The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we thought it a good idea to offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature that will be appearing irregularly. We hope you discover something you like.+ Take Five (Dalkey Archive) by D. Keith Mano recommended by GarthD. Keith Who? This guy has written for TV and Sports Illustrated, which hardly explains how, in 1982, he came up with this gloriously funny, word-drunk modern mock-epic. Over the course of 5 days, filmmaker Simon Lynxx, in pursuit of a project called Jesus 2001, loses his senses…one by one. Recommended for: shaggy undergrads, lovers of Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and John Kennedy Toole.+ Fear And Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Grand Central) by Hunter S. Thompson recommended by AndrewI confess: I’m an election junkie. And though I’m a proud Canadian, it’s U.S. presidential elections that really get me going. So as we (and by we, I mean you) gear up for primary season, here’s a masterpiece of political journalism as the irrepressible Hunter Thompson chronicles a year on the campaign trail. You’ll feel like you’re back in 1972, rooting for McGovern, booing at Muskie and “Hube,” your eyes darting about in case the ghost of Nixon is spying on you. There’s lots of minutiae, but as with the best of Hunter Thompson, the devil’s in the detail.+ Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing (Routledge) by Terry Castle recommended by EmilyThis collection of essays and reviews, by turns deliciously irreverent (“Was Jane Austen Gay?”), devastatingly funny (the opening of “Women and Criticism”), and astonishingly poignant (“To the Friends Who Did Not Save My Life”), is a must-read for any connoisseur of literary criticism – and, really, any connoisseur of literary style or authorial persona. Castle’s masterfully elegant prose style, her irrepressible and self-deprecating sense of humor, and her shrewd yet humane readings of Cather, Colette, Charlotte Bronte, Austen, Casanova, and Lillian Hellman, to name a few, offer a new hope to those down-cast about the state of criticism, both academic and lay. Recommended for: aspiring Lady-Critics, despairing literature grad students, and belletrists of all stripes.+ The Dud Avocado (NYRB Classics) by Elaine Dundy recommended by EdanOriginally published in 1958 and reprinted this year by the wonderful New York Review of Books, this book follows the adventures and misadventures of young Sally Jay Gorce, an American expat in Paris. She drinks too much, wears ridiculous outfits, and sleeps with the wrong men – it’s like Sex and the City, but far smarter and funnier.+ Wheat That Springeth Green (NYRB Classics) by J.F. Powers recommended by PatrickJ.F. Powers writes about Catholic priests the way Michael Connelly or David Simon writes about homicide detectives – they’re all burned out, chain-smoking, overworked, borderline alcoholics. It’s for precisely these reasons that anyone, Catholic or not, can enjoy Wheat That Springeth Green. More of a bildungsroman than some of Powers’ other work, Wheat follows its protagonist, Joe, from childhood through the seminary and into his priesthood at a parish in Minnesota, where he has to put up with the new generation of sandal-wearing, folk guitar-playing priests. Funny, sexier than you’d think, and vaguely political (Powers went to jail for being a conscientious objector during WWII), this book has been a favorite of mine for years.+ The Horned Man (Norton) by James Lasdun recommended by MaxToo many novels take academia as their backdrop, but few break the mold as thoroughly as Lasdun’s 2002 debut. Amid inter-departmental backbiting, Professor Lawrence Miller discovers a bookmark shifted by a few pages in a book he’s been reading. Beginning with this tiniest lapse from reality, the unexplained events get weirder and wilder: is a vagrant inhabiting his office? is he a killer? This psychological roller coaster is everything I’ve wished Paul Auster’s novels could be.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
This morning the Guardian points to the shortlist for the National Short Story Prize, a British contest that attracted more than 1,400 entries. The point of the contest is to “re-establishing the importance of the British short story,” and as such there are some recognizable names on the shortlist to get people interested, including master of the form William Trevor and novelists Rose Tremain and Michel Faber. Also making the list is James Lasdun whose book The Horned Man I very much admired. The Guardian story has some very brief excerpts of the stories, and BBC 4 (one of the organizers of the Prize) has bios of the shortlisted writers. BBC4 will be broadcasting readings of the five stories from the April 10th to the 15th, a unique idea that is especially suited to short stories, and the winner – to receive 15,000 pounds – will be unveiled on May 15th. I hope they put the text of the stories online at some point, too.Update: Found some links related to the final stories, and I thought I’d share.”Men of Ireland” by Trevor was originally published in the New Yorker. James Tata writes about the story here.”The Safehouse” by Faber was discussed at Bookworld. The story appeared in Faber’s collection, Farenheit Twins.”The Anxious Man” by Lasdun appeared in The Paris Review #173. They’re sold out but Amazon has a couple of copies“The Ebony Hand” by Tremain will be part of a collection called The Darkness of Wallis Simpson in December. The collection is already out in England, and there’s a brief synopsis of the story at readingadventures (scroll down).”Flyover” by Rana Dasgupta is in the collection Tokyo Cancelled.Some thoughts on the story prize from Tim Worstall.