It’s rare for a single novel to combine stunning prose style, emotionally engrossing storylines, undeniable moral gravity, and several college semesters’ worth of esoteric information. When such a book comes along, it deserves to be celebrated. And in the case of Richard Powers’ The Overstory (W.W. Norton. $18.95. www.richardpowers.com), it has been. This decades-sweeping work of compassion for humanity and for the natural world that we both depend upon and destroy, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and was named a best book of the year in publications including The Washington Post, Oprah Magazine and Time. LGBTQ folks will have their minds opened further by Powers’ compelling argument that we must appreciate and honor diversity, not just among people, but all living creatures. In early chapters that could stand alone as brilliant short stories, we meet the novel’s nine central characters, including an Airforce veteran suffering with PTSD, an Asian-American engineer- turned-therapist, a paraplegic Indian American computer genius evocative of Stephen Hawking, and a brilliant botanist with a theory that plants communicate with each other. Each of these people has an early-life encounter with a tree that makes a profound imprint on their souls. In a plot that feels organic rather than coincidental, these disparate individuals end up joining forces as eco-warriors. Together, they take a stand against both the lumber industry and the Humans First sense of privilege that drives squandering of natural resources. While the book is punctuated with heartbreak and tragedy, Powers manages to end things with a glint of hope. His characters blossom with new levels of human empathy as they discover their deep-rooted connections with nature.
New York in the springtime is a walker’s paradise, with surprising changes of scenery around every corner. While aimless meandering has pleasures of its own, two new books from Rizzoli guarantee that your rambles will reap rewards. New York In Stride ($27.50. www.rizzoliusa.com) features neighborhood-by-neighborhood strolling itineraries, carefully curated by Jacob Lehman, who focuses on historical buildings, architecture of note, and public art, turning streetscapes into galleries for the wandering eye. Charming watercolor illustrations by Jessie Kanelos Weiner whet your appetite for exploration without the spoiler effect of photographs that show you just what you’re about to see. You can pick up a copy at one of the small shops spotlighted in Cleo LeTan’s A Booklover’s Guide to New York ($27.50), which features over 200 general and specialty bookstores (Mysteries! Cookbooks! Plays!) along with literary landmarks, from Truman Capote’s one-time home to opulent private libraries.
In 2016, Garth Greenwell dazzled readers with his slim, precision-crafted diptych, What Belongs To You, an elegant, acutely felt fictionalization of his time teaching English and exploring his sexuality on foreign turf. Now, with Cleanness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26. www.garthgreenwell.com) he returns to Sofia, Bulgaria to delve further into the lives and psyches of his characters in a series of connected stories. Through Greenwell’s immaculately detailed prose, readers will experience the exquisite high-tension version of gaydar that one must develop in a country where homosexuality is forbidden. In one section, the narrator takes his young Bulgarian lover on a trip to Italy. They slowly make their way through a museum gallery, taking note of the artwork’s most minute details; there’s an echo, and an elevation, of cruising in this scene. This same sensitivity to subtle nuance and encoded meaning makes the book’s two keystone scenes of S&M sex particularly stunning. Yes, the action is hot, but Greenwell’s cool intellectual take on it packs an even greater wallop.
“Not lovers/though we loved; Not boyfriends; though we were friends and still boys in most ways…; Not partners/Though we parted.” In 1992, Mark Bibbins watched as hundreds of helium balloons were set aloft as part of an AIDS memorial. A dozen of them were launched in honor of his own companion, who had passed away at age 25 just one night before. Bibbins elegiac new book, 13th Balloon (Copper Canyon Press. $17. www.markbibbins.com), is a single novella-length poem, accessible to even poetry-averse readers. Like its namesake, the verse floats across time and space, moving gracefully from the present to the past. Throughout the poem, Bibbins refers to books he’s read, memories of his long-gone friend rising up between the lines. Like great literature, he suggests, great love and great grief never truly leave us behind.