Hut's Place
 Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

June 28, 2020

A Pair of Award-Winning Books in Paperback Just in Time for Summer
  The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, and Whitehead collected another Pulitzer this year for The Nickel Boys, the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. Unfortunately, the novel is rooted in reality, based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and negatively impacted the lives of thousands of children.  
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood's only salvation is his friendship with fellow "delinquent" Turner, a friendship that deepens despite Turner's conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision with lasting repercussions.  
Not surprisingly, this was one of the best-reviewed books of 2019 and was an Indie Next pick in August. These words from The New York Review of Books speak to Whitehead's skill as a writer: "Were Whitehead's only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. . . . He applies a master storyteller's muscle. . . . A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential." 
The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom. In awarding the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction to this memoir, judges heralded the arrival of a striking new talent. Broom's debut effort tells not only her story but the story of a hundred years of her African American family, focusing primarily on their connection to a yellow shotgun house in a neglected area of East New Orleans. Being raised there as part a family with 12 children is fodder enough, but Broom is not content with merely a memoir. History, politics, and social critique are all wrapped into her narrative, with generations of family stories that reveal a bygone age melded with an indictment of a city whose indifference, poor city planning, and pervasive discrimination still afflicts it today.  
The National Book Award's judge's citation said, "If Sarah M. Broom's  The Yellow House was simply an indictment of state sanctioned terror on the Gulf Coast, it would be a stunning literary achievement. Broom however shows us that such an account without breathtaking rendering of family and environment is, at best, brittle. The Yellow House uses reportage, oral history, and astute political analysis to seep into the generational crevices, while reveling and revealing the choppy inheritances rooted in one family in the neighborhood of New Orleans East."   
Cold War Spy Thriller With Dr. Zhivago as Propaganda Tool 
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott. This delightful mix of historical fiction and spy thriller was inspired by the true story of a 1950's CIA plot to disseminate copies of a banned literary masterpiece in the Soviet Union. The book, Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, is considered by many to be one of the great literary love stories of the 20th century. But it was also a novel that It failed to celebrate the revolution and that portrayed life in ways that made Soviet authorities uncomfortable. They blocked publication in 1956, but the book was smuggled out of the country and published in Italy in 1957, where it soon became something of worldwide sensation. For the CIA, Doctor Zhivago was seen as a great Cold War propaganda tool that, if read by Soviet people, would cause conversation and debate about the accepted Russian way of life.  
The Secrets We Kept, now in paperback,  revolves mainly around three women - two members of the CIA's typing pool who are charged with getting copies of the book into the hands of Soviet citizens, and Pasternak's lover, Olga Ivinskaya. This review from an independent bookseller in the September 2019 Indie Next list provides a nice overview:  
"This perfect historical novel is made of the most alluring ingredients. First, a divine and doomed love affair between Russian author Boris Pasternak and his muse and secretary, Olga Ivinskaya, a woman immortalized in Pasternak's epic novel Doctor Zhivago, which was banned in Russia for more than 30 years. Second, two American women typists working for CIA and their forbidden love story in the midst of the Cold War and the witch hunt against homosexuals. Lara Prescott brilliantly portrays how a timeless novel like Doctor Zhivago can change course of history. After I finished reading The Secrets We Kept, I pressed the book against my chest, as if I could hear the lovers' hearts still beating."
- Aggie Zivaljevic, Kepler's Books,  
Menlo Park, CA
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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I work as a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, California.

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