Reviews

This is for an in-depth review of a book, this is not to be confused with the staff recommendations page.

Stoner (John Williams)

Stoner Cover Image
By John Williams, John McGahern (Introduction by)
$14.95
ISBN: 9781590171998
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: New York Review of Books - June 20th, 2006

It's rare to hear the word 'perfect' when a novel is being described. ‘Mesmerizing’, sure. ‘A tour de force’, absolutely. But perfect? This was the word used by Morris Dickstein when he described John William’s 1965 novel STONER in the New York Times Book Review. ‘Perfect’ was also the word that daunted me as I began STONER recently. I’d read many of the glowing reviews--some written half a century after its publication--but I was dubious. Would I see what everyone else saw? Well, I needn’t have worried; by the end of the first page I was hooked and couldn't let go until I’d read the whole book. STONER tells the story of John Stoner, an unremarkable midwestern professor of English during the early 20th century. He discovers literature in college and eventually teaches at that same Missouri institution. World War II comes and goes. Time passes unremarkably. Even Stoner, as a character, isn’t remarkable. His entire life story, which is encapsulated in a mere 278 pages, is almost without plot. Yet it is Stoner's mundanity, drawn with eloquence by Williams, that makes this story feel so true. There is no decorating the lives of Stoner or his peripheral characters, and it is this that draws the reader to them. Stoner has his faults, but he's so fully fleshed out that you finish the book believing that you intimately know this man. STONER concerns itself with the universal subjects that lesser books often shy away from: compassion, love, identity, truthfulness, hard work and faith in one’s own purpose. In straightforward language, it describes the year-to-year course of an insignificant life whose very insignificance illustrates the importance of each one of us.


Asunder (Chloe Aridjis)

Asunder Cover Image
$14.99
ISBN: 9780544003460
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Mariner Books - September 1st, 2013

Ever wonder what goes through the minds of the guards at your favorite museum? Ever consider what they think of the art that constantly surrounds them? Chloe Aridjis’ brief, strange, beautiful second novel ASUNDER does just that. Marie has been a guard at the National Gallery in London for nine eventful years, when suddenly, strange events and characters begin to appear in Marie’s life, forever altering its course. A meditation on art, society, women’s suffrage and mortality, ASUNDER will have you ruminating over its ideas long after you’ve put the book down.

“Painters create order from disorder, but the moment that order has been created, the slow march towards disorder begins again.”


Martin Eden (Jack London)

Martin Eden Cover Image
By Jack London, Andrew Sinclair (Introduction by)
$17.00
ISBN: 9780140187724
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Books - February 1st, 1994

MARTIN EDEN is one of Jack London’s lesser-known novels, but it’s also one of his finest. The title character is based on London himself, who grew up on the rough-and-tumble waterfronts of Oakland and San Francisco toward the end of the 19th century. At the time, San Francisco’s ports were notoriously seedy, populated more by pirates than by the seals and tourists of today. The colorful events of London’s life--joining a seal cruiser to Japan, participating in the Gold Rush to the Klondike, being an oyster pirate--mirror Martin Eden’s, especially his determination to become a writer. Despite his impoverished upbringing, Martin wants a life of the mind, to improve himself through literature. MARTIN EDEN is a surprising novel for those who associate London purely with his adventure stories such as THE CALL OF THE WILD. It’s the story of a man who strives to better himself, a classic underdog story that grapples with issues of individualism, literary fame and the culture of early 20th-century America.


10:04 (Ben Lerner)

10:04: A Novel Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781250081339
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador USA - October 13th, 2015

The first page of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 begins, “In what would become the opening scene...” It leads you to ask: is this the opening scene? Or is the opening scene coming later, after the explanation of the opening scene? Don’t be alarmed. This is merely Ben Lerner’s second novel 10:04, a fantastic, semi-autobiographical story based in the here-and-now, yet strangely other. 10:04 is knowingly meta-fictional, astute at playing with the different levels of reality, while still remaining a thoughtful and moving story.

10:04’s main thread takes place in New York City, following the narrator as he wrestles with writing his next novel after securing a six-figure advance for his second. He has been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening heart condition, and his best friend has just asked him to help her conceive a child. This is the skeleton of the plot--but there is so much more: discussions about art, tropical storms heading toward Manhattan, and a passage at a writer’s colony in Marfa, Texas, where the narrator (contemplating Walt Whitman nursing the wounded of the Civil War) consoles a young man who accidentally overdosed on ketamine. Lerner blends all of these disparate strands together seamlessly.

10:04 is a book of large ideas, of the unspeakable fears we all carry, of the notion that this world is fast becoming something too tragic to comprehend. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator writes: “I didn’t say that our society could not, in its present form, go on, or that I believed the storms were in part man-made, or that poison was coming at us from a million points, although all of that was to my mind plainly true. And that my mood was regulated by drugs. And that sometimes the language was a jumble of marks.”

In Ben Lerner’s hands this jumble of words makes for a compelling and startling novel. I’m already anticipating his third.


