Powell’s Books in Oregon, whose headquarters claim to be the largest new and secondhand bookshop in the world, is somewhere that has been on my to-visit list for around a decade now. I am determined to get there one day – perhaps with an empty suitcase in tow for a wealth of probable purchases – but for now, I have to make do with their website. Powell’s champion a lot of small, lesser-known books on their website, and launched a wonderful looking subscription club some time ago, called ‘Indiespensable’. I would love to sign up, but being in the UK, it is rather expensive. I have, however, made my way through their archive and highlighted ten books which I really, really, want to read, along with Powell’s wonderful reviews and reasoning for choosing these particular tomes.
1. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
‘With The Mars Room, bestselling author and two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner brings readers another award-worthy novel. Romy Leslie Hall, prisoner W314159, captivated us from the beginning, riding in a bus for female inmates heading to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, to serve a double life sentence. Romy’s life has never been easy, and she reflects on her time before prison, when she worked as a stripper at the Mars Room and cared for her son, Jackson. From prison she offers commentary on the minutiae of institutional life, studded with vivid characters like Conan, an extremely masculine transgender male; Norse, a heavy metal-loving white supremacist; and smiley Laura Lipp, the “baby killer.” Entertaining and thoughtful, The Mars Room delves into the injustices of the American prison system and the routine violence inflicted upon marginalized children and women in our society. Switching between Romy’s voice and those of her fellow inmates, as well as a dirty cop, a well-intentioned prison employee, and the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, among others, the novel creates a provocative mosaic of those living within and around the prison industrial complex.’
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
‘Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s sublimely creepy debut, draws on the lexicons of urban legend, the 19th-century British gothic, and American society’s evolving ideas about female corporeality to tell stories about women on the edge. Machado’s characters are subject to the familiar embarrassments, privations, and violence to which women worldwide are accustomed, but they ’re also privy to something else; in very different ways, Machado’s main characters share a consciousness of the enormity of the world’s brutality against women, whether it’s exercised through the condemnation of fat, the frequency of rape, the male gaze, the disavowal of female testimony, or campfire stories about bad girls getting what they deserve. In the liminal worlds of Her Body and Other Parties — positioned somewhere between 21st-century America and a horrorscape of breathing pavement and sentient dresses — an intangible, living darkness reaches out to hurt women, or convince them to hurt themselves. The dread this darkness inspires powers Machado ’s riveting short story collection, which heralds the arrival of a brilliant and incisive writer.’
3. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
‘From Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones, comes another timely and stunning addition to the literary canon. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward casts a careful, unsentimental lens on the most disenfranchised Americans. The novel traverses the Gulf Coast on a complex family odyssey, as the characters struggle to find hope and peace in a world that is unsympathetic to them. Leonie, a careworn waitress, finds solace in drugs and Michael, her white boyfriend and the father of their two children. Caught in the middle of Leonie’s quest for the “perfect” family are Jojo, her teenage son, and his toddler sister, Kayla, who prefer the comfort and security of Pop and Mam, the grandparents who raised them. Like Ward’s previous work, Sing, Unburied, Sing is raw and honest in its depiction of the generational poverty, racism, and regret that shadow this family and, more broadly, the rural South. Ward’s signature lyricism lends a visceral quality to her characters and their landscape, without evoking undue sympathy for the most troubled individuals. Sing, Unburied, Sing is an elegantly rendered, brilliant, and necessary reading of the American landscape.’
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
‘George Saunders’s writing has always been apropos of the current political and social climate, and though his theatrical debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in 1862, the modern-day parallels (and contrasts) are striking. The novel portrays a critical time in the life of Abraham Lincoln, who is deep in grief over the death of his son, Willie Lincoln. Disliked by the populace and presiding over a dramatically shifting country, Lincoln finds himself visiting the bardo — a Tibetan purgatory-like state — each night by returning to his son’s tomb while a gaggle of ghosts (including Willie) look on. Told through this chorus of spirits along with real-life and fictional characters, Lincoln in the Bardo turns our idea of the novel on its head. Yet through the fractured narrative, Saunders has created a deft historical tale that speaks volumes about our current unrest and ill-defined state.’
5. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
‘A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New Republic, and The Paris Review, Brit Bennett has never shied away from asking and answering the difficult questions when it comes to race. Her debut novel, The Mothers, is just as bold in its depiction of abortion. But the story doesn’t end with this polarizing topic — it begins with it, and each page gradually reveals the tangled lives and fates of three teenagers in a black Southern California community: Nadia Turner, an ambitious and rebellious teen; Luke, the local pastor’s son; and Aubrey, Nadia’s timid friend. Narrated by “the Mothers,” a chorus of elder parishioners of Upper Room Chapel, the story follows Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey from age 17 into their mid-20s. Bennett’s unflinching honesty in portraying these all-too-human characters (including the narrators) is something to be treasured. The Mothers is a beautifully reflective work about the decisions we make in our youth and their reverberations in our lives and throughout our community.’
6. The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
‘We’ve had our eye on Josh Weil ever since his first book, The New Valley, came out in 2009. The collection of three linked novellas won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earned him a spot on the National Book Foundation’s esteemed “5 Under 35” list of upcoming young authors. So we had high expectations when his new novel found its way into our hands. The Great Glass Sea lived up to — and surpassed — those accolades with its inventiveness, originality, and incredible story. Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future. We are happy to be partnering again with Grove Atlantic, one of the country’s premier independent presses, to present this excellent work.
7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘This novel tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a young German radio engineer during World War II. Whether he’s describing the locks in Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, the history of a notorious diamond, or the streets of a medieval French port, Doerr lends an expert’s eye to the details of the world he brings to life. But what truly elevates his second novel is how skillfully he uses each of his lyrical, evocative sentences, one after the other, to gradually reveal the complex inner lives of his truly memorable cast of characters. Abraham Verghese wrote: “It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion,” and we, too, feel absolutely enchanted by this book.’
8. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
‘When we read Matt Bell’s debut novel, our first thought was, Wow! Our second thought was, Indiespensable. Books like this are why we created a subscription club in the first place. We wanted a venue to promote those titles we would stake our reputation on but that might need a boost to reach the audience they deserved, hence the focus on independent presses, small print runs, and first-time authors. We’ll concede that this is not an easy book. It’s certainly difficult to describe, though Lauren Groff came pretty close when she called it “a big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away.” But it is well worth the effort. Once you sink your teeth in, we’re confident you’ll love it as much as we did.’
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
‘The moment we opened Anthony Marra’s brutal, beautiful debut novel about an orphaned Chechnyan girl hiding from the Russians during the country’s recent decade of war, we knew that for once our choice would be easy. Maile Meloy perfectly captured our experience: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is “both devastating and transcendent….You’ll finish it transformed.” One colleague was even more succinct, saying simply, “Gorgeous. Just gorgeous!”‘
10. Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
‘Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, and tensions arise with the school principal and the parents of his students, he faces the familiar urge to flee—a choice that forces him to confront the character weaknesses that have shattered his life again and again, and to accept the wrenching truth about the past he’s never been able to move beyond. A haunting debut novel, Bright Before Us explores the fraught journey toward adulthood, the nature of memory, and the startling limits to which we are driven by grief.‘
Have you read any of these? Have you been lucky enough to go to Powell’s before? Do you ever plan trips around visits to bookshops?