Phenomenal. Polish journalist Witold Szablowski blew me away with his deft handling of such inexplicable subject matter, one he recognized as a daunting prospect from the beginning. Yet, his interest in talking with those people who cooked for the 20th century’s most illustrious dictators propelled him to produce this incredible portrait collection. By allowing these chefs to characterize themselves in long excerpted quotations, and keeping his exposition to documented research and travel details, Szablowski authors the breathing room needed to separate these extraordinary figures from their extraordinary circumstances. After experiencing such sensitive and striking portrayals, it is no wonder that he is trusted to relay intricate histories. With another evocative translation into English from Antonia Lloyd-Jones, this work has made its mark on me.
With unwavering, ethereal prose from the first sentence to the last, C. Pam Zhang's debut novel immediately earned a place in my constellation of favorites. Set during the near extinction of the American buffalo and the opportunity to strike it rich with hard won nuggets, this is a story of survival, of family, and of metamorphosis. As dusty as any western, your empathy may lead to your want of water and food for this family, but your real thirst and hunger will be for Lucy and Sam, and Ma and Ba's story.
April 2020's First Editions Club selection. Signed bookplates available.
March 2020’s First Editions Club selection is by Mount Holyoke College alumna Katy Simpson Smith with her sweeping historical beauty The Everlasting. This novel incorporates so many elements I love about storytelling: seeing a landscape through different time periods dominated by different ideologies, a common object (in the case a fishhook) unconsciously stringing storylines together, and characters who have me invested moments after meeting them. Smith builds complete layers with her narrative components so you may see each epoch in its entirety. Do you know Humphry Repton’s Red Books? Much like these illustrated compendiums of what-is and what-could-be vistas, the reader can peel back Smith’s time-travelling overlays and set them down again throughout 2,000 years of Roman history. Signed first editions available.
"Est! Est!! Est!!!," proclaimed a 12th century bishop's servant of Italy's Montefiascone wine, making sure his bishop would stop and delight in this treasure on his travels through the region. As do I proclaim, "It is! It is!! It is!!!" of Quan Barry's magnificent new novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, effectively evoking scenes from The Crucible on the cusp of 1990's Danvers, Massachusetts. Barry's brilliant conceit carries through to the Danvers Falcons, the local high school field hockey team with just enough star players to fulfill the ideal coven and see them through to the state championships. Not a single word is without weight from this poet and novelist: with nostalgia (for my generation), sharp wit and societal angst for all, this is indeed a brew that requires sampling (!), imbibing (!!), and exclaiming (!!!).
Check out the NYT review by Tommy Orange from 2/4/20.
Gabriel Bump’s debut novel is that majestic inner blue cone of a Bunsen burner flame, containing all the heat and color of energy that rises steadily, powerfully, almost impossibly from an impeccable design. Gas and air and pressure ignited and filtered through a metal tube could easily be the source of disaster rather than something so beautiful and valuable. The source of heat and light in Everywhere You Don’t Belong is that other naturally combustible element called, “Love.” Familial love, passionate love, universal love, friendship love; Claude McKay Love. On Chicago’s South Side in the early 2000’s, Claude finds himself growing up with all the people and circumstances that feed his flame, as well as those trying to put it out. Bump infuses his frank storytelling with so much humor and kindness that the gravity of his message will flatten you on impact.
When you have eaten a freshly baked loaf of bread from any well regarded bakery, no matter how crafty a home cook you may be, you know there is no replicating that delicacy. So when I saw that Poilane had published a cookbook I thought, “How on earth could this be useful to me?” Glad to be proven wrong, the moment I started looking through these recipes I realized that Apollonia Poilane, of her world famous Paris bakery, is offering me so much more than ingredients and directions for the hearth oven I don’t have. From the table of contents: Morning, Breads and Breakfast; Afternoon, The Main Meal, The Art of Keeping Bread, and Sweets; and Nighttime, Dreams and Explorations; to the medley of colors and textures coming through these images you will think you have jam clinging to the corner of your mouth, or toasted flour on your fingertips. The new cookbook from Poilane is indeed offering you a way to create their delicacies in your home either by trying your hand at their pastries and breads, or putting together ingredients you know and love with their refined taste as your guide. While she has published several cookbooks in France, this is Poilane’s first English-language book and it is a gorgeous treat.
