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Editors’ Reading Recs: New Year’s Revolution

These books won’t help you drop 10 pounds or achieve Inbox Zero, but they will remind you of the power of brand new ideas.

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Image from Flickr via Carol VanHook

Looking to turn over a new leaf in 2015? Start afresh? At the dawn of this new year, Guernica’s editors have put together a list of reading that fits the bill. Our staffers talk about their favorite books that turned over new literary leaves: here are some of our favorite innovators and genre-benders, books that overthrow conventions and build their own from scratch.

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The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin

“It was strange that even sex, the source of so much solace, delight, and joy for so many years, could overnight become an unknown territory where he must tread carefully and know his ignorance; yet it was so.” This is one of the many reflections Shevek, the narrator of Ursula LeGuin’s sci-fi classic, The Dispossessed, makes as he adjusts to life on a new planet, Urras, where social mores are as confounding as the decadent environment they flourish in. Shevek is a physicist from a dissident planet, Annares, settled hundreds of years ago by a communitarian society fleeing debilitating inequality on Urras. The lives of those on Annares are harsh—it’s a drought-ridden, dusty climate; the idea of a government-less society is no longer working out as founders had planned—but all are equals in the tasks necessary to keep the society going, from tree planting to child day care. Through Shevek’s eyes we witness the ravages of Urras’s profit-obsessed culture. Published in 1974 and bestowed the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy and National Book awards, The Dispossessed continues to feel fresh, continues to haunt with questions of how we perceive and experience gender, capitalism, sexuality, environmental responsibility, religion and citizenship. The gift and horror of The Dispossessed is LeGuin’s creation of new worlds in order to explore how various social ideologies play out. The book, even forty years after publication, astutely identifies the ways in which we have failed to achieve equality in the US and serves as a guide to imagining new ways to correct systemic injustice.

—Ann Neumann, Nonfiction Contributing Editor

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Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, trans. William L. Grossman

Insightful, incisive, and hilarious, Machado de Assis’s Memorias Posthumas de Braz Cubas, translated from Portuguese by William L. Grossman and published most recently in the US as Epitaph of a Small Winner, is a criminally under-read masterpiece. Narrated by the recently deceased Brás Cubas (who describes it as a “posthumous memoir”), Epitaph is half social criticism and score-settling in the mode of Dante’s Inferno, half wild, philosophizing postmodern romp. Composed of the dead man’s digressive reflections on his former life, and dedicated to the first worm gnawing at his corpse, Machado’s novel is as witty and insightful today as it was when it was first published in Brazil in—get this—1881. It was revolutionary at the time, been hugely influential since (Barth, Borges, and Barthelme, for example, and those are just the “B”s), and hasn’t lost any of its bite.

—Ed Winstead, Associate Daily Editor

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The Public Burning by Robert Coover

The plot of The Public Burning by Robert Coover sounds like a bad-novelist fever dream. First, it’s narrated by a non-robotic, surprisingly human form of that classic American fuckstick, Richard M. Nixon. Then there are appearances by two superheroes, Uncle Sam and The Phantom—the animating forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. And although the novel was written in the 1970s after Nixon was disgraced and living on his estate in San Clemente, California, the action takes place in the McCarthy-era 1950s, when Tricky Dick was Vice President and New York City was still alive with street life, diners, neon, women in furs, and men in hats. The book might be called carnivalesque, except Nixon & Co. are about to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving up state secrets to the Soviet Union—and they plan to fry the Rosenbergs right in Times Square. One of the first novels to include living characters, The Public Burning is about American bombast and how the “American Way” has nothing to do with “Truth” or “Justice.” It was written with ecstatic fury. It’s the greatest political novel I’ve ever read.

—Meakin Armstrong, Senior Fiction Editor

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Paper Doll Fetus by Cynthia Marie Hoffman

If the Mütter Museum were a book, it might be Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus. At once weird and tender, these poems combine religion and myth as well as science and superstition to provide a variety of perspectives on childbirth. In “The Protocol Speaks to the Mermaid Baby,” Hoffman writes,

[…] Open your eyes to the glare of the world. Your moist
amphibian eyes. You understand we must let you die. There is
little time and what has the world given you but flipper feet
so go ahead and flip. The incubator hums like a submarine.
Let’s you and I make a pact. I will be the protocol and you will be
the mermaid baby. No one must be anything but what they are.

These poems aren’t so much new as ancient, primal. And yet Hoffman’s surprising language makes them feel like a discovery.

—Erica Wright, Poetry Editor

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Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Long listed for the National Book Award for Fiction, this haunted and haunting first novel by The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle was arguably the most impressive, and certainly the most unsettling, debut of 2014. Its focus is the interior world of Sean Phillips, a reclusive young game designer whose face has been severely disfigured by a self-inflicted shotgun blast, the circumstances around which are deftly drip fed to us in flashbacks. Sean copes with his near-fatal trauma by creating Trace Italian, an interact-by-mail role-playing game in which participants must traverse the barren wilds of post-apocalyptic Kansas in an effort to reach a fabled safe haven. In the months and years following his release from hospital, the game develops a small but enthusiastic cult following that sustains Sean, both emotionally and financially, until an unhinged teenage couple decide to leave home and go in search of what does not exist. Creepy and poignant, macabre and melancholy, Wolf in White Van is a hallucinatory mindfuck of a book that will stay with you.

