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Editors’ Picks: Recommended Reading

July 23, 2012

Our editors highlight some worthy books to fill what remains of summer.

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From a celebrated Canadian “novel from life” to a “choose your own adventure”-type poetry book, Guernica‘s editors and staff weigh on on about the last, best thing they read.

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Leigh Stein’s first epigraph in Dispatch from the Future is from a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, a choice that doesn’t exactly scream “poetry.” And yet Edward Packard’s instruction, “turn to page 55” in order to “consider other options,” is an apt introduction to the energetic poems that follow. They often explore multiple options, as in the eight different poems titled “Dispatch from the Future.” Things go terribly wrong in Stein’s imaginative world, but these poems will charm the pants off of you with their irreverence, insight, and optimism. In “Eurydice,” Stein writes, “This book I’m reading says I should set one small goal each day. / Yesterday I got out of bed like there was no tomorrow.” How could we not root for this speaker? The same one who makes papier-mâché masks of her friends. No, doesn’t make, fails to make because they all end up looking like ducks and bears. These poems maneuver through various possibilities until alighting on just the right ending. The reader wins every time.
—Erica Wright, Senior Poetry Editor

I’m reading Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard and Frances Steegmuller. Hazzard is painterly writer, and no city deserves her virtuosity more than Naples, where she and her husband (Frances Steegmuller, who passed away in 1994) lived for many years. More familiar with Hazzard as a fiction writer (some of my favorite books are The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire), I was unprepared for the glowing sentences, the care in writing, that characterizes her nonfiction essays as well. After reading this I picked up her non-fiction book Greene in Capri and her writing there too made me sit up and pay attention. But the essays in Dispatches are far more personal than anything I’ve read from Hazzard so far, and Steegmuller’s essay—on being robbed, his nose mangled, and his reflections on the humanity and inhumanity of the medical profession—also provide a window into the lives of these two celebrated writers. But this window doesn’t show the usual salacious image of, say, a woman in her underwear parading about, rather they show something that takes more chutzpah to reveal: the workings of two brilliant minds on large questions brought about by seemingly small events, written with neither false bravado nor false modesty.
—Tana Wojczuk, Non-Fiction Editor

The last book I read is Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt. It’s the sequel of Making Toast, about the death of his daughter, Amy, which I did not read. I picked this up because I wanted to know how he made the premise work: In Kayak Morning, Rosenblatt takes his kayak out for a morning. Seriously, that’s it. But the journey is a beautiful meditation on memory, loss and language. The book is a patchwork of vignettes and musings, rendered in smooth, varied sentences. The emotional climax is Rosenblatt’s direct address to his daughter, which seems so private, even though we’ve been inside his head for a hundred-something pages, that you want to back away quietly. Thankfully, I am not mourning anyone right now, but I appreciated retreating into the quiet, calm space Rosenblatt conjures.
—Jina Moore, Non-Fiction Editor

The Keep by Jennifer Egan is a haunting novel—at once both gothic mystery and urban love story, laced with the kind of inventive twists and experiment with form that characterize her Pulitzer-Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad. The Keep follows two cousins inextricably linked by a childhood prank gone awry. Twenty years later, they’re reunited in Eastern Europe, on the grounds of a castle marked for renovation, steeped in paranoia, ghost stories, and very real familial ties. As the cousins’ stories spin out of control, the reader is introduced to a new narrative, a prisoner in a U.S. jail, who is recounting his own story in a fiction workshop, one with remarkable similarities to what unfolds in the keep.
—Michelle Koufopoulos, Editorial Intern

Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is getting lots of attention right now for being the new symbol of all confessional writing. It’s true that the novel is largely autobiographical and doesn’t pretend not to be, but that’s not what makes it so interesting and moving. The writing style and the subject matter—both incredibly, often uncomfortably personal—make the book feel like a conversation you have at a bar with a good friend when one of you is in the middle of a crisis: you spend some time recounting minutiae but you’re really trying to figure out what you want your life to be like and how you might make yourself better. And, like a good bar/crisis talk, the book is very funny, and often raunchy. The book’s center of gravity is Sheila’s love for her best friend, Margaux, and it gives an honest, insightful, completely un-cheesy picture of the messiness and work that goes with being truly great friends.
—Rachel Riederer, Guernica Daily Editor

I’m reading Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation. I recommend it for non-fiction lovers because Tom’s knack for pointing out serendipitous moments in creative lives makes everything feel within reach if you will it.
—Haniya Rae, Assistant Art Editor

I just finished a week at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop (an terrific experience), where the theme this year was generosity, in one’s writing, in one’s listening, in the appreciation of others, and of course, in one’s life. Coincidentally I was reading Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? during that week, a book that offers an openness of self and exploration of 21st-century female identity, without being heavy handed or didactic. Heti’s writing is clear, inviting, brashly sexual, often hilarious and true in its messiness. We’re all a little more frayed than we care to admit, which is why How Should A Person Be? feels like listening to a pal who delightfully toes that thin line between being an oversharer and seductive enigma.
—Christine Larusso, Assistant Publisher

Cathy Park Hong’s tripartite collection of poems about past, present and future is summed up perfectly by its title: Engine Empire. The first sequence is a Western narrative about a band of 19th century outlaws travelling across California with Jim, a half-Indian sharpshooter they captured. The second, Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown! is about the industrial revolution of contemporary China and the push-pull magnetism of urban migration. The last sequence is Hong’s most speculative and inventive, hinged on her vision of a future in which all data is instantly shared and instantly accessible. At the core of these sequences is the common theme of exceptionalism (19th century America, contemporary China, and the oncoming digital utopia she foretells): empire, as it were, and the human engines which drive them forward. It is a compelling bird’s-eye view of time. Daring as her poetic vision is, it is also essentially powered by her knack for language and vernacular: both rude and elegiac at the same time, she pulls out such lines as ‘he sucked us inside his fevered innards:/a cloudburst of a horse rising to a stolen remuda’ before following up with ‘Git out he cried yet we were boiled/inside him’. We are equally unable to extricate ourselves from her universe.’
—Goh Li Sian, Editorial Intern

Michael Martone’s latest, Four for a Quarter, fits the bill if you’ve got any interest in formal experimentation in fiction. If you’re not familiar with Martone and his quirkiness, here’s an example: He recently, and not without some controversy, published a piece in Fugue that consisted exclusively of footnotes dropped into the other contributors’ work (You can find the subsequent outrage here). Four for a Quarter is a series of short fictions, all arranged and constructed around the number four. The Four Corners. Four Fifth Beatles. Sex Lives of the Fantastic Four. The “I” States (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Idaho). Mount Rushmore. Some of the stories are affecting, some funny, some a little obtuse, but it’s always a pleasure to see a master at play and Martone’s talent for this kind of unconventional structure has few equals. I also suggest Martone’s earlier Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, which is exactly what it sounds like.
—Ed Winstead, Guernica Daily Editorial Assistant

Tree of Smoke, Dennis Johnson’s heavyweight winner of the 2007 National Book Award, is a sad and soulful ride through Vietnam in the years preceding and during the war. Skip Sands, a Psy Ops officer, is fighting the Vietcong as the jungles teem with missionaries strayed from their mission, budding terrorists and senseless displacement. Lost too are the Houston brothers, who carry us between Southeast Asia and the Arizona desert. Unpredictable and—at 702 pages—dauntingly long, the work still reads as an unfaltering masterpiece, contending with Big Issues (military intelligence; patriotic duty), Big Themes (the frailty and strength of the human psyche; the strange logic and illogic of war) and Big Questions (where is god in our hideous dramas and what god is that?) The pages rush with revelation, even as apocalypse gathers in the margins.
—Katherine Rowland, Editorial Intern

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