How does a Taurus text with another earth sign? With a fire sign? If Aquarius was a city, what would it be? How would you define a Gemini’s signature style? And more importantly, what zoadiac-kin poet has been chosen to represent the thesis for your sign? For those of you already familiar with Alex Dimitrov and Dorothea Lasky, known as the Astro Poets on Twitter and now on their own podcast, these approaches to explaining signature zodiac traits will not be new to you, but you will be thrilled with the extended access to their knowledge. The perfect text to have around for upcoming holiday gatherings, the perfect audio for road trips heading towards or away from those holiday gatherings; nobody is ever at fault for messages that come directly from the stars.
Deborah Levy takes perplexing notions of time and place, of perception and reality from England and East Berlin circa 1988 to modern day Brexit Britain. Levy’s object of attention and transgression is Saul, lover of rapture, vessel of mostly-good intentions, and victim of poor timing. What do The Beatles, tinned pineapple, and Communism have in common other than our new friend Saul? How about: fanaticism and exploited flesh? How Levy takes loaded cultural moments and connects them with the perfect patsy, neither unaware of the tenuous political situation nor unwilling to participate in it, is masterful. In Levy’s expert hands, my mind was heated and pulled repeatedly until it formed a brightly colored piece of taffy flavored: Possibly. What a marvel.
Move between 19th century Switzerland, the setting for Mary Shelly’s invention of Frankenstein, and modern day Brexit Britain, the setting for doctor Ry Shelly and visionary Victor Stein’s inventive love affair of minds, bodies, and souls in Jeanette Winterson’s latest work. While you will want to pay attention to every word, I challenge you to turn off your brain to the simmering questions of existence, consciousness, survival, and progress, to prejudices around pleasure, belief systems, and power. Only Winterson can choose the perfect literary touchstone to stage the ongoing struggle that is our aspiring futuristic society breaking free from those building block remains exhumed from the past.
I’m inclined to liken this book of essays to a tornado, but in power, form, and movement only and not at all akin to a violent path of destruction. What Leslie Jamison does with this collection is gather energy from a sky full of fascinating, expansive, evocative material and gradually focus more of these skillfully researched expositions on her role as observer and author, until she touches down to earth with the fantastical explosion of herself. Perhaps a better metaphor is a potter shaping clay on a wheel, because those realizations Jamison formulates about her own life and lives of artists and creatures -perhaps- of the deep are beautiful, unique, and substantial. I imagine a fleeting tornado from a safe distance is awe-inspiring, as are these essays, but you can hold a shaped, decorated, and stabilized piece of clay in your hands and take your time to admire it in many different lights. Audio book read by the author with both depth and distance, accessing the sincerity that comes through in her writing.
Check out an interview with the author on Libro.fm.
I’m envious of those who caught this live on the stage. That being said: stage, print, or audio, Stephen Fry does not disappoint with his juicy retellings of Greek Gods and legends. Ever the scholar and entertainer, expect well curated family trees and etymological asides amongst the beautifully illustrated text, the boisterous audio, or both. No matter what format you choose, you have chosen wisely; your understanding of nature and language will be forever sprinkled with a touch of mythos and delight.
“Trust” is the best word I can think of to describe the genius behind author Nell Zink’s work. She trusts herself as a writer: her prose is definite; her characters concrete; and her storylines carved without hesitation. She trusts her writing to be read, trusts her readers to grasp both the surface and those many layers below, or not. She trusts her readers to choose, see or don’t see the irony, the truth, the joke that is on you. These are the reasons I could not get enough of Doxology, Zink’s latest work shaking the world by its shoulders and asking it to face some facts. Centered on cultural touchstones of pre, during, and post September 11, 2001 NYC, a chosen family of white, middle class, highly intelligent people come together to make music, raise a young girl, and struggle to survive grief, loss, self-destruction, and self-definition in a recognizably fraught political climate. But those are the meagre descriptors, doing justice to everything covered in Doxology is the novel’s job. The gas pedal is fully depressed before Zink even allows you to buckle up. Trust her. She knows what she is doing.