—Dan Sheehan, Associate-Editor, Non-Fiction

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The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

This book is about something old—on the surface, the life of the German romantic philosopher Novalis. But Fitzgerald’s novel gives a radical treatment to the idea of the fragment, or aphorism, the chosen literary form of Novalis and his contemporaries like Goethe and Fichte. Short chapters and bare prose echo the concise poetics of the fragment, but are given life by the rounder, richer flesh of Fitzgerald’s domestic novel. Wives, daughters, and servants are the main characters here, and Fitzgerald pokes fun at the solemnity of the German intellectuals, who are often drunk or high on laudanum. It is fitting that Fitzgerald herself was on the outside of the English writing class, belittled in the media as a dowdy old woman despite her Booker win. She gets them back through this irreverent, impeccably researched work.

—Bridget Read

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Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood has been the undisputed queen of Twitter for some time. Known mostly for her sly, surreally funny posts (eg, “Sext: I am a Dan Brown novel and you do me in my plot-hole. ‘Wow,’ I yell in ecstasy, ‘this makes no sense at all'”), Lockwood is also an accomplished poet of the longer form. Her latest book of poetry, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, displays her ability to weave together humor, pathos, and a sublime understanding of the natural world. In “Perfect Little Mouthfuls,” she writes “No nipples according to us, the nipples/ the brains of the breast, if the dolphins/ had nipples their intelligence we think/ would add up to more than our own.” “The Rape Joke,” a long, brilliant, and intensely provoking piece originally published in The Awl is also included in this book. Lockwood is a lyricist in such good company as the perversely transparent John Darnielle and the unstoppable David Berman.

—Andrew Rose, Editorial Assistant, Daily

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The Journals of Spalding Gray edited by Nell Casey

I have been craving Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy of late: that colorful, cinematic backdrop, Spalding Gray’s hand gestures and facial expressions and meandering, meaning-making plot. They serve as a model for what I wish I could do more successfully on the page: a living, breathing demonstration of why art matters, how art making serves as a kind of survival tool, or religion, or methodology. Gray’s journals reveal an artist’s journey toward innovation not for innovation’s sake, but for the sake of something larger. Making peace with one’s self in the world. On July 10th, 1968, he writes: “To be a good actor is to be good…to love to be whole.”

—Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Contributing Editor

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The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble was in her twenties when The Millstone, her third novel, was published in London in 1965. Told in the first person, Rosamund Stacey is a young, high-achieving academic whose parents instilled in her the importance of gender equality and female independence—a fantasy of privileged, liberal idealism that quickly unravels when Rosamund finds herself pregnant after her first sexual encounter. Suddenly cast outside of her socially acceptable existence, she fumbles with the realities of single motherhood: the moralizing, classist National Health Service, the unexpected reactions of her friends and family. The book reads like a long letter or diary entry, charting every thought and experience with studious precision. Rosamund is at first destabilized by her own emotional disconnect to the situation—the contrast of her scholarly aptitude versus barely knowing how to schedule a doctor’s appointment—and is shunted forward by age-old causalities that appear totally out of her control. While little changes in her daily movements, Rosamund’s internal and physical transformations push her to examine new forces and feelings, and to find meaning within them. Drabble has often said that her reputation as a feminist writer was accidental, that she was simply responding to the time and movement around her. But the focus on education, motherhood and the desire for a creative life are directly tied to how, within the chaos, Rosamund regains a new, untethered, rough-around-the-edges independence.

—Alex Zafiris, Senior Art Editor

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Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson

The best book on the stupidity of U.S. policy in Cuba is probably Jon Lee Anderson’s Che: A Revolutionary Life. Ernesto Che Guevara was a wandering Argentine doctor who watched, aghast, as the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz in a 1954 coup. That coup undid Guatemala’s nascent “democratic spring.” It did this in the service of United Fruit Company’s unmitigated right to extract profits—and it radicalized Guevara. “Radicalized” is a euphemism here for providing good reason to distrust, and even hate, the United States. When Guevara and Fidel Castro’s revolution set out to wrest control of the island of Cuba from U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, their movement wasn’t yet “beyond the pale,” politically. The C.I.A.’s number two man in Havana, William Williamson, even offered U.S. recognition to one of the revolution’s factions, should it succeed. But when these bearded heroes descended on Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959, Guatemala was fresh in Che’s mind. He cited it as he oversaw the trials of those accused of war crimes from Batista’s regime, hundreds of whom were executed. The rest, sadly, is noise. Cuban exiles or their ilk, men like Humberto Fontova in Miami, have been inflating the numbers of those tried, calling them “innocents,” ever since. Fox News has been happy to play along, while Anderson has disputed their innocence. Without justifying the death penalty used in the wake of war, Anderson has made clear how much the noise obscured, and perhaps even prevented, better U.S. policy. The U.S.’s long campaign to assassinate Castro, Operation Mongoose, could hardly have nudged the leader to do anything but tighten security and clamp down on dissent. No, it’s not all the U.S.’s fault, the biography makes clear. One perceives how stubborn Cuban and American officials did a Cold War dance that made the Cuban people, and their friendship with their northern neighbors, bear the brunt of the suffering. Policy created on American illusion has preserved Anderson’s innovative and exhaustive biography—as if in formaldehyde.

—Joel Whitney, Founding Editor

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