Ten Books For Your Summer Reading

It’s summer! Hopefully this means you have a little down time to read books you might not otherwise. Though it is literally my job to make such recommendations, I thought I might do so here for free, as well. I’m focusing on independent presses for a couple of reasons, but I’ll spare you the sermon. Short version: big publishers get plenty of publicity already.

  • Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu (Transit Books) — It’s a big, dense book. But, alas, such is life! Quit your whining. It’s worth every page, this one. I love enormous stories where the coursing, cursed bloodline of a family tells the story of something so much larger. Makumbi’s book is a story about Uganda, true, and while she is definitely not interested in Anglocizing it for you, it’s one of the achievements of the novel that neither is this compromise necessary.
  • Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books) — I can’t say enough good about this essay collection. There has been some talk about how maybe the internet has wore out the essay-form for a bit. That’s probably bunk however you spin it, but Passarello rips it to shred and feeds it to birds (who surely should know better than to eat paper). Anyway: this is the best new essay collection of the year. Come at me.
  • Mathias Énard, Compass [trans. Charlotte Mandell] (New Directions) — Another big book, I’m sorry. And, yes, it is one of those books — long, semi-florid sentences; self-obsessed male narrator; West reflecting on East. Somehow, though, Énard more than pulls this off. I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read thus far, but this feels like what he’s been building toward. Kotsko, especially take notice of all the music in this book. Compass has tapped into something very special, and I suspect it’ll be one we’re talking about for some time.
  • Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet [trans. Jerónimo Pizarro & Margaret Jull Costa] (New Directions) — You probably have heard of this one. Maybe you even own one of the translations. I don’t know … there’s just something about this time and place that begs for us all to return to Pessoa’s classic. The quintessential example of the book that took a lifetime to write, and has been a lifeline for so many.
  • Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives [trans. Minna Zallman Proctor] (New Directions) — Another book from New Directions. They’re always solid, but they really hit a good stride this year. This is a very slim collection of essays about three writers — De Quincey, Keats, & Marcel Schwob (more on him in a second) — but its so mighty in its effect and sheer style. A perfect length to hole up with you for an afternoon or evening at the bar.
  • Marcel Schwob, The King in the Golden Mask [trans. Kit Schluter] (Wakefield Press) — Speaking of Schwob, I can’t tell you how happy I am that Wakefield Press (and translator Kit Schluter) are making him more readily accessible in English. Vicious and sublime, dark and hallucinatory, reading him for the first time somehow leaves a mark on your subsequent reading. A master storyteller, whose influences you feel and influence is felt … even if too rarely identified as such.
  • Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf) — This is somehow Soldier’s first book of poetry. It’s staggeringly good. I’ll leave her to describe it: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Every word of this is woven into her debut collection. Whereas will be rightly lauded with awards come fall.
  • Ibn Khālawayh, Names of the Lion [trans. David Larsen] (Wave Books) — Probably a curious choice, but I think many of you will really dig this. A cult classic you couldn’t get your hand on for years, this is David Larsen’s English translation of the 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s list of names of lions. Larsen is a poet himself and an Arabic scholar, both of which shine through in his introduction and stellar notations throughout the collection. He notes that Ibn Khālawayh would in no way have regarded his intent as poetic, but there’s no denying that something poetic is happening in Larsen’s engagement with his work.
  • Leonora Carrington, The Complete Stories (Dorothy Project) — During a time that is too-often-to-be-useful called “surreal,” it’s helpful that so much actual surrealism is coming back into print. Leading the charge is Leonora Carrington. Here you have debutante’s swapping roles with a wolf, both of whom are hungry for something different; a rocking horses suffering its fate; and, naturally corpses. It’s weird to call Carrington “a joy,” and yet indulging such weirdness also feels perfectly appropriate.
  • Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida (Coffee House Press) — I’m delighted that this debut novel has been garnering such great reviews. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s hard to deny it is a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Goal-oriented monomania . . . it drives the athlete as much as it does any Ahab. Gabe Habash has crafted a really special book. One of the best sports novels I’ve ever read … and surely one of the year’s best novels, period.

Books I Should’ve Written About in 2016

Unsurprisingly, there are considerably more books for which I didn’t write formal blurbs. This, however, does not mean that several did not merit it. On quite the contrary! Here is a list of a few books that came out in 2016 that I very highly suggest you check out, or perhaps give as a gift (if that is your wont this time, or any time, of year).

