Have you heard about Authors for Indies? It’s a new, national (actually, international) initiative to bring attention to the amazing work that independent bookstores do in terms of supporting regional authors, hand-selling books, hosting events, and building communities—for starters.
I don’t talk about it much (yet) but I used to co-own an independent bookstore, so this is a cause not only close to my heart, but a longstanding part of me. Authors for Indies takes place Saturday, May 2nd, 2015. On that day, authors will be in stores doing everything from reading and signing work to very likely recommending books for Mother’s Day. I’ll be at Book City Bloor West Village May 2nd, from 2:30-4pm. What will I be doing? I DON’T KNOW! But it’ll beat having been snowed in, reciting the parts of a Eukaryote to myself.
In advance of the event, the organizers asked me to supply a list of books I would recommend, with the intention that they might order some in. And I thought, hey, why not post my list with some comments?
But you know, also get out on May 2nd and visit your local independent bookstore!
Saeed Jones: Prelude to Bruise
Saeed Jones calls himself “the ferocity” online, for every reason you can imagine. He is a force of nature—not only in this, his multiple award-nominated first book of poetry, but also in his work for Buzzfeed LGBT, his creation of their groundbreaking paid writing fellowships and forthcoming literature section, and a number of recent essays that slay. He’s unstoppable, and can break fools with glance. Jones grew up in the American south (mostly Texas), and his writing captures the spectrum of southern atmospheres—parchedness giving way to lushness, community ebbing into threat, and back again. The nameless “Boy” of the book (that ancient, loaded condescension) could be anyone, but reading this book your heart will race as if you are the first person:
In a four-legged night,
clouds sink into the trees,
refuse me morning
and mourning, but I pass
what I thought was the end
of myself. To answer
your rifle’s last question:
if you ever find me,
I won’t be there.
— from ‘After The First Shot”
CA Conrad: The Book of Frank
CA Conrad is one of our most fearless and original poets, and I’d recommend anything he has written. When I got The Book of Frank, I read it three times in a row in one sitting. “Frank,” is a character without a plot, a boy whose learned sense of self-worth is reminiscent of that Sexton line: “I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender into this world.” BUT. Aimless Frank has a surrealistic vision and the distance of a wizard, both of which help him transcend his chaotic environment.
Ken Babstock: Methodist Hatchet
Methodist Hatchet is a masterpiece. Each poem is its own world, each line its own breath. In this book, there’s urgency, there’s resignation, there’s scoffing, there’s pleas—but never prayers. Lines will inhabit your mind like destabilizing mantras, like koans: “No one occupies me like me. And no one/makes me lonelier.”
Andrew O’Hagan: The Atlantic Ocean (U.S. edition)
O’Hagan is one of the greatest living writers and as such contributes to publications that run the gamut—The London Review of Books, New York Times, Esquire etc. He’s also a fine, fine novelist, but this is a book of essays, culled primarily from his contributions to the LRB. This book includes pieces about being homeless, children who’ve killed, “lad” mags, and trying to reconcile how his impoverished youth made his imagination turn sadistic. The honesty and empathy in O’Hagan’s work will make you quake.
James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time
Baldwin’s work—spanning the ’50s to the ’80s—was always en pointe and on time. But retrospectively, he is serving as something of a baseline to a new generation of writers and activists: just how far have we moved way from the racist and oppressive era he fought against, and ultimately triumphed over? The Fire Next Time is a collection of essays, opening with a moving letter to his young nephew and working through his own awakening to issues of racial injustice and his ultimate distancing from the Christian church (where had been a child prodigy pastor). The church might have helped refine his gift for rhetoric, but Baldwin’s passions and prose and solutions were all his own. There is still much to learn from him.
Oliver Sacks: Island of the Colorblind
I imagine Dr. Sacks is a man who sparked +/- 10k careers with his best-selling, riveting accounts of rare and complex neurological disorders (e.g., Awakenings, anyone?). The Island of the Colourblind is a departure of sorts from his formula: it is a travel memoir, sparked by an interest in a few isolated colourblind populations. Like all of his narratives, the implications of this investigation go far beyond simply describing an etiology to exploring its implications for our experiences as people on planet Earth. Sacks typifies what is meant when it is said that a doctor should be both scientist and a humanitarian.
