and heartwarming. This time, he throws a group of people attending a New Year's Eve open house together with a hapless would-be bank robber who becomes a hapless would-be hostage taker, and puts a father-and-son police team in charge of sorting out the crime. Backman's attempts at humor, especially at the beginning of the book, sometimes make the characters look more like caricatures in my view, but patient readers will discover an enjoyably evolving plot that brings the protagonists together in satisfying ways.
 
In its starred review, Library Journal wrote, "[A] tight-knit, surprise-filled narrative... the brisk, absorbing action prompts meditation on marriage, parenting, responsibility, and global economic pressures. Comedy, drama, mystery, and social study, this novel is undefinable except for the sheer reading pleasure it delivers. Highly recommended."  
   
Creating Algorithms for Human Behavior
  
 If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lapore. Harvard historian Lepore's most recent book, These Truths, is a stunning one-volume history of America that is already a staple in paperback  on independent bookstore shelves. In her latest effort, she recounts the little-known (to me, at least) true story of Simulmatics, a 
company that mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge. Oh, did I mention this all occurred 50 years ago? Take that, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.  
 
Lepore's narrative hinges on the discovery, in the late 1950s, that using computers and languages such as FORTRAN, and creating an endless series of 'If/Then' statements, could produce "an infinity of outcomes." That information could be - and was - used to gauge and influence voter preferences. The Simulmatics Corporation melded the worlds of Mad Men advertising and high-tech geekery of progammers of UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) to leverage what would eventually be called artificial intelligence to sway campaigns and elections. In one of the book's more startling revelations, Simulmatics "claimed credit for having gotten John F. Kennedy elected president."
 
In Lepore's capable hands, If Then provides a fascinating look at the history of predictive analysis that Booklist called "not so much a cautionary tale for today's Big Data companies, for which the allure of knowing the future may be hopelessly irresistible, but rather a perceptive work of historically
informed dissent." 
WHERE TO FIND 
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WHY THE COLUMN?
Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I work as a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, California.

My goal with this newsletter is to keep readers up to date about new books hitting the shelves, share what indie booksellers are recommending in their stores, and pass on occasional news about the book world.

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