Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Anna Burns, Aravind Adiga, Brandon Taylor, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, William T. Vollmann, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Little Constructions by Anna Burns
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Constructions: “Belfast native Burns’s raucous, exacting modernist crime novel (after the Booker Prize–winning Milkman) skewers men’s incomprehension of women. After a young woman named Jetty Doe confounds a gun shop owner in a town known as Tiptoe Floorboard by snatching a Kalashnikov rifle and throwing a pile of money at him in pursuit of a crime of passion, shop owner Tom Spaders, already traumatized from being stabbed by teenagers in a mugging the year before, copes with the shock by blubbering to a friend about the woman’s apparent ignorance over the type of gun she’d wanted. The story then zigs and zags through a wild chronicle of the Doe crime syndicate and its core members’ immediate family, whose similar-sounding names—Jotty, John, Johnjoe, Janet, Janine, etc.—belie their complex, distinct identities (on Julie Doe: ‘This fifteen-year-old was older than her mother’s thirtysomething friend’). Burns’s narrator is a garrulous raconteur who drops in damning characterizations of men (‘Why couldn’t she be quiet and just listen and remain quiet even after she’d listened?,’ one wonders about his wife) while unspooling the freewheeling account of the Doe family’s occult superstitions, their quirky sensitivity to noises, and the bloody brouhaha that follows the arrest of several gang members. While the narrator’s digressive woolgathering will test some readers’ patience, the acerbic gender commentary tightens the slack. Burns’s fans will find much to chew on.”
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Amnesty: “Adiga (The White Tiger) briskly captures an undocumented immigrant’s moral dilemma over whether to help the police solve a murder or remain under the radar in this engrossing tale. After leaving Sri Lanka to attend college in Sydney, Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam quits school, loses his student visa, and fails to gain refugee status, but he stays in Australia out of fear for his safety back home, where he was misidentified as a Tamil terrorist. He sleeps in a grocery storeroom and earns cash cleaning homes and doing odd jobs. For four years he escapes notice by authorities; even his leftist Vietnamese girlfriend, Sonja, doesn’t know he’s in the country illegally. After one of his clients—Indian-born Radha Thomas—is murdered, Danny deduces that her murderer is her lover, a violent man nicknamed the Doctor. Danny knows Radha and the Doctor frequented the creek where Radha’s body was discovered, and that the Doctor owned a jacket resembling the one wrapped around the body. Adiga recounts Danny’s thoughts, memories, doubts, and hesitation as well as his aborted phone calls with police and ominous contacts with the Doctor, all within a single day. With nuance and vivid faced by a range of Asian Australians while highlighting the dangers faced by the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Adiga’s enthralling depiction of one immigrant’s tough situation humanizes a complex and controversial global dilemma.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Real Life: “Taylor’s intense, introspective debut tackles the complicated desires of a painfully introverted gay black graduate student over the course of a tumultuous weekend. Wallace, a biochemistry student from Alabama at an unnamed contemporary Midwestern university, discovers his experiment involving breeding nematodes ruined by contaminating mold. Though distraught and facing tedious work, he reluctantly meets up with friends from his program to celebrate the last weekend of summer. He discloses to them the recent death of his estranged father, who did not protect him from sexual abuse by a family friend as a child. Wallace is perpetually ill at ease with his white friends and labmates, especially surly Miller, who unexpectedly admits a sexual interest in Wallace. Over the following two days, Wallace and Miller awkwardly begin a secret, volatile sexual relationship with troubling violence between them at its margins. As Wallace begins to doubt his future as an academic and continues to have fraught social interactions, he reveals more about his heartbreaking past to Miller, building toward an unsettling, unresolved conclusion between the two men. Wallace’s inconsistent emotional states when he’s in Miller’s company can be jarring; the novel is at its best and most powerful when Wallace is alone and readers witness his interior solitude in the face of the racism and loneliness he endures. Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose.”
Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Living Weapon: “In his dazzling third collection, Phillips (Heaven) explores social ills while celebrating poetry’s ability to provide solace and sense during times of upheaval. Two prose poems anchor the book: the first, the standout of the collection, is ‘1776,’ in which Phillips imagines himself as a winged angel standing atop the Freedom Tower in New York City, observing the city below: ‘Lit streets run from it, electric arteries and veins. Manhattan’s never seemed so empty, so narrow, a pupil of a cat’s eye.’ Phillips imbues the book with the divisiveness and violence of the present moment: ‘We are all in prison./ This is the brutal lesson of the slouching century,// Swilled like a sour stone/ Through the vein of the beast.’ In ‘Mortality Ode,’ he narrates a scene in which several police officers enter a cellphone store and browse casually. Nothing dramatic occurs, but the simple presence of the officers conveys a tension born from the speaker’s subtle understanding that the police are a threat to his safety. In ‘Thoughts and Prayers,’ Phillips addresses the subject of gun violence directly, declaring that the refusal to take action to stop the epidemic is the real evil: ‘the end of endings; the death/ Of change.’ Phillips’s latest is lyrical, imaginative, and steeped in a keen understanding of current events.”
Home Making by Lee Matalone
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Home Making: “Rumpus columnist Matalone’s heady, lyrical debut overlays an adopted woman’s journey into motherhood with her daughter’s story of making a home for herself as an adult. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and French father, Cybil is adopted by an American couple in Arizona in the 1950s and eventually has a daughter, Chloe, who, in the present, struggles to make a home out of a sprawling house she buys in Virginia while estranged from her husband, Pat, contrasting their old house with Le Corbusier’s aphorism, ‘A house is a machine for living in’ (‘machines break, become defunct’). In spare chapters, Mantalone moves back and forth in time to trace the shapes of Cybil’s and Chloe’s identities through their relationships to domestic spaces. As Chloe wanders from dining room to kitchen to closet in her new house, she ruminates on the varied meanings of home, reflecting on her childhood and contemplating a future with her best friend, Beau, a gay man who glibly encourages her, ‘As the great sculpture of pirouetting steel, Richard Serra, said, space is material.’ In measured prose, Matalone draws out connections between past and present to illuminate the mother and daughter’s shared sense of ambiguity toward motherhood. Matalone’s cool reflections on art and architecture will appeal to fans of Chris Kraus.”
The Lucky Star by William T. Vollmann
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lucky Star: “Vollmann’s sprawling and provocatively playful novel revisits the sordid setting of his early collection The Rainbow Stories, where sexual desire shapes characters’ self-expression and pursuit of love, power, and human connection. A circle of friends is bonded by their relationship to a character named Neva, often referred to as ‘the lesbian.’ They meet at a San Francisco spot called the Y Bar in 2015, where they find support in their collective company and become a de facto family. Among them are the matriarch, a bartender named Francine; Shantelle, a transgender prostitute; the largely unnoticed hard-drinking barfly Richard, who provides florid narration; and the starry-eyed Frank, who has renamed himself after his icon, Judy Garland. Vollmann elaborately researched the tumultuous life of the real Garland, lending passion and credence to Richard’s extensive knowledge of the late singer. As Neva evolves from an innocent to an icon on par with Marlene Dietrich, at least in the eyes of the Y Bar circle, she guides and mentors their sexual self-discovery, helping define their boundaries and gain confidence. The Y Bar crowd’s otherwise static plotlines are tightened by the interweaving of their common experiences. Vollmann’s challenging novel is full of memorable moments.”
Also on shelves: Where You’re All Going by Joan Frank.
For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself teetering dangerously on the edge of a new and almost certainly expensive obsession with rare books. Blame Instagram.
As social-media platforms go, Instagram is the flashiest, the least reliant on text, and by far the most brazenly commercial, where it’s an open secret that every account past a certain audience threshold has long since been infiltrated by product placements and corporate-engineered hashtags. None of which is an obvious match for the literary world. But that all changed for me when I came across a group of rare-book dealers who use the platform not just to show off their wares, but also to sell them directly to their followers. In the process, these young turks are bringing one of the most inaccessible corners of the book world into the digital public square—and tempting me with $100 siren calls every time I open the damn app.
“The networking I’ve achieved through Instagram has been incredible. Way more than half of my sales are through there now,” says Jordan Brodeur, a mail carrier by day and book dealer by night (where he goes by the handle @sunlitcaverarebooks). Brodeur signed up for Instagram in late 2016, after selling for several years through eBay. He was also the first such dealer I fell for—his photos well composed, his titles well curated, and each post complemented by a dash of personality in the caption. So when I found out that we both live in the same northern Canadian city, I hopped in the car immediately to go see his collection in person.
Brodeur first got the collector’s bug when he spotted an unannounced first edition of Hemingway’s Men Without Women at a bookstore in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He loved the thrill of finding something valuable hidden in plain sight, and from then on kept chasing the dragon, teaching himself the ins and outs of the trade (and its attendant lingo) as he went. He turned to selling once he realized he couldn’t afford to hold onto every rare book he came across. And that meant going online.
