Welcome spring with this round of reading recommendations from the editors at Guernica.
Image from Flickr via Bruce Guenter
Guernica‘s staff on their latest favorite reads.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This short novel on boyhood and old age is told through the memory of a sixty-something year old man named Tony Webster. Riveting and elegantly written, Barnes asks and works through those questions that most of us struggle to adequately answer: what is the meaning of time, life, suicide, romance, and friendship? Though hackneyed themes in literature, they are uniquely meditated upon with sincerity, honesty, and clarity.
—Elisa Wouk Almino, Editorial Intern
A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck
A Monster’s Notes resists classification and summary to the point that the only way I’m comfortable reviewing it so briefly is to say it’s a prose-work by a poet and here are a few of its joys: (1) an introduction to the troubled and enthralling character of Claire Clairmont; (2) the diverse unexpectedness of the note topics: Earth seen from space, Marco Polo, John Cage, Agnes Martin, Stelarc, genetic privacy, leprosy, perplexity, time; (3) the acquaintance of a lovely, lonely, extremely well-read monster who serves as a sort of watchful presence in the lives of Mary Shelley and her intimates and then goes on reading and journaling across the centuries until he arrives at the present day—near-omniscient and still searching.
—Reed Cooley, Editorial Assistant, Guernica Daily
Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu
Conservative Hausa-speaking Northern Nigeria is not exactly the kind of place you’d think of as having a flourishing scene of lady writers. But, Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home, a novel by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, is the first complete novel written in Hausa to be translated into English. Yakubu is the founder of a movement so called “littattafan soyayya,” or “love literature.” Sin Is a Puppy feels like something in between a telanovela and a morality tale. It’s the story of Rabi, a woman whose husband takes on a prostitute as a second wife. When Rabi and the new wife quarrel, her husband divorces her and kicks her out of the house. Reading in detail about Rabi’s financial woes—Yakubu details the prices of school supplies for Rabi’s children, soap for washing clothes and dishes, ingredients to cook with for the food stall where she generates a bit of money—is like the Nigerian version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed. Ultimately, justice—of one specific kind—prevails as the community intervenes and the characters toe the line and do what is expected. But, not before Rabi’s husband is humiliated and she gets the upper hand. When he unsurprisingly falls on hard times and is scorned by his new wife, Rabi, “[feels] so happy she could have poured water on the ground and lapped it.” The novel isn’t ground breaking in rejecting social norms but rather gains its strength through demonstrating the subtle mechanisms that bind the community together.
—Glenna Gordon, Contributing Art Editor
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
In Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor—now sadly out of print, but available used—London’s past and present bleed into each other, and twinned characters appear like matter and anti-matter, floating apart awhile before uniting in a flash. The novel follows an 18th-century architect and a 20th-century detective in alternating chapters, as one uses his seven new-built churches to conceal a sinister plan, and the other investigates a string of unexplained murders committed in the shadow of the now-rotting edifices. If the postmodernist structure and themes have lost some of their savor, being many years chewed, the writing in the architect’s chapters is deliciously pungent as an antique cheese, with all the bawdy, squalid poetry you would expect from Old London. Ackroyd reportedly spent four months in the library of the British Museum reading every 18th century piece of writing he could get his hands on, and it shows in the gorgeous work he makes of his adopted voice: “My Mother gave me birth… all bloody and Pissburnt in the hour before Dawn: I could see the grey Bars of Light rolling towards me, and I could heare the winde which gives signal of the end of Night.”
—Olivia Gunton, Editorial Intern
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
Is Hopscotch about wandering wine-drunk around Paris talking to your compulsively philosophical friends about jazz? As much as any one thing can be. Is it about sitting heavy-hearted on Buenos Aires street corners mentally tracing the possible trajectories of your missing lover? In part. Does it involve literal acrobatics of a death-defying nature? Yes. Is there a big, beautiful, twisted metaphor for the children’s game played with chalk and pebbles? Of course. I initially tried reading Hopscotch on a plane. I recommend reading it in an environment where there are no distracting cans of tomato juice, and no possible instances of nausea. It’s a big, beautiful, twisted, unwieldy, labyrinthine thing. If you like sentient corn mazes, Hopscotch is for you. It’s the sort of story that by necessity is over-full of every important thing. Love and sex and death and being lost and being human and thinking of home. In the vastness of its cities and characters, it’s a veritable continent of corn mazes.
—Susannah Maltz, Editorial Intern
Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor by Michelle Kaminsky
A few weeks ago, I got an email from author Michelle Kaminsky, who works for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, where Brooklyn sits. She prosecutes domestic violence cases, and given some of my recent writing, she thought I might be interested in her book and volunteered to send a copy along. The slim, self-published volume (you can buy it on Amazon) is a treasure of knowledge. Kaminsky has been prosecuting domestic violence for 15 years, and her book is a case study in system failure. Using her past prosecutions—and in some cases, her own failures—Kaminsky shows how the system still fails abuse victims. Kaminsky is a lawyer, yes, but her writing is engaging, and she won me over in the preface, which is a near-confessional about her own biases at the beginning of her career. This little book is vital to understanding what support abused women have—and what they still need.
—Jina Moore, Nonfiction Editor
Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus
Guitar Zero is a cognitive psychologist’s memoir on learning to play the guitar in his late 30s. Detailing the ways in which the human mind can learn beyond “critical periods” in one’s life, Gary Marcus shares his successes and failures in developing his musical skills later in life, backing up his trials with recent neurobiology and psychology studies. Anyone who has ever felt they are too late to explore a passion will feel at ease with Marcus’s humility as he makes himself a fool to prove that brain plasticity extends far beyond childhood.
—Haniya Rae, Assistant Art Editor
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
Teddy Wayne’s first novel, the excellent Kapitoil, follows a Qatari software programmer in New York at the turn of the millenium. It’s a voice-driven, sharp, and funny take on the excesses of American-style capitalism. In his second book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Wayne shifts his focus from the business tycoons of New York to, get this, an eleven-year-old pop music superstar, the eponymous Jonny Valentine. Jonny, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Justin Bieber, is on the final leg of a make-or-break tour. In an exquisitely voiced first-person narrative, Jonny grapples with fame, a self-promoting mother, his burgeoning sexuality, and the social alienation that comes with celebrity, all the while digging through internet forums in search of his absentee father. It’s a charming, incisive counterpoint to the caricatures we see on TV. Plus, it’s terrifically funny.
—Ed Winstead, Assistant Editor, Guernica Daily