Irvin D. Yalom: Love’s Executioner
Dr. Yalom is a Stanford-based psychiatrist who specializes in psychotherapy and Love’s Executioner is a fascinating account of case studies. I read this book many years ago, when I was working for an architecture firm and operating under the false belief I wanted to get into architecture. I was sitting in the grass of a near-by park on my lunch break, absorbed in a story called, “The Wrong One Died,”—a title, by the way, that is a strong contender for best short story under ten words—and I knew at that moment I had been fooling myself with easy choices, again. Reading Yalom’s piercing book marked the start of the end of my being lost.
Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
This is one of the most finely crafted novels I’ve ever read—of course, I’m only the most recent person that. The Bluest Eye is a classic not only because it broke new grounds in terms of what it revealed, but how. I don’t really know how to describe this book’s effect on you—in part, the writing seems to resonate in your chest like low bass in a film score or when singing as a group, raising a haunting hum. In other ways, the book has your mind actively engaged, marveling—”noticing your own noticing” as it has been said to occur with great art (I feel like Ben Lerner said this, but Google turns up nothing, so…). I’m still talking about technique, in a way, when what I want to talk about is her universe. Everything she describes, often using brief touches, is vibrant, almost blinding—the tastes, the colours, the qualities of light, the yearnings and betrayals, the points of view. It is a harrowing read, but I honestly believe this book has the capacity to make us better people.
Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
It has been said that an artist is someone with an uncompromising vision. If so, Eimear McBride fits that description—first, having written A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and secondly, by working for 10 years to find a publisher. It is written in a kind of broken English, such as: “Prayer time. She called and I went down and we’re all sitting there. He is sitting on the chair. Your face still bit red and your head hang down. Your head. I don’t want that. A reading from the gospel of St Luke. My own face. I flower a tinct of what I’ve read alone upstairs.” Too much has been made of the “difficulty” of this book. I mean, maybe I think really strangely, but I don’t find that voice hard to follow, and neither is it without precedent—Joyce, for sure, but this was a way easier read than, say, Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. McBridge, being Irish (as are the others just mentioned), the voice is not just a stylistic tic; she’s breaking Empire’s most effective tool.
Flann O’Brien: At Swim Two Birds
At Swim Two Birds, written in 1939, is one of the earlier—and premier—examples of meta-fiction. Yes, it’s a genre I’m probably a bit tired of, too, but let’s be honest: what we’re tired of is the present practitioners. At Swim Two Birds is as fresh and revelatory as it was 75+ years ago. Essentially, the book is about a hard-drinking author who invents a number of characters, all of which take on a life of their own and begin to rewrite their own stories. The original author, a student of literature and an employee at Guinness, loses control of the plot. It’s a hilarious book, yes, but it also has meaningful things to say about personal and national mythology.
George Saunders: 10th of December
Who doesn’t love George Saunders. Everybody does, and I always want to know why. Yes, he is funny, yes he is strange, yes he is definitely entertaining, but most especially, he has hand-formed an island of empathy. This once-Ayn Randian (yes, really) switched to Buddhism and ever since loves humanity in double-time. 10th of December’s short stories are full of people who are both familiar and unforgettable, because his writing—even when the plots are improbable!—is so true to life.
Jean Baudrillard: Ecstasy of Communication
With this kind of material, everyone has their own fine lines, what they can and cannot handle, what they’re willing to claim or admit they can or cannot get. Like, Lyotard—I tried and it was like reading Future Shock? Anyway, Ectascy of Communication is a pretty slim and not altogether dense book about the hyperlinked world and its effect on our psyche. Unlike the bulk of human history, Baudrillard writes, “We no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication.” This, in 1987. Before Facebook. Before Twitter. The mind reels.
Paul Virilio: War and Cinema
War and Cinema recounts how filmmaking emerged out of the revolving chamber of a gun. The same material (nitrocellulose) was used to make film and explosives. Film was widely employed in war for recon, as well as used by governments as propaganda, both of which he refers to as “the hell of images” and a new “trade in dematerialization.” Central to his thesis is that technological improvements that allow for increases in speed—say, going from canon to machine gun or guided missiles; from photograph to cinema to reality TV—exponentially multiplies both the violence and deception, because we can’t resist, and we can’t keep up. “Total war takes us from military secrecy […] to the overexposure of the live broadcast,” he writes. It’s a provocative book that will make you do long double-takes on the rah-rahing about the information age and the normalization of our guiltiest pleasures.