Penguin Books

Book Review :: Stay True by Hua Hsu

Stay True a memoir by Hua Hsu published by Penguin Random House book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In his memoir Stay True, Hua Hsu explores identity through three different lenses: race/ethnicity, friendship, and music. Music is by far the dominant way Hsu defined himself when he was in college, the years he focuses on in this work. He uses his love of music partly to define himself as different than others—as a way to carve out an identity for himself—and to judge others—as a way to keep others at a distance. He becomes friends with Ken, a student unlike Hsu in almost every way, including musical tastes. Despite those differences, Ken becomes a friend who helps Hsu grow and change, slowly moving past his easy judgments about others. Ken and Hsu are both Asian Americans, but Ken is Japanese American. His family has been in the United States for generations, while Hsu is the son of Taiwanese immigrants, leading Hsu to feel less settled in his racial/ethnic identity. All of these strands help Hsu talk about who he was then and how that time has shaped him into who is, but the main concern of the memoir is a specific event in his relationship with Ken, one Hsu is still coming to terms with years afterward.


Stay True by Hua Hsu. Penguin Random House, September 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: Wayward by Dana Spiotta

Wayward a novel by Dana Spiotta published by Penguin Random House book cover image

Guest Post by Cindy Dale

A six-hour Amtrak ride from NYC to Syracuse loomed. Searching for something to read, I came across Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, a novel that, surprisingly, takes place in Syracuse. I downloaded the sample on my Kindle, vowing to save the balance of the book for the train if I liked it. But once I started down the rabbit hole with 52-year-old protagonist Sam Raymond, I couldn’t stop. Sam’s having a midlife crisis and impulsively buys a fixer-upper in a sketchy Syracuse neighborhood and announces she’s leaving her husband. Her sixteen-year-old daughter, Ally, sides with dad. But this is not your typical midlife crisis novel! Set just after the 2016 election that upset so many apple carts, we follow Sam as he buys the ramshackle house, joins a radical feminist group, witnesses a cop shoot a young black boy at 3 a.m., does a disastrous night of stand-up at a local comedy club, and grapples with the impending death of her mother from cancer and the daughter who’s no longer speaking to her. Throughout, the history of Syracuse (the city L.M. Baum modeled Oz after!), the backstory about the suffragette icons of the late 1800s, and the etymology of a plethora of SAT words are seamlessly woven into the narrative. There are so many unexpected twists and thought-provoking riffs on getting old and the meaning of life in our wacked, wired world.


Wayward by Dana Spiotta. Penguin Random House, June 2022.

Reviewer bio: Cindy Dale has published over twenty short stories in literary journals and anthologies. She lives on a barrier beach off the coast of Long Island.

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Book Review :: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmin

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus book cover image

Guest Post by Cindy Dale

Take heart would be novelists who are not twenty-something! One of the best debut novels I’ve read this year is Bonnie Garmin’s Lessons in Chemistry. Garmin is 64 and proof positive that it’s never too late! Set in the early 1960s, back when women were still expected to marry, stay home, and raise the kids, the novel follows heroine chemist Elizabeth Zott as she faces prejudice and discrimination head-on. This is not a rah-rah sisterhood woman’s rights novel, however. It’s a nuanced, very witty, thought-provoking novel on life and all its ups and downs. Elizabeth encounters plenty of both. She meets her soul mate, Nobel-nominated fellow chemist Calvin Evans, at a second-tier lab. When he dies suddenly, Elizabeth is left, (unbeknownst to her at the time) pregnant with their daughter, Mad. Calvin’s death results in Elizabeth’s ungracious firing at the lab after which she serendipitously falls into hosting a TV show called Supper at Six. Stubborn and unwilling to play the happy homemaker, Elizabeth turns the show into a chemistry lesson of sorts, infusing the show with lots of lessons on life. Oh, and perhaps the best character of all: Six-thirty, the family’s very smart and loyal rescue dog!


Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmin. Penguin Random House, April 2022.

Reviewer bio: Cindy Dale has published over twenty short stories in literary journals and anthologies. She lives on a barrier beach off the coast of Long Island.

If you are interested in contributing a Guest Post to “What I’m Reading,” please click this link: NewPages.com Reviewer Guidelines.

Book Review :: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Readers should know something going into Ozeki’s novel: inanimate objects talk to the main character, Benny Oh. One of those items is the book the reader is reading and that Benny is writing, more or less. If you can’t get past that technique, this book isn’t for you, as it’s central to the novel. Benny might be crazy, but he might also simply be seeing more of the world than other people; Ozeki leaves that up to the reader, as it’s a question she believes is worth exploring. Benny struggles with it himself, as does everybody around him, and there is a colorful cast of characters he interacts with. Ozeki tangentially explores a number of relevant social issues, ranging from climate change to consumerism, but she mainly seems interested in how we relate to the universe and those around us. Thus, she uses a variety of characters to explore the things (the actual stuff) that make up our world and our relationships with it, whether we horde them or seek to order them. As a Buddhist, Ozeki believes the world is more alive than most of us would admit and that we are one with it, whether we want to be or not. Most of us just aren’t listening closely enough.


The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. Viking, September 2021; Penguin, June 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

If you are interested in contributing a Guest Post to “What I’m Reading,” please click this link: NewPages.com Reviewer Guidelines.