In Madeline ffitch's absorbing, vibrant, and moving novel Stay and Fight, readers are introduced to central characters that by all terms of polite society should be considered outlaws, threatening the orderly and genteel structure of the 21st century's natural and human world: exactly the opposite is true. A sociological slam-dunk, ffitch illuminates with elegant simplicity in this story that love, education, survival, and respect in their purest altruistic forms are messy, misunderstood enterprises. Tidy, monotonous endeavors of classroom study and lawn care are exposed as developmental and ecological sterilization, not to mention the ever-present capitalism fueled resource mining of the land. It's land that is the punching bag here, and the pugilists are not the ones getting their hands dirty. How many people are trying to live conscientiously with each other, with the natural world they occupy, and what does it cost to maintain this rational intention labeled dangerous and radical? Ffitch has my gratitude for capturing this feeling and this fight (neither new to this millennium) so well in her writing, and for standing her ground and making her point.
This is my first exposure to Binnie Kirshenbaum and now I'm going to have to read everything she has written. Kirshenbaum writes with precision and depth, sharp wit and tender empathy, and out of nowhere in particular and every sentence/setting/moment emerges a colorful and tactile field of a story that is yours to experience. Rabbits for Food has Bunny, a clinically depressed fiction writer at its core and all the sadness that provokes and maintains her condition is crafted without pedantic pity or careless scoff.
Bunny, her friends and family, and hospital cohorts are wholly
presented without judgment and, therefore, accepted in their entirety. Layering emotional, relational, and sensorial explosions with the expended effort that is the daily maintenance of life, Kirshenbaum gives us this excellent novel, one that should not be missed.
Every moment in Stella Fortuna's life, her pre-life, and in between her deaths, is flawlessly constructed in this debut novel by Juliet Grames. Her writing brings all your senses to attention as you inhabit both Stella's idyllic Italian village upbringing, which is not without its terrors, and her stifling new world life in Hartford, which is not without its joys. I felt this story viscerally, and thought about Grames' brilliant character development long after I stepped away from the text. While she is forever seeking solitude, escape, command and control over her own being, Stella's familial tether is short and unyielding. And whether she likes it or not, Stella is the thriving root system of the Fortuna family tree; an intensely singular character readers will savor during each incarnation.
An atmospheric visit with Pico Iyer during one of his half-year-returns home to family and friends in Japan. His writing doesn't so much invite you in as much as it allows you to stroll and observe alongside him, an invisible confidant privy to his measured thoughts. While the visit encompasses both personal grief and ongoing struggles, neither his family's nor his privacy is jeopardized in sharing these events. Yet his shared experience is moving and feels very intimate. Read this whenever autumn feels like too many seasons away, or when you are in the midst of its magic and want to gather extra stores for later.
Isabella Hammad's characters are exquisite. Their relationships with one another, and within their own self-perceptions, are astute, fragile, and beautiful. Her writing effortlessly interweaves the complexities of culture and patriotism, love and communication from an Ottoman Palestinian's studies abroad in France during WW I into the base fabric of this novel. Tremors grow underneath the surface of the woven landscape, emerging and shaking Hammad's characters' inner and outer worlds into new versions of themselves. The Parisian offers an important reminder about “west” and “east,” interlopers, the dangers and lasting impact that comes from distilling cultural complexities into a tidy representation on paper.
“‘What sort of story? I don’t know what you mean?’
‘News story? Feature story? Community story? Sports story? Council story? Council grievance story? What sort of story?’
I consider this for a moment. Crime story. Missing Persons story. Family story. Brothers’ story. Tragic story. I press the green button.
‘Love story,’ I say. I cough. ‘It’s a love story.’”
This is indeed a love story. For the author Trent Dalton, who drew heavily on his own life for Boy Swallows Universe, the love in this story is given to family, to fate, to time. It’s the 1980’s in suburban Brisbane and teenage protagonist Eli Bell is surrounded by unusual circumstances that could otherwise derail the wide-eyed longing of a dreamer to love his life: his mother and her boyfriend are drug dealers; his babysitter and best friend is a 70 year old ex-convict; his father is an alcoholic, a recluse, and a stranger; and his older brother and greatest ally chooses to be non-verbal. But Eli Bell’s will to survive with his soaring love intact means none of that is going to ruin his universe.