Poetry

** Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Being Human

** Tyehimba Jess, Olio

** Douglas Kearney, Buck Studies

** Alice Oswald, Falling Awake

** Solmaz Sharif, Look

** Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds

 

 

Fiction

** László Krasznahorkai, The Last Wolf / Herman [trans by John Batki & George Szirtes]

** Halldor Laxness, Wayward Heroes [trans. by Phillip Roughton]

** Lina Meruane, Seeing Red [trans. by Megan McDowell]

** Daniel Saldaña Paris, Among Strange Victims [trans. by Christina Macsweeney]

** Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

**  Guillermo Saccomanno, Gesell Dome [trans. by Andrea G. Labinger]

 

Non-Fiction/Essays

** Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

** Renee Gladman, Calamities

** Lily Hoang, A Bestiary

** Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America [trans. by John B. Washington]

**  Philippe Soupault, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada & Surrealism [trans. by Alan Bernheimer]

** Eliot Weinberger, The Ghosts of Birds

 

Books I Blurbed in 2016

As I did last year, as a sort of alternative to a “Best of” list, I thought I’d give you a run-down of the books I blurbed over the course of 2016. If I have time, I follow it up later with books I never got around to formally blurbing, but should have.

* * *

1) Sudden Death, by Alvaro Enrigue (trans. by Natasha Wimmer)

Sudden Death is going to be a revelation for a whole lot of people this year. (It was already my favorite book of 2016 when I read an advance copy in 2015!)

We are in the midst of a new golden age of Mexican literature, and Sudden Death has opened even more audacious paths for this most cosmopolitan storytelling. To retell the plot does the novel very little service — which isn’t to say it is plot-less or even particularly difficult to follow. Rather, it is tightly wound (not unlike the balls used in the epic duel of a tennis match that functions simultaneously as the novel’s centerpiece and frame) and bounds expertly between centuries from Old World to New.

Sudden Death is, at its core, a very angry book – specifically, at the insipid successes of the world’s colonizers – but it is an anger born of play and the censure of comedy. The bad guy may always win in the end, Enrigue seems resigned to say, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the losers’ little victories along the way.

* * * Continue reading “Books I Blurbed in 2016”

The fiction you’re not able read right now builds worlds; poetry breathes.

I’ve been hearing & reading a recurring sentiment since the election: I can’t read fiction right now. That I hear it most commonly from those I consider “serious readers” (those who don’t read fiction strictly for entertainment or diversion), is cause for concern — as I understand both the importance they place on reading and the mournful loss they’re experiencing at not being able to do so.

I have a suggestion. It will sound so pithy that some of you will stop reading. But here goes: try poetry.

Let me stop you at the first all-too-common, immediate objection: “But I don’t know how to read poetry.” Nonsense. You’re not dead. If you’re this far into this post, you’re obviously still breathing: that’s all it takes. The rest is negotiable.  Continue reading “The fiction you’re not able read right now builds worlds; poetry breathes.”

Broadly in the remit of An und für sich

I don’t pretend that many of you are particularly interested in my non-academic world of bookselling. This is one of the reasons (but definitely not the only one) I don’t post around too much. I’m going to make an exception today, though. (a) It’s a rainy week in Oakland — which over the past few years has become so exceptional that it must be a sign of something, doom or glory (the difference probably being negligible, if we’re honest). (b) I wrote something broadly in the remit of An und für sich, and I’m duty-bound as one with administrative rights to post it. Such was the strict wording of the contract Adam made me sign in those heady days of pre- & un-employment when we started this thing.

Literary Hub published a piece of mine this week in their Bookselling in the 21st Century series, “From the Seminary to the Bookstore.” I feared what I’d submitted was overly confessional / personal. You who know me are maybe wondering: “Do you write anything else?” That’d be a fair question. White, post-angsty white guy. I check all the narcissist boxes. (This is one of the reasons I don’t write much, period, btw — but, as above, definitely not the only one.) The response, however, has been as surprising as it has been moving. Readers, mostly fellow booksellers and publishing sorts, seem (happily!) mostly to be looking past all the me in the story I tell, and are finding parts of themselves and their stories . . . whether traditional confessions still slip their tongues or have long done so between their fingers. Its publication coincided with a trade show in San Francisco, which occasioned people I barely knew — some not at all — to thank me for having written it. I’m rarely touched, but the clear emotional (or whatever) connection some have found in the piece has prompted me to throw braggadocio caution to the wind and tell others about it.