You Feel So Mortal (Peggy Shiner)

You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body Cover Image
$22.00
ISBN: 9780226105277
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: University of Chicago Press - March 19th, 2014

Peggy Shinner’s book of essays, YOU FEEL SO MORTAL, is a brilliant and engaging examination of the relationships we have with our bodies. Filled with sharp wit and good-natured wisdom, these essays consider such myriad subjects as feet, hair, bras, posture, plastic surgery and even shoplifting. Mixing the personal with the historical, Shinner investigates autopsies, athleticism, even her ‘Jewish feet’. 

What makes this collection so powerful is that all of us can relate; we all have bodies which are intricately tied to our identities. Haven’t we all at some time studied our own noses and feet--and eventual crow’s feet? Haven’t we sometimes desired different noses or eyes, straighter or thicker hair? When debating the notion of good posture as a reflection to our own morals, she writes, “We have a whole vocabulary built around posture; that to slouch belies, indeed violates, a moral imperative in our culture. Slumping isn’t just ugly or bad for your health; it diminishes your entire being.” She wonders if Obama’s infamous bow to Emperor Akihito of Japan in 2009--at nearly ninety degrees--was going too far.

Shinner’s essays stay with you long after reading them. By investigating the mechanics of her own anatomy, by peeling away the strata of her own physical form, she shows us ours.


Natural Histories (Guadalupe Nettel)

Natural Histories: Stories Cover Image
$12.95
ISBN: 9781609806057
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Seven Stories Press - June 16th, 2015

Quiet. Haunting. Surreal. The stories that make up Guadalupe Nettel’s collection NATURAL HISTORIES are subtle, yet they stay with you long after reading. The simplest way to describe these stories is to say they are about the relationships we have with one another and the animals in our lives, but that’s selling them short. Very short. Nettel’s characters are often found at moments of emotional distress. The way we act, behave, and treat ourselves in these instances says a lot about human nature. Is Nettel writing about human nature or animal nature? Or is she writing about the animal inside each of us? In any case, characters have epiphanies with the help of their animal counterparts. In “The Marriage of a Red Fish,” a woman witnesses the collapse of her marriage through the lens of a pair of Siamese fighting fish, whose fatal cohabitation reflects the actions of the husband and wife. Other stories are more subtle and perverse, exploring how the natural world dictates our lives. The English speaking world will be able to read her memoir THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN in 2015. Additionally, this November, Nettel was awarded Anagrama’s prestigious Herralde Prize, whose past winners include Roberto Bolaño and Álvaro Enrigue. I am excited to read everything by this author.


Daughters of the Samurai (Janice P. Nimura)

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9780393352788
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - May 17th, 2016

Three young Japanese girls of the Meiji era are chosen by their empress to learn the strange ways of Gilded Age America, only to return after ten years to a home they no longer know--“other to everyone except each other.” Such are the incredible lives of Sutematsu, Shige and Ume, lived on the cusp of modernity, witnessing the collision of East and West, tradition and progress, history and the future. A great nonfiction summer read--the perfect blend of history, culture, and women’s studies.


Blood Brothers (Ernest Haffner)

Blood Brothers Cover Image
By Ernst Haffner, Michael Hofmann (Translator)
$14.95
ISBN: 9781590517048
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Other Press (NY) - March 3rd, 2015

Despite the little we know about Ernst Haffner, it's clear to me from reading BLOOD BROTHERS that he was a brave and compassionate man, as well as a talented author. His novel is a stark, realist masterpiece of 1930s Berlin streetlife that also contains nightmarish elements of German Expressionism and features bureaucracies as strange and labyrinthine as anything Kafka ever conceived. Yet, what comes through the most is Haffner's supreme empathy for these lost boys, his desire to point out their plight. BLOOD BROTHERS is literature of social importance. It is a clarion call on par with THE JUNGLE--art meant to enact change for the greater good. Perhaps, in its time, it was too successful at this aim. Otherwise, why would the Nazis go to the trouble to burn it?


The Sellout (Paul Beatty)

The Sellout Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781250083258
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador USA - March 1st, 2016

The bravest, most outlandish, I-don't-give-a-f*** work of satire I've come across in years. Beatty cuts straight to the core of America's disastrous relationship with race and eviscerates the disingenuous notion that we are living in a “post-racial” society with the most potent of weapons: humor. Political correctness is nonexistent. The narrator is a supremely likable and complex character, even if he is a slave owner/segregationist. The laughs are simultaneously gut-busting and thought-provoking; you laugh and then contemplate why exactly you're laughing in the first place. Superb.


The Mersault Investigation (Kamel Daoud)

The Meursault Investigation Cover Image
By Kamel Daoud, John Cullen (Translator)
$14.95
ISBN: 9781590517512
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Other Press (NY) - June 2nd, 2015

While primarily a postcolonial re-rendering of THE STRANGER, recounted by the brother of the anonymous "Arab” killed by Camus’ anti-hero, THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION is also an unnerving psychological thriller, an absurdist origin story of (post)revolutionary Algeria, and a virulent screed against the nationalism and religious fundamentalism that have overrun Daoud’s home country ever since. Filled with vitriol and humor, and at times delving into surreal and metafictional realms that appropriate entire passages from THE STRANGER nearly word-for-word, THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION--much like the book with which it converses--is a slender novel, whose size belies its multilayered and profound content.


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