Bookseller at RavennaJames is head of the poetry and biography sections at Ravenna. He loves to read short story collections and poems that don't rhyme or put him to sleep. James spends most of his free time listening to rock music and trying to stop his cat from eating the strings of window blinds.
It's National Poetry Month! Ever feel as though poetry is "boring" or you don't want to read it because "it doesn't tell a story" or "doesn't resolve"? As the head of the poetry section, these are complaints I field often. Since reading "The Others," it's easy to find a book to respond to these concerns. This is a novel in verse that tells the story of a day in the life of a low-level employee at a publishing house. A day in the life of someone dealing with books should rightfully take you through the books as well, and this one does, thrillingly so. Through the main character we read the stories of an 19th-century French pot-smoker, a group of students communing with ghosts, and many others. Lots of fun, lots of ideas, lots of energy.
George Schuyler's Black No More is, above all, deeply funny. It can be read as political allegory, or social satire, or racial commentary, but Schuyler (a pioneering African-American journalist) set out to, and succeeded at, writing a book that is wickedly, mordantly funny. Set primarily in Harlem and Atlanta in the 1930s, Schuyler imagines a technology that allows black people to remove pigmentation from their skin and become white. Of course, this turns the American political system on its head, and reveals the fallacy behind the popular conception of 'whiteness'.
Waterland is simultaneously an intimate family drama and a many-hundred-year-long history of the British Fenlands. Through the voice of an unforgettable (and funny!) narrator, Swift demonstrates how social history informs our everyday lives, how long-forgotten history becomes essential.
Lerner starts this book-length essay with a reading of the perhaps the most famous piece of writing about poetry, from the poem "Poetry" by Marianne Moore, which reads, in its entirety:
I, too, dislike it.
***Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for
it, one discovers in
***it, after all, a place for the genuine.
This poem is the perfect starting point for the examination of the culture-wide contempt toward poetry, but also the ironic respect, deference, and revulsion with which we treat poets. Drawing on the work of Caedmon, Emily Dickinson, and Amiri Baraka, Ben Lerner proves himself a delightful guide through literary history and argument.
Susan Howe's inventive, form-breaking style feels as fresh and necessary as ever in Debths, her most recent collection. At moments it is surprisingly rhythmic and tied to meter, but the stand-outs here are Howe's signature imaged-based poems drawn from archival materials. The physical beauty of the poems are enough to make this function as an art book, but the text is so rich that it deserves to be pored over.
A master-class in literary criticism, critical theory, and art history, Illuminations is a must-read. Hannah Arendt's introduction gracefully captures Benjamin's tragic and compelling biography. In the current political environment, it is important to reflect on the immortal work of this man, whose life was ended too soon by nationalism and racism.
Some writers are called wordsmiths, but Laszlo Krasznahorkai is a sentence-smith. The first of the three stories that comprise this collection is "The Last Wolf," a novella told in a single looping, challenging, compulsively readable sentence. It follows the travels of a depressed philosophy professor who is mistakenly tapped to write a piece about the Extremadura region of Spain, a barren desert on the border of Portugal. The professor traces the fate of the last living wolf in the region-- but no one can agree on which wolf was the last. The story touches on themes of the human relationships with nature, identity, and knowledge. Worth your time, and you'll be able to say you read it before he wins the Nobel prize.
If I could pick one book for everyone in the world to read this year, this might be the one. The book, in Junot Diaz's words, "hammers home that race is a monstrous fiction, racism is a monstrous crime." As if that weren't enough, it does much more. The authors make a compelling philosophical point: that the thought processes that allow the perceived existence of race (and racism) are the same thought processes that allowed the perceived existence of witchcraft. A highly recommended portrait of our time, a highly recommended portrait of all times.
Idaho is the best novel I have read in years. It follows more than fifty years in the lives of Jenny, who performs a terrible act early in the book, and the family she leaves behind. The prose is truly insightful, with metaphors that leap off of the page-- memory scatters like "dozens of blackbirds, startled at nothing." This novel is a powerful testament to human resiliency and forgiveness, and should join the canon of lasting Northwest literature, alongside Marilynne Robinson and Sherman Alexie.
A beautiful and strange short story collection by a northwest author. Reading this book is a jarring experience: it forces you to imagine Seattle post-earthquake, for example. But it's also very funny, and at times downright weird. My favorite story of the collection is about a Californian woman who is convinced that a man at an auto factory in Detroit is pushing a button to make the items in her kitchen drawers fall to the ground in the morning.