Opting for the audiobook version of Boy Swallows Universe means that you are treating yourself to that sharp and sunny Australian accent, and a phenomenal performance by Australian tv and voice actor Stig Wemyss.
If you have ever been fortunate enough to see Louise Bourgeois’ work in person, I imagine you have fallen under her spell. Writer, gallerist, and Bourgeois’ friend, Jean Frémon has been entranced and more, and he has painted her portrait in a new novella, Now, Now, Louison, translated by poet Cole Swensen. I have just gotten access to an advanced copy, and am excited to begin. From the publisher:
“This brilliant portrait of the renowned artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) shows a woman who was devoted to her art and whose life was also that of her century. The art world’s grande dame and its shameless old lady, spinning personal history into works of profound strangeness, speaks with her characteristic insolence and wit, through a most discreet, masterful writer. From her childhood in France to her exile and adult life in America, to her death, this phosphorescent novella describes Bourgeois’s inner life as only one artist regarding another can.”
For a non-writer I put together words all the time for texts, emails, references, applications, book recommendations; communications on the written level about anything and everything, and I know they fall short in many ways. My final proofread of any composition, however short or long, involves side-glancing at the thing and offering a silent apology to all my language instructors before releasing it. Random House’s copy chief Benjamin Dreyer is in the business of righting textual wrongs and has some wise words for writers of every shape and form. Dreyer’s English has me laughing out loud and quietly thinking there is hope for me yet! Dreyer is the voice of authority here, and the only one who can challenge you to eliminate useless intensifiers or present his case against contractions in formal writing with The Flannery O’Conner Flowchart. Whether you are looking for instruction for or alliance with your writing endeavors, this is the book for you. Available as an audiobook expertly read by the author on Libro.fm.
I never know how it happens with Tessa Hadley's novels, but I find I'm 30 pages into the text after what feels like mere moments of initial reading. And in that time so much has happened with her characters, their complexities somehow emerging out of everyday events. Whether they are routine or extraordinary, as in Late in the Day, Hadley's characters are engrossing, provocative and her story-lines so well executed you have no choice but to be invested. Open, and just start reading!
Idra Novey sets her stage in a familiar-enough time and place. But as the story unfolds in Those Who Knew, that time shifts past and present, and that sense of place is increasingly askew, disarming. A quietly powerful novel told through alternating perspectives of an activist, a survivor, an outsider, a politician, a playwright, the Odyssey's First Editions Club selection for December 2018 is both commentary and question about a vicious circle needing to be broken. *Signed copies available.
I hear of a new Ottolenghi cookbook and I'm in awe; how can there be more recipes? I give in to the allure of the new Ottolenghi cookbook and I wonder why I wondered or resisted. As with all his cookbooks, I open to a random page and let fate choose for me. A ground lamb stuffed flatbread assembled here with tortillas, garnished with bright and pungent sumac and cheddar! That will do. Until I make my way through: Brunch; Raw Veg; Cooked Veg; Rice, grains, and pulses; Noodles and Pasta; Meat; Seafood; Dessert. Until I make my way through, simply Ottolenghi.
Connecting the dots on your mural of life? Wondering the why of the who and the how of the where? You must be a Murakami reader. And if you find yourself in the oil and water situation of driving a lot and needing Killing Commendatore in your daydream mix, do not hesitate to press play on Kirby Heyborne's narrated audiobook version. As far as Heyborne goes you had me at David Mitchell, but his repertoire is so vast you know him from somewhere else. Another time perhaps? Another art form, another story? Isn't that possible, Haruki Murakami?
That damp chill in the air means only one thing: you need Ren Behan's cabbage parcels with barley and mushroom sauce to warm your bones. Oh no, wait. You should have started with a bowl of curative sour cucumber soup made from your own fermented dill pickles. Delicious. Something sweet to follow? I recommend the spiced honey vodka, but if fruits are your thing there are other infusions to chose from. Yes, there are dumplings. And, yes: there is honey and rye loaf. Interlink prints on luscious paper that shows off the dimensionality of each traditional Polish dish Behan has made her own and chosen to share with you.