Monday, November 1, 2021

Staff Recs, Week of November 2, 2021

Welcome to a new month, full of new staff recommendations. Let's dive into November.

First we've got Chris Lee for the latest novel by Gary Shteyngart: Our Country Friends. Here's Chris's rec, which was chosen as the bookseller recommendation for this month's Indie Next List (click here for more on that): "Extraordinary. I love every word Shteyngart’s ever written, and this is his best novel by an upstate country mile. I said I never wanted to read a 2020 pandemic novel, but I was wrong. I needed to read one - this one."

Kay Wosewick also recommends Shteyngart's novel. She says: "An aging Russian writer facing the collapse of his career gathers a few friends to ride-out COVID in his Hudson Valley estate, complete with cabins for his guests. The story is generously sprinkled with farce and self-absorption, heady, funny, and occasionally cruel mealtime conversations, both self-inflicted and other-inflicted pain, and yes, joy. Gorgeous writing will leave images of Our Country Friends dancing in your head for days."

We've got an event coming up later this month featuring Shteyngart in conversation with Chris Lee - Wednesday, 11/17 - click right here for more information about that.

Chris also recommends the latest crime novel from William Boyle: Shoot The Moonlight Out. You'll want to note that while this is the Boyle's fifth novel, it's not a book in a series - seems like he mostly writes stand alones - so you can jump right into this one. Chris says: "Boyle’s penned one humdinger of a crime novel. You get a twisty, “when will their paths cross and how bad will it get?” sort of plot, characters full of big-time dreams and even bigger feelings, and local color out the wazoo. I certainly won’t be the only person to compare Boyle’s style, story, and milieu to Scorsese. And here’s something I like – Boyle runs far away from the corny, ‘man’s gotta do..,’ moralistic posturing that so many contemporary thrillers are full of. Let’s be honest – every season of books comes with a bundle of them about thieving, cheating, and killing. Shoot the Moonlight Out deserves a spot all of this fall’s most wanted lists."

Jenny Chou and Daniel Goldin both have a recommendation for another upcoming event book: New York, My Village, by Uwem Akpan. First up, Jenny says: "It is the rare work of literary fiction that leaves readers wondering if the war against those stealthy little insects known as bed bugs can ever really be won. After finishing Uwem Akpan’s shrewd, heartfelt, and ultimately delightful novel New York, My Village, I turned that question over in my mind for a while before shifting my thoughts to war in general and the scars left behind even if the battles end and a victor is declared. Ekong Udousoro, a Nigerian editor and publisher, receives a fellowship to work alongside an American publisher in Manhattan while he edits a collection of stories about the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War. The novel weaves seamlessly between Ekong’s life in the present day to accounts of the war from his collection of stories and from his friends and family. These sections are painful to read but eye-opening about the ramifications of colonialism, especially for those of us who were only vaguely aware that the war even took place. Between his work colleagues, the other renters in his building, and the congregation at a New Jersey church he visits, both micro and macro aggressions abound. The biggest insults are the racist attacks on the Nigerian food he loves, particularly since Ekong finds so much joy in trying all the American and ethnic food to be found around New York. Ekong is a keen observer of everything, from New Yorkers to bed bugs, and his observations are often filled with humor. And it’s those bed bugs who journey with him throughout his time in New York, always a step ahead, causing misery that reaches out to touch every part of his life, a small but mighty symbol for the war that his country may never recover from."

Daniel says: "Ekong Udousoro is a Nigerian editor is sent to New York on a program where he’ll guest edit a collection on the Biafran Civil War for Andrew & Thompson, an independent but still significant publisher. His troubles begin at the border, where they won’t let him in, and continue most notably at the editorial pitch meetings, where seemingly friendly faces betray racism and ignorance. That said, some of Ekong’s negative assumptions about others wind up being off base, leading to happier outcomes, albeit after heated discussions. I particularly loved the New York observations, making this a satisfyingly place-y novel."

The event is on Monday, 11/ 8 - more information about that right here.

Jenny also recommends Blue-Skinned Gods, by SJ Sindu. Of this she says: "There are two reasons why a person might be born with blue skin. They might be the tenth and final reincarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu or, possibly, within their DNA is a rare recessive gene that has a chance of popping up when even distantly related people conceive a child together. Ten-year-old Kalki’s blue skin, his parents insist, comes from being a living god, one who can heal and perform miracles. His father creates a religious retreat in India called an ashram, and he welcomes Westerners interested in meditation and yoga and locals who yearn to be cured of back pain, bad luck, and more. Many simply want a blessing from a god. Secretly, doubts flicker through Kalki’s mind. Is he a healer? What if he is simply casting an illusion over people desperate to believe? Kalki’s journey from a living god in India to the mascot of his American cousin’s rock band, the Blue-Skinned Gods, is full of loss and much soul-searching. Blue-Skinned Gods is such a compelling take on identity written from the vantage of an adult recalling glimpses of his childhood and twenty-something years. This is absolutely the right choice, because this is a book that asks a question that I think needs an adult’s perspective to answer: Does having faith mean believing in a lie? And faith could mean belief in a god or gods, in our parents, or even in our political leaders. Blue-Skinned Gods is a great story, but it’s also a book that I’m still turning over in my mind days after the last page."