Get lost with octopuses in space, time travelers (or immortal people, it's unclear) at the end of the world, and memories so vivid you couldn't have made them up-- except you did.
Non-traditional families have become more prevalent, but we still don't have a full children's literature for these sorts of families. "My New Mom and Me" is a wonderful book for families of all kinds, but especially adoptive or interracial families-- and cute animal illustrations are a major plus! Perhaps the most important Mother's Day book you can find.
From 'somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond' by e.e. cummings:
"nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility:whose texture compels me with the colour of its countries, rendering death and forever with each breathing...
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands"
In spite of it all, there is always poetry. Happy National Poetry Month! (let's hope that doesn't get taken away, too)
Part poetry, part essay, part art book- Citizen is a synthesis of so many things that it is hard to adequately describe. You don't need my persuasion to read this book- the awards and conversation around it are probably enough to convince you. But if there were one small thing I would add to that discussion, it is that this book is as purely needed as it was when it was published a few years ago. Racism persists and has been embraced by swaths of the country in increasingly visible ways. Citizen is a great entry point for understanding the social and sociological conditioning involved in racist behavior. That, and it's a hell of a read.
If you think your landlord is screwing you, they are. Evicted shows how. The book itself is a novelistic account of the lives of people often ignored by literature, and Desmond is such a great writer that this falls in the realm of Between the World and Me, non-fiction that is unignorable on the level of craft. During this election cycle we have bemoaned the decisions we believe are made by people in trailer parks, without any deeper understanding of their plight. Republicans use violence in impoverished communities as a knee-jerk response to questions of gun control, without rhetorically attaching that violence to the the poverty endemic in these neighborhoods. Evicted is a plea for empathy with the impoverished. It may feel difficult to read about subjects like this right now, but refusing to do so comes at a real human cost.
This poignant memoir by northwest punk icon Carrie Brownstein is most notable for its ability to situate you in a place and time. Brownstein evokes the pre-tech boom northwest through scenes in a drab telemarketing office in the University District and dilapidated DIY venues in Olympia--scenes from a world venture capital has decided are better left in the past. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl should, by rights, eventually be considered a classic of Seattle and Pacific Northwest literature.
For your consideration this holiday season, a highly diverting novel about a simpler time in America-- one in which a political scandal could end your career. Gather round the yule log and read this heartwarming tale to the whole family. Remember the days, long past, when corruption and graft were shocking? When scandals originated from the desire to provide services and infrastructure (like a badly-needed hospital) to the citizenry? When public leaders of good intention would break bad because of the all-consuming nature of power, rather than because of their fundamentally repugnant personalities? This novel makes those reminiscences feel real. If only we could go back to those times and Make America Great Again
Mayakovsky's Revolver is a collection of poems of loss and hope. Matthew Dickman exhbits a passion for life and an ecstatic poetic voice in the tradition of Walt Whitman, a high-wire act given that the book was written in part as a tribute to his recently deceased brother. The poems simply feel vital and energetic in the face of grief. Take a look at the first poem in the collection-- works like these enrich the soul.
"Flaubert's Parrot" blends real biographical facts about the life of Flaubert, literary criticism, travel writing, and stream of conscience-style narration at points to create a singular work that is a breath of fresh air. One of those books that you have to keep reading because the voice and style are so surprising and consistently funny, yet meditative. And don't worry, you don't need to have already read Madame Bovary- though this book will probably make you want to.
For my money, Jack Spicer is the best American poet of the 20th century. A forefather of the Beat movement (though his work doesn't share many of the maddening qualities of Beat poetry), his work is at times emotionally cathartic, surreal, and imagistic. Spicer's personal history is also fascinating and is presented at the beginning of the book. A truly genius poet who unfortunately doesn't get his due-- read this and weep.
Get your mom a Hallmark card if you want, but this Mother's Day I'll be sending mine this bracingly funny collection of short essays. These essays ostensibly revolve around an aspect of Black's physicality, like his failed attempts at long-distance running, or an injury sustained by unwittingly breaking up a Three-card Monte, but these are really just an excuse to talk about the broader issues of family and belonging. What David Sedaris is to NPR, Michael Ian Black is to DVR, and his humor translates perfectly to the page as well. A real treat.
Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding is an ideal summer read. It's a somewhat forgotten classic that is simultaneously high comedy and tragedy. When her twin sister Judith intends to get married at their childhood home, Cassandra does everything in her power to sabotage the wedding. But this isn't a schlocky, Matthew McConaughey-starring rom-com. Cassandra's attempts are funny, yes, but also call to mind questions of identity and sexuality. Simply the most fun you'll have this August.
Everything that should need to be said about Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping has already been said more eloquently in other places. But let me say again, if there exists a certain group of books that one must feel compelled to read, Housekeeping is among those books. Especially here, especially now. While being the story of a transient family in Northern Idaho, Housekeeping also very much feels like a cultural history of the Inland Northwest. Its release in this beautiful pocket edition only makes it more enticing.
You can't go wrong with a Biz Markie blurb! I'll read anything he tells me to. Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree is a beautifully illustrated history that clearly tells the complex story of an organic movement's rise to prominence. Piskor's writing and illustrations really convey the energy and electric feel that must have surrounded early 80's New York hip hop culture. The book takes a wide view of what hip hop culture can mean, and provides history lessons on graffiti artists and record store owners, as well as DJ's and MC's. Come for the classic depictions of favorites like Fab Five Freddy, Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Flash, but stay for the well-researched, compelling history.
It's the perfect time to take a chance on a book of poetry, and I wouldn't be able to justify walking out of the store without this great collection by Michael Dickman. There's no better way to say "buy this!" than to take a quote from the book itself:
"Everyone alive is alive / everyone dead is / again / Through the new green / they come back / they can't / come back / but they come back"
While kept as a political prisoner in Indonesia for ten years, Pramoedya worked on a series of four historical novels. His working papers were taken upon his arrest, so he 'wrote' these novels by telling stories to other prisoners based on his recollection of those notes. The result, in this first book, is a sort of revolutionary, mirror-world version of Cormac McCarthy's 'All the Pretty Horses.' A beautiful tale of young love, obligation, and intrigue.
Seriously funny, and, funny enough, it's serious. Simultaneously hilarious, deeply revolting, and heart-warming, this novel features the most memorable narrator you'll have read in years. It has become my favorite debut novel of recent years.
Know someone who loves science but won't pick up any fiction? This slim volume is an ideal place for casual fiction readers to start, but experimental and beautifully-written enough to keep fiction die-hards entertained. Each story in the collection takes a scientific law or theory and turns it on its head-- characters guide the reader through the orbit of the moon, or the implications of light-years on interplanetary communication. It is science fiction that doesn't invent anything "new," instead toying with our conceptions of scientific knowledge to expand the idea of what fiction can do.
In celebration of the success of "The End of the Tour," the movie based on author David Lipsky's conversations with David Foster Wallace, I think it's only fitting to recommend a work of Wallace's this month. While Infinite Jest is of course Wallace's best-known and best-loved work, I have always been partial to his short fiction. The stories in this collection are most memorable for me because of the precision with which Wallace treats the distinct narrative voices in each piece. If that doesn't sell you, the principle setting of the novella-length final story is a massive reunion for anyone who ever appeared in a McDonald's commercial, and involves a helicopter crash, archery, and not-so-sly jabs at the contemporary literary canon. A must-read.
Matthew Rohrer's poetry is bittersweet. His poems careen from wry observation, raw sentiment, and oddball humor, often in the space of a few lines. Do yourself a favor and check out his newest, "Surrounded by Friends," which includes one of my favorite poems of recent memory as its first poem.
When Kelly Link's stories in this collection, Get in Trouble, succeed, they feel cinematic and surrealistic, broad in scope, yet hazy. The best comparison for these stories is the sensation of falling asleep with the TV on, as science fiction, sci-fi, and magical realist tropes are toyed with and built into a compelling collage.
Richard Siken's "War of the Foxes" is a book of poetry about painting. I know what you're thinking - Pretentious? No. Boring? No. The collection is kept afloat by an insistent, darkly humorous voice which balances the often-brooding ruminations on the nature of art and representation. "I cut off my head and threw it on the ground...My head just sat there. Fair enough." With lines like that, it's hard not to laugh.
Gallows-esque humor with an eye for landscapes and ekphrasis. Highly recommended.