Featured books will be available for the public today. To place them on hold, call the Walla Walla Public Library at 527-4550 or go to wallawallapubliclibrary.org.

Fiction

“The Unpassing,” by Chia-Chia Lin

In Lin’s challenging debut, set in rural 1986 Alaska, a Taiwanese-American family struggles to cope with the loss of their youngest member.

A week after the Challenger explodes, 10-year-old Gavin wakes up from a meningitis-induced coma, only to realize his younger sister, Ruby, didn’t survive the illness. In the months that follow, the family slowly disintegrates.

When not fighting with her husband, Gavin’s mother talks incessantly about taking their remaining three children and moving back to Taiwan.

Gavin’s father, a water well driller, becomes despondent and erratic, staring into space or sawing holes in the ceiling to squelch a flying squirrel infestation. When he’s sued by a white family whose child became severely ill from an improperly installed water well, the ill-equipped and penniless parents run from the situation. They take the children and go on a “vacation” in the Alaskan boonies, forcing Gavin, his 5-year-old brother, Natty, and their older sister, Pei-Pei, to sleep in the truck with the rest of their scavenged belongings. 

Upon their return to the repossessed house, the family squats in the eerie, empty shell as winter sets in — that is, until yet another catastrophe shatters the little they have left. The unrelenting bleakness of the novel might be too much for some readers, but Lin’s talent for vivid, laser-sharp prose — especially when describing Alaska’s stark beauty or the family’s eccentric temperament — is undeniable.

— Publishers Weekly

“Henry, Himself,” by Stewart O’Nan

The husband and father whose death haunted two previous novels about the Maxwell family (“Wish You Were Here,” 2002; “Emily, Alone,” 2011) speaks for himself in this moving third installment.

The prolific O’Nan (“City of Secrets,” 2016, etc.) has ranged with aplomb over many genres and locales, but his heart is most evidently engaged in the novels set in his native Pittsburgh. The city has been home to Henry Maxwell’s family for generations, but his neighborhood is changing; there are supermarkets he doesn’t like wife Emily shopping in alone, and the couple is shaken by reports of an assault-rifle attack on a nearby backyard party.

The traditions that sustain and nourish Henry — weekly churchgoing, holiday charitable giving, the annual spring flower show, summers at their cottage by the lake in Chautauqua — seem to be cherished only by a dwindling band of elderly folks like himself. 

As the novel progresses through the year 1998, O’Nan captures Henry’s sense of loss and diminishment — he is 74 and overweight with bad cholesterol — while tenderly evoking his enduring love for prickly Emily, his devotion to their two children and four grandchildren, and the pleasure this retired engineer takes in puttering in the garage and tending to the house. 

Memories of his past are deftly interpolated to illuminate the childhood and wartime experiences that shaped a quiet, slightly distant man who dislikes conflict. Several flashbacks to World War II are particularly notable for the delicacy with which O’Nan unfolds the lasting impact of Henry’s combat experiences. 

As usual, this profoundly unpretentious writer employs lucid, no-frills prose to convey complicated emotions and fraught family interactions. The novel makes no claims for Henry or his kin as exceptional people but instead celebrates the fullness and uniqueness of each ordinary human being.

Astute and tender, rich in images and details — another wonderful piece of work from the immensely gifted O’Nan.

— Kirkus Reviews

Nonfiction

“Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas

Urschel, a former guard for the Baltimore Ravens, shares his lifelong attempts to reconcile math and football in his captivating memoir. 

Urschel recalls his childhood attraction to puzzles. They gave him a glimpse of a more logical and orderly world than the one in which he lived as the child of divorced parents.

By middle school in Buffalo, N.Y., Urschel, bigger than many of his classmates, wanted to play football to fit in. While his lawyer mother encouraged him to develop his considerable intellectual abilities, his father, a surgeon, urged him to develop his football skills. 

In alternating chapters he recounts his pursuits in both: he enrolled at Penn State in 2010, where he played football and studied math. After graduating, he was drafted in 2014 by the Baltimore Ravens, with whom he played for three seasons. In 2016, he enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate at MIT.

Math, Urschel writes, “gives me a way of making sense of the world. It helps me see past the confusion of everyday life and glimpse the underlying structures of the universe.”

Urschel’s brilliant memoir explores the challenges of making difficult choices and the rewards of following one’s passions in life.

— Publishers Weekly

“What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” by Carolyn Forché

A noted poet and activist recounts an odd season at the dawn of the civil war in El Salvador. At the opening, Forché (English/Georgetown Univ.; “Blue Hour,” 2003, etc.) admits she had only a little knowledge of the Central American nation of El Salvador until the end of the 1970s. 

“What I knew of El Salvador, I knew from my Spanish professor in college, himself a Salvadoran,” as well as from translating the work of the poet Claribel Alegría. 

At the beginning of the narrative, the author recounts how she opened her door one day to a man whom Alegría had mentioned without much specificity: Leonel Gómez, a mysterious figure who sometimes seemed to be all things to all people. Gómez convinced Forché she needed to see what was happening for herself, and off she went to a nation on the brink. A bête noire soon came into view: Colonel Chacón, “who chops off fingers and has people disemboweled.” 

Gómez was a born mansplainer, throwing out a sequence of lessons that prompted Forché to protest she was smart enough to follow along, to which he replied, “Lesson three has nothing to do with you.” The remark was ominous, to say the least. Gómez, her Virgil, guided Forché into tight corners, such as the cramped office of a commander who earnestly asked, “What can we do to improve the situation?” Alas, the time for talking drew short, and the bullets began to fly — some of them, it seems, deliberately aimed at her. 

As Forché writes in her elegiac opening, “I will learn that the human head weighs about two and a half kilos, and a child’s head, something

less.”

Episode by episode, dodging death squads, Forché builds a story filled with violence and intrigue worthy of Graham Greene around which a river of blood flows.

A valuable firsthand report of a time of terror.

— Kirkus Reviews

Others

“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage: Selected Stories,” by Bette Howland (fiction)

“The Tubman Command: A Novel,” by Elizabeth Cobbs (fiction)

“The Salt Path,” by Raynor Winn (nonfiction)

“Birth Without Fear: The Judgment-Free Guide to Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum,” by January Harshe (nonfiction)

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