Like a lot of analog industries, most rare-book dealers didn’t take to the Internet immediately. Ebay was the first place where rare books could really flourish online, but traditional dealers still held off, more comfortable selling through the mail, via catalogues, or in person at specialized fairs and brick-and-mortar shops. That landscape is shifting, though—especially in the retail world. “Rare-book stores are kind of rare these days,” says Kevin Sell, a bookseller and grad student in St. Paul, Minn., who goes by @rarebooksleuth on Instagram. “No one really goes into a rare-book store and browses for $500 books. Typically, the person who’s buying a rare book knows what they want. So they will look online, and find the best copy in the best condition at the best price.”
Instagram turns out to be particularly attractive to dealers like Sell and Brodeur. For one thing, it’s a free space to show off their wares (Amazon and eBay, by contrast, both take significant commissions on each item sold through their sites). There are also none of the barriers to entry that used to be standard for aspiring dealers—as Brodeur puts it, “apprenticing with some old codger who had you sweeping the floors eight hours a day.” And the built-in community element offers a continuous point of contact that other sites can’t match: once a user has found and followed an Instagram seller they like, they will automatically see every new post that dealer makes (well, in theory, anyway, non-chronological timelines be damned). And those followers might not even be collectors. Like me, they might just enjoy looking at pictures of pretty books.
Brodeur is not unaware of the possibility that his feed might be a gateway drug. “I have a lot of followers who don’t collect rare books, but see these posts and wish they did,” he says. “My mercenary intentions are not to get likes from people. They’re to get engagement from people who will actually buy books.” At the same time, he’s a hardcore reader at heart who loves to talk about his favourite authors. Instagram, then, is a way for him to scratch both itches: to talk about how much he loves William T. Vollmann (a particular favorite among the literary Instagram crowd), and to flip a signed first edition of The Rainbow Stories at the same time.
Age is a factor here, too. Sell and Brodeur are both 31, literal decades younger than your average rare-book dealer. They are naturally more comfortable with social media than someone who still prefers the charming inefficiencies of mail-order catalogues. Youth can be a double-edged sword, though; many of Brodeur’s followers are also young enough that they can’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a single book. “The exceptions,” he adds, “are always notable.”
Even though the Instagram community is still in its early stages, dealers are starting to jump in with both feet. Like Brodeur, Sell lists his books other places—eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks, Facebook, and at his own website. But Instagram is in a class of its own. “People are so much more friendly there,” Sell says. If, for instance, he were to list a copy of Atlas Shrugged on Facebook, he can already imagine the 100-comment firefight it would degenerate into. Whereas on Instagram, “it’s people who can appreciate the book for what it is: a monumental intellectual work that has a lasting influence today—with a really cool dust jacket.”
“Unbelievably friendly,” Brodeur agrees about the Instagram crowd. “Just so nice. I’ll post a book that’s a big deal for me, and everyone’s just so excited about it.”
As a hobbyist, Brodeur lists about 150 titles in total and sells on average a couple of books per week. For Sell, a comparatively seasoned dealer who’s been on Instagram since 2015 (and who later convinced Brodeur to join the site), those numbers jump to 300 and 10 to 20, respectively. Both, however, are chalking up more and more of their sales to Instagram. And both say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many new friends, fellow aficionados, and potential future customers they’ve met along the way.
Of all the ways Instagram might change the rare-book game, none is more important, as far as I’m concerned, than the way that Sell, Brodeur, and their peers have demystified what can seem from the outside like a dusty, impenetrable trade.
“My goal in life is to do something that’s considered pretentious, but not do it in a snotty way,” Brodeur says. “Just be a good guy. C’mon. You don’t have to be a snob.”
OK, I’m convinced. Now, about that first edition of The Rainbow Stories… is it still available?
I discovered Season Evans’ blog after she, a Philly native, gave me some advice about my new city. Now she’s come through again with a post about the best books she read this year:On the top of my list is Play It As it Lays by Joan Didion. The focus is so strong and so sure and so meticulous. Each time I read anything she writes, whether it’s a novel or an essay, I learn just a little bit more about the potency of precise narrative. The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio came in a close second for its succinct and arresting prose style. In third place is Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson because it is the book I wanted to write.Others:The Rainbow Stories by William T. VollmannInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceFicciones by Jorge Luis BorgesPlatform by Michel HouellebecqThanks Season!