Let us assume, shall we, the ubiquity of now.

Apparently, Jack Chick, of Chick Tract infamy, is dead. He passed quietly, it seems. No chariots or such. The internet perked up for a moment, which seems mostly to have passed. Just like Jack Chick.

Jack Chick was neither David Bowie or Prince, it should go without saying.

Mind you, I’m not a fan. I don’t imagine any of you are either. And yet, for we who grew up within the world he informed, if even only its margins, he would menace his way into occasional, odd remembrance.

Even today.

I’m reposting something I wrote quite a while ago now — four or five years ago. It is, I hope it’s clear, neither an ode nor an homage.

But Jack Chick is dead . . . and remembrances keep happening.


This afternoon I read for the first time since high school C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. As it turns out, it is a lot better read when you believe in letters more than you do devils. I somehow had completely forgotten the random bit where Wormwood turns into a caterpillar and requires a secretary to dictate the rest of his letter.

I got it in my head that I wanted to write my own evangelistic tract, but from the perspective of Lucifer. Using Lewis and the weird world of free tracts available online as my guide, I came up with the following.

On the cover is a comic-book style illustration of Satan–Van Dyke as sharp as horns, crimson cloak wrapped inhumanly tight by a black belt, dijon mustard green cape billowing without any apparent wind, pitchfork out of hand but within arm’s reach—hunched at work over a writing desk, pen to paper, semi-circled by an orange and red inferno that had presumably also ignited the contents of the waste basket at his feet and the drawers near his elbows. Below this was written, in a jagged flame-like font:

Lucifer Writes A Letter.

Dear God Damned If You Do,

You may not realize it, but I like watching you. I’m doing so now, actually. I see you stopped reading for a second there—did a little double-take and glance over your shoulder? No, I’m just kidding. I’m not watching you read this letter. Well, I am, but not while I’m writing it. I may not be human, but I’m still pretty much as bound by time as you. I guess you could say I’m a little god damned that way myself. Ha Ha Ha.

No . . . when I say I’m watching you now, as I’m writing, it’s best to not get too pedantic. What with reprints, revisions, and subsequent editions of this letter, who can say when “now” is, right? I mean, let’s face it, I could just as well be referring to any old peeping Tom, Dick or Harry in the past or the future. Let’s just assume, shall we, the ubiquity of now, and take for granted, get our cards all on the table, that I’m always watching. From beginning to end. Period.

I have to say, my friend, I like what I see. You have a lot of damned potential. Ha Ha Ha. I couldn’t resist. But seriously, you have a way about you that makes a fella like me perk up and pay attention. You and I, we like the same movies and jokes. The dirtier the better, am I right? And who can cuss people out better than we? No-fucking-body, I say. Ha Ha Ha. What else? Oh yeah . . . petty theft that stops short of felonious grand larceny. Check! Telling lies so well and often that we eventually believe them ourselves? Check! Guess that makes us hypocrites too, huh! You’re my kind of sinner, my friend. Why, we’ll stab you kin in the back and claim the knife was there for as long as we knew you — don’t blame us for your own lack of attention. Losers.

The only thing that worries me is that I’m hearing word that you’re thinking about giving all this up. Tell me this isn’t so, my friend! I mean, thanks for the memories and all, but there’s so much more we could do. There’s a whole eternity of torment and toil waiting for you with me down here. All you have to do is just keep on doing what you’re doing.

No matter what you do, don’t you dare pray, don’t even think it, stop reading now, ‘Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner, forgive all my sins and set me free from the bondages of sin. I believe you died on the cross for my sins, and I now confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that God raised you from the dead. Forgive me and come into my heart, and fill me with joy everlasting.’ And God help you if you keep praying and you find words of your own to truthfully say, ‘By faith I accept you as my Savior and Lord, and I will serve you forever.

Never forget . . .

Eternally Damned If You Don’t,

L.

The Rotten Carcass Economy

My bookstore takes National Poetry Month pretty seriously. One of our traditions is a daily poetry reading throughout April. I’m linking to this one in particular not simply because I’m reading or that the reading itself is particularly good (though, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not like these aren’t factoring into my decision), but because I think a good many of you would really like the work of Daniel Borzutzky. Give him a look.