Jen Steele recommends the graphic novel Ballad for Sophie, by Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia, and translated by Gabriela Soares. This one was originally slated for a September release but got pushed back to this month. Seeing a lot of that this year! Here's Jen's take: "When a young woman arrives to interview reclusive pianist Julien Dubois, she is treated to not only Julien’s story but the story of a true genius, Francois Samson, as well – Julien’s rival for accolades in the classical world as well as a rival for a beautiful woman. Spanning decades in the life of a famous pianist, Ballad for Sophie is an operatic triumph with sensational illustrations."

Finally, in new hardcover releases, it's a legacy recommendation from our recently-moved-on-to-greener-pastures former Boswellian Julio Garcia, who left us with his recommendation of Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora, edited by Saraciea J Fennell. Here's his rec: "Growing up, I struggled to read books - I never felt like I could relate to that of Royalty or even middle-class blues. It wasn't until middle school that I realized characters could be Latinx. That is why a book like this is so important. This is an oral history of 15 distinct voices in the Latinx community that speak of the struggles they had growing up. This book takes a look at the problems with colorism, alcoholism, belonging, and immigration in the Latinx community and in the United States as a whole. This reads like a heartfelt conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee. Both poignant and powerful, I would not be surprised to see this book in classrooms in the near future."

Kay has three more recommendations of her own for us this week. Whoa! First up is 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, the memoir from world-famous artist Ai Weiwei. Kay says: "Ai Weiwei’s only known artistic influences as a young child living in labor camps were hearing bits of his father’s poetry and pouring over his father’s art books while his father worked nearby. Ai Qing was released from labor camps after Mao died, just as Ai Weiwei was old enough to attend junior high school. He enrolled in numerous art schools and art programs abroad throughout his young adult years, only to drop out soon after starting. His early artistic output thus appears to be mostly self-directed, often evolving dramatically with little apparent reason. When he returned to China, ancient, odd artifacts captured his attention, but it wasn’t long before his art became almost completely politically driven. Since he and his father rarely spoke, Ai Weiwei’s fierce morality seems largely based on observation of his father. Ai Weiwei’s autonomy, brilliance and passion shine throughout his memoir, with minimal presence of ego. Beloved worldwide, this book convincingly depicts how he earned this lofty status."

Next, Kay recommends The Interim, by Wolfgang Hilbig. Kay says: "Beware, Hilbig’s gut-wrenching prose may haunt you for days. C. and fellow countrymen living in the German Democratic Republic after WW2 are expected to agreeably do their assigned jobs; after all, only those who experienced the Holocaust have legitimate reason to complain. Assigned to a prestigious factory job requiring almost no real work, C. fails, spectacularly. Demoted to lowly jobs, he finds time to write and publish poetry. C.’s poetry gains international recognition, and he is allowed to spend several years in Berlin and elsewhere doing poetry readings. He often returns the GDR to visit his girlfriend and mother, but whether he’s there or in Germany, he relentlessly tells himself he is worthless. Frequent heavy drinking exacerbates C.’s self-denigration. Eventually facing the choice of life in Berlin with one woman or life in the GDR with another, C. is paralyzed and confused, taking trains from one city to another, and finally in circles. The Interim is a dark novel by a famous German author, perfectly befitting dark times."

Finally, a paperback original from Graywolf, a publisher doing fantastic work in translation these days. Kay recommends Brickmakers, by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott. Kay says: "Almada’s novels set a quick hook that keeps you reading until the story is finished, and her books’ brevity make that achievable in a day. Set in a small town in Argentina, two families’ lives are irrevocably at odds. Clever storytelling slowly reveals the paths of two generations and their inevitable outcomes. A classic theme presented in lovely prose."

Madi Hill also has a paperback original recommendation to make: Tacky, by Rax King. Madi says: "I first picked up Tacky by Rax King because I have a tattoo of a green olive on my ankle, and it matched the cover so well it seemed kismet. Then I started reading through each nostalgia-rich essay, and it was like I time traveled back to the ‘00s in all of their cringing glory. King is unapologetically open about her connection and enjoyment about the things that even in their prime were considered "tacky." Her use of culture that we now recall with groans like Jersey Shore and places as Hot Topic are jumping off points for deeply personal stories about how such sneered-at things had a lasting impact in shaping her life. King's snaking journey to discovering and embracing her sexuality and past mistakes is courageous and admirable. A feminist, sex positive, at times philosophical collection of essays, Tacky lets readers reclaim those interests that are brushed aside as guilty pleasures and embrace them in all their gaudy delight."

That's it! See you next week with more great books the Boswellians love.

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