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Powell’s ‘Indiespensable’ Novels

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 featured-indie-73
‘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.’
329202263. 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 28815371
‘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.
181439777. 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 18428067
‘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?

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The Book Trail: From Yugoslavia to England

I am using a source other than Goodreads for today’s book trail – the wonderful Powell’s Bookstore, based in Portland, Oregon, has a wonderful website, upon which I have already made a wonderful slew of discoveries.  I clicked on one of their picks for August’s Women in Translation month as the starting point for this post, and am using their ‘Other Titles You Might Like’ feature for the rest of the list.

1. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska 28593020
‘Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roze to their neighbor Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts—even by their own family—the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?  At once extraordinary and quotidian, A Spare Life is a chronicle of two girls who are among the first generation to come of age under democracy in Eastern Europe. Written in touching prose by an author who is also a master poet, it is a saga about families, sisterhood, immigration, and the occult influences that shape a life. Funny, poignant, dark, and sharply observed, Zlata and Srebra reveal an existence where even the simplest of actions is unlike any we’ve ever experienced.’

 

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
‘A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.  It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.’

 

258527843. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
‘From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America.  In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.   Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality — and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.  Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.’

 

4. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
‘Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.  The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.  They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 16158542
‘For readers of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.  The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together — a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.’

 

6. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
‘From the #1 New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the disaster.  On May 1, 1915, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds” and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. He knew, moreover, that his ship — the fastest then in service — could outrun any threat.  Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small — hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more — all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.  It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour, mystery, and real-life suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to President Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster that helped place America on the road to war.’

 

104314477. Wildwood by Colin Meloy
‘Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. That is, until her brother is abducted by a murder of crows and taken to the Impassable Wilderness, a dense, tangled forest on the edge of Portland. No one’s ever gone in — or at least returned to tell of it.  So begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval — a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much greater as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.’

 

8. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
‘Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute she sneaks out to join him.  So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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