Staff Picks: Morrison, Marcom, Lethem, Frankfurt, Binelli, Seidel

March 10, 2009 | 12 books mentioned 2 4 min read

The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.

coverA Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by Edan

Now, Toni Morrison doesn’t need my staff pick (I’m sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she’s a contender for this year’s Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, “Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?” So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book’s language put a charge through me – I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.

coverThe Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by Anne

Like a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between “she,” the unnamed adulteress, and “you,” the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two’s web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom’s language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife’s ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle’s The Lovers.

coverThe Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by Andrew

Jonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he’s good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.

The genres aren’t new to him – his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn’t taken before – but it’s a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn’t wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem’s crazy world.

coverOn Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by Emily

A rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt’s unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long – somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a “crisp and perspicuous” account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.

And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: “The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.” And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.

For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt’s book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy’s mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.

coverSacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by Max

I’m not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed “ahistorical fantasia” (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here’s the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here’s the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli’s pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.

coverOoga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by Garth

Gertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author’s peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the “debonair” voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn’t work, but it does: “And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.” Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn’t that about sum it up?) I’m torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like “Barbados” and “The Bush Administration.” Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?

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  1. Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! is a very entertaining, inventive, fast-paced, and funny novel. I look forward to whatever Binelli writes next. I'll take him over Foer and the rest of the twee lit crowd. Oh, that's not nice. I forgot, you people don't like it when us proles get nasty and denigrate other writers. That being said, am I really supposed to get excited about James Franco's book of short stories that is going to be published soon? Is it okay if I don't read it? Or am I supposed to give him a chance? Everyone deserves a chance, right? Even Mr. Movie Star? I mean, he could have written the most innovative collection of short stories since Englander. Nathan Englander, right? Isn't he the one? But seriously, I shouldn't presuppose that an actor who has spent the last twelve years starring in television shows and mediocre movies has nothing to say, right? Would that mean I have a cold heart? That I am not a compassionate person, like DFW? That I don't understand what it means to be a fucking human being? Because if I undertsood what it meant to be a fucking human being then I wouldn't say something nasty about James Franco and his huge advance, right? Isn't this what we're all supposed to get past since the death of DFW? Is it still okay to write fiction after DFW, or, like Adorno, should we adopt a policy and write fiction again? I'm so confused. I don't want to read James Franco's book. I want to read John D'Agata's next book, Ben Marcus' next book, Kenneth Goldsmith's next book, Sam Lipsyte's next book, Lydia Davis' next book, Colson Whitehead's next book, Thalia Field's next book, Magnus Mills' next book, and so many more. But I'll read James Franco's book if I have to, if that's the human thing to do, because I want to be a fucking human being. I have two daughters at home, both of them under the age of 2, and I don't think that either of them should be raised by someone who is not a fucking human being. So I'm going to really try and be compassionate and open hearted and I'm going to start with James Franco. He deserves my attention just as much as someone who is not rich and famous. As a matter of fact, one could argue that he needs the attention more than anyone else, because he has really taken the time and effort to write a book and the nice thing to do would be to read it and give him some money. Right? Am I right? Is there something that I'm not understanding? Am I totally not getting something right now? Are all of my questions starting to irritate everyone, assuming that anyone is reading this, which I probably shouldn't, because the comments section is really not the place for people to come and ask a lot of questions. The comments section is where people come to make short, pithy remarks, or say something really nice to someone they know. I'm so confused. Someone help me. Someone help me please be a fucking human being.

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