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Editors’ Picks: November Reads

November 12, 2013

A quarter-life crisis during Mardi Gras, the Soviet Union right after it crumbles, and the murders in Mexico in 1990s are definitely things to write home about. Or to write books about.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons via Wolfgang Sauber

Temperatures are dropping so bedside table book piles are rising. Or at least, they will now if they haven’t already.

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The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

A skillful blend of humor and philosophy, The Moviegoer tells the story of an eccentric New Orleans stock-broker going through a quarter-life crisis and looking for love over the course of Mardi Gras. Astute, and more than a little odd, the quixotic narrator Binx Bolling is basically a charming Kierkergaard drunk at Carnival trying to manipulate time and fight off malaise by repeatedly going to the movies and dating his secretaries. Full of gorgeous descriptions of the Crescent City and witty insight into the decay of Southern traditions, Percy’s prose is profound and perfect for some light, wintry existentialism.
–David Foote, Editorial Assistant

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2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Several months ago, I was talking a friend, an Argentine, who was surprised to hear that Roberto Bolaño was known and respected in the English-speaking world. You like his work? He said. You like the one where they kill all the women? Uh, I said. I like the one with the poets hanging around Mexico City. I like the one with the priest researching the effects of pigeon shit on holy architecture. Which is the one where they kill all the women?

2666 is the one where they kill all the women. I’m actually only 200 pages in, and I’ve only just really learned about the women. I’ve only been following two threads of several major plot lines to come, if the blurb on the back is any indication. Its one of those beautiful, intricate stories that moves very quickly and then pauses to be very true and contemplative for a minute, and then dips back into a greasy bar scene. It’s the kind of story that’s so good, so gripping, that you’re compelled to recommend it to friends and strangers alike before you’re a third of the way through. The women are young women, they’re women who go missing in the middle of the night in a remote Mexican state, and are buried in the surreal desert landscape. I can’t say yet whether or not Bolaño, with all his tortured and meditative male characters, is accountable to these women the way a writer sometimes can be, but I’m following his story deeper and deeper into a very frightening place regardless, because it’s the kind of story that requires the reader to do the legwork and the mourning, and to be accountable to what he or she will.
–Susannah Maltz, Assistant Publisher

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How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work by Megan Hustad

When Megan Hustad reflected on her early years in the work force, gripped by fears about how to enact the success she’d envisioned for herself, she realized she’d deprived herself of a helpful but unhip resource: shelves and shelves of “how to succeed at work” books.

Writing for a generation unwilling to pick up Stephen Covey or Donald Trump, and unable thanks to changing social mores to be as overtly ambitious in the office as they secretly are inside, Hustad has written, How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.

It’s a self-help job book for ambitious young people in their job, ant it’s wry, clearly written, and painfully in touch with the blind spots of the everybody’s-a-winner generation. Hustad slays the sacred cows anyone under 35 will remember from the cute-kittens-with-lame-catchphrases posters that hung in all of our classrooms. (“Just be yourself” is advice, she writes, that’s never “more useless, more beside the point, more potentially destructive than the very moment when you’re starting a new job.”)

It’s also quite possibly the only one of these books you’ll ever need to read: Hustad has read hundreds for you and calls in the great business masters—Andrew Carnegie and Dale Carnegie, Emily Post and (yes) Donald Trump—from whom the American workplace has been gleaning lessons for the last hundred years. She makes wise suggestions about when to self-deprecate, when and how to say no, and why you shouldn’t come to work with wet hair.

There are few books so well-framed, so clearly focused on the basic things that have worked for millions in their early careers, and will continue to work for those just starting, and so fun to read as Hustad’s book. In fact, I don’t need this book: I don’t work in an office, and after ten years on the job, I’ve aged out of Hustad’s target demographic. But it was just so damn clever, I couldn’t not read it.
–Jina Moore, Senior Editor

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

From time to time the reader comes across certain literary heroes such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gogol’s Poprishchin, or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, whose naïve dreams and troubled nightmares, and whose sense of sacrifice and self-preservation, invite the reader to lift the veil only to discover the shoddy and monstrous nuts and bolts that hold reality together. Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra is one such literary hero. His childhood dreams of flying to the moon take the shapes of both destiny and the absurd, and lead the reader through a sidesplittingly funny, yet deeply tragic, series of events. Published originally in Russian one year after the disintegration of the Soviet Union—at a moment when for that part of the world the moon might as well have been sold for a big wheel of cheese—and translated in English by Andrew Bromfield shortly after, Omon Ra is a novel as preposterous as the ideologies and drives behind the Space Race, and as perplexing as space itself. It bears all the marks of a classic, and it’s a read that makes you laugh and cry while you witness how dreams and idealism are crushed by the deceit and heavy opaqueness inherent in the machinery of the modern state.
–Eriola Pira, Senior Art Editor

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The Forage House by Tess Taylor

Genealogy is central to Tess Taylor’s exploration of American history. Her speaker doesn’t flinch from the confusion of inheritance, its pride and guilt. In “Ghost Limb,” a grandfather’s grandfather survived Pickett’s Charge, lost a limb but kept his racism. There are poems about Jefferson and his descendants as well as Jefferson’s slaves and their descendants. “World’s End: On the Site of Randolph Wilson” ends with a kind of confession: “Ancestors, I would undo this if I could.” The Forage House spans the continental U.S.—from Virginia to California, from inception to now—calling the reader: “May anyone who likes to mend, come mend.” For a sneak peak, you can read Taylor’s poem “World’s End: North of San Francisco” in the Guernica archives.
—Erica Wright, Senior Editor, Poetry

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