by Melinda Powers

When I was in the first grade, I was an author at her best, each week hand writing on pages upon pages of big-ruled newsprint story paper. The idea was, of course, that the longer the story, the greater the epic. This view is still often held in publishing, sometimes to worthy effect. However, I’m excited to say that this fall, some of my favorite books explode the general definition of an epic, far beyond its poetic roots, taking apart the very idea that length is a necessary qualification of a story grandly told.


A Novel
by David Mitchell
In order to appreciate what an epic can be, one might first celebrate what it naturally is. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is a perfect example. Mitchell is a British novelist, short- listed twice for the Booker Prize and widely considered a master at orchestrating space, time, and multiple story arcs. His newest work, The Bone Clocks, is both the ideal introduction to his world and an interlinking satisfaction for his die-hard fans. While ultimately about the timeless battle between two otherworldly forces working just beneath the surface of reality, The Bone Clocks is rooted deeply in the fullness of its characters, whether a full-hearted adolescent runaway, a cunning Cambridge coed, a war reporter in the Green Zone, or a struggling literary once-was. Spanning decades and even centuries, Mitchell expertly weaves these tales, bringing them together in both an epic adventure and a critique on our all-too-real moment in time. Unfettered intelligence; a breadth of curiosity; and writing so clean, the sentences glide forward and then stand still, demanding to be admired—this is classic Mitchell.


A Novel
by Nayomi Munaweera
In contrast to the 600-plus pages of The Bone Clocks, Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors confronts the entirety of the Sri Lankan civil war within its 250 pages. This terrifying period in history is told through the lives of several families, the eyes of the Sinhala and Tamils, the rebel Tigers fighting and the immigrants who leave, providing an expansive yet intimate context. But best, surrounding and seeping through all of these lives, is the beauty of this island paradise, the shimmering ocean, the lush landscape and the sumptuous images of the food, language, and cultures. Munaweera brings more to life than the injustices of war, reminding her characters and her readers that there are reasons to persevere. Love stories among the families, some requited, some not, all touched by ethnic barriers and war, add an emotional depth and sense of wonder, an anchor in the violence. One could get lost in the horror if not for the love. That is true of this novel and I imagine also for those who this story honors.


by Katy Simpson Smith
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith is another debut written in under 250 pages, a beautiful, atmospheric book, equal parts grace and desperation. Although not taking on the whole of a nation’s civil war, it is an epic in miniature, informing the times by capturing the quiet lives of its people. Set during the dying days of the Revolutionary War in a coastal North Carolina town, the story is told by many: the young motherless Tabitha and her seafaring father; an elder statesman and his daughter’s slave Moll, her son Davy, and Helen, the heart that ties them all together. Each character seeks grace in his or her own way, but their searches illuminate the struggle of all, their sleepy town a microcosm of the race and gender issues affecting the whole of their new nation. Spanning three generations, each rocked by loss, this is a lovely novel, steeped in sorrow, resignation, and hope, and relentlessly in movement with the nearby sea.


by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
If ever there were a lesser-known man who deserved to be immortalized in epic form, it would be Thomas Dent Mütter. In truth, I had never heard of him until I read Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s delightful biography of this fascinating doctor, a mid-19th-century pioneer of modern medicine. In many ways, Mütter’s life was made for the best of novels: born in 1811; orphaned by the age of 7; affable, intelligent, and incredibly handsome; flamboyant in style and driven to help those in the deepest of need, all the while struggling with the limitations of his own health. Plus, he was a real hero in the advancement of medicine, in particular, by innovating the use of anesthesia and advocating for the sterilization of surgical tools (and surgeon’s hands!). As a plastic surgeon, Mütter was passionate about medical oddities, both in treating those who suffered from them and by founding a museum in Philadelphia with his own collections. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is completely mesmerizing and compelling, filled with images and illustrations from Mütter’s time. Aptowicz is a master at bringing life and vitality to Dr. Thomas Mütter and the medical world he so mightily influenced.


by Steven Johnson
I also have to highlight Steven Johnson, who is miraculous at finding fascinating histories from unique, side-angle perspectives. His newest book, How We Got to Now, examines the trajectory of human progress through seldom-considered areas of innovation. The subjects are all identifiable (glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light) but not particularly titillating until Johnson turns his inquisitive eye on them. For example, one can identify the importance of glass in our lives, but Johnson helps us truly appreciate the impact it has had by exploring it from its very beginning somewhere in the Libyan desert, through the island of Murano, and on toward the Gutenberg press, the Renaissance, and the selfie. Johnson uses what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” showing how a discovery in one field affects the development in another. It is not so much that How We Got to Now reveals information formerly unknown, but that it is revelatory, making connections and seeing the world in new ways. Johnson has written an enthralling epic of sorts, showing us how we came to be through a most circuitous but undeniably natural route. It is both joyous and inspiring.

Although the exploration of epics, large and small, fiction and otherwise, may have been fabricated solely to give me the opportunity to write about some of my favorite titles of the season, I do believe that books are capable of taking on the immense feeling of an epic, regardless of their page count or their Homeric similarities. Among the many wonderful books published this fall, these stand out for me in this way. Not among them, my 13-page epic pet story from Mrs. Kennedy’s class.

Melinda Powers is the head book buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz and is therefore responsible for choosing which of the 300,000 titles published each year will make their way to our shelves (not including the children’s section). Formerly at Capitola Book Café, she can’t seem to quit this wonderful community of readers, booksellers, and books. She is okay with this addiction.

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