Bookseller at Ravenna
Theo is our most recent addition here at the Ravenna store, although it feels as if he's been part of our crew for a while now. He shelves the music, movies, drama, transportation and Pacific Northwest sections.
The aliens have already packed up and left as Roadside Picnic begins, but their brief and apparently pointless visit has left the earth irrevocably altered. And in writing this brief, beguiling novel of first contact, the Strugatsky brothers forever altered the terrain of science fiction; their book has gone on to inspire successive generations of artists and writers, most famously Andrei Tarkovsky and Jeff VanderMeer.
In my mind, the thing that really makes this edition essential for science fiction readers is the forward provided by another pillar of the genre, Ursula K. Le Guin. In a few short, pithy pages, Le Guin uses the numerous possible readings of Roadside Picnic--a parable of Soviet failure? a referendum on human intelligence?--to prompt a much broader meditation on the possibilities of the genre.
On a ramble through the foothills of a bucolic English past, a country priest meets Death. The two strike up a friendship, and Death follows the priest into town. What follows is a cavalcade of comedy and horror, a set of parables that explore humanity in all its hypocrisy, weakness and cruelty.
Unclay, which has been perpetually out of print since the 1930s, finds new life in this handsome reissue by New Directions. It's unlike anything else I've read: so wicked, so suffuse with cynicism, yet somehow still so funny, playful and poignant.
Chris Power made his literary bones as a critic, writing the long-running series "A Brief Survey of the Short Story" for the Guardian. It's no surprise, then, that the stories in his debut collection are marked by a quiet mastery of the form, as assured as it is unassuming. They tend to center on characters who could be described as searchers: travelers and tourists driven by mysterious motives, looking to cure some elusive lack in their lives. All this enigma rewards careful reading; the more you strain to understand these variously broken people, the more apparent the quality of the prose becomes. And as if all that wasn't enough, the book gets extra credit for having one of my favorite dust jacket designs in recent memory.
Ari Folman and David Polonsky's reworking of The Diary of a Young Girl is an exemplary case of adaptation done well. Polonsky's art is as expressive as it is meticulous; meanwhile Folman always knows when it's appropriate to break up and interpret Frank's writing and when to leave long passages intact, preserving their import and depth. Like its indispensable source material, this is a work to be studied and cherished in equal measure.
The stories in Friday Black are volatile, unpredictable concoctions. While reading them, I imagined author Nana Kwame Adeji-Brenyah as a mad scientist, mixing beakers with wild abandon: some societal critique here, a little gallows humor there, a dose of dystopian sci-fi just for kicks. The resulting stories feel just as likely to combust as they do to end. Adjei-Brenyah is among the most exciting new voices in fiction I've encountered all year, the heir apparent to Vonnegut and Saunders's tradition of dark, socially incisive postmodernism.
On a Sunbeam follows a girl named Mia and her crew-mates as they travel the stars, repairing the ruins of long-abandoned space colonies. This is the rare space opera that trades bombast for introspection, prizing quiet moments over flashy space battles (although there's a little of that, too). In both the story and the art, there's a warmth and humanity here that defies the coldness of its extra-atmospheric setting.
In the introduction to Blood in the Water, historian Heather Ann Thompson worries about reopening old wounds. Is it right to ask those who experienced the Attica Prison Uprising--the hellish living conditions of the inmates, their rebellion and the ensuing crisis, the state's violent crackdown and subsequent coverup--to relive those traumas? Can a wound be reopened that has, by design, never been allowed to heal?
A meticulously researched and expertly written account of justice denied, Blood in the Water is by turns a painful, engrossing, heartbreaking and enraging read. As this summer's prison strikes have illustrated, the wound that Attica represents is still very much in need of treatment. To that end, Thompson's book is an indispensable resource.
Reading Mark Beyer's Agony is a uniquely surreal and exhilarating experience. Beyer--a giant within the world of underground comics who once regularly graced the pages of Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine--draws with childlike abandon and tells stories (and jokes) like a man with a lifetime of suffering under his belt. I could try to say more about this book's bizarre charms, but the excellent introduction from Colson Whitehead does a much better job than I ever could. I'll just say: this is a book to tickle your funny bone and haunt your dreams.
Rachel Ingalls's 1983 novel Mrs. Caliban is an absolute gem that deserves to be read and reread. The story follows Dorothy, a woman whose suburban life and stagnating marriage are defined by boredom and touched by tragedy, who enters into an affair with an amphibious, humanoid sea creature recently escaped from a shady government institute. (The sadistic researchers call him Aquarius the Monsterman, but Dorothy renames him Larry.) What ensues is a cutting referendum on the sexist milieu of American life, couched in a unique blend of science fiction and suburban drama. Don't let the book's slim profile and unassuming prose style fool you; it's weirder, wiser, funnier and more crushingly sad than it first lets on. It's a quick read that will linger in your thoughts long after you put it down
In the skilled hands of cartoonist Tom Gauld, the story of David and Goliath becomes a downbeat and melancholy meditation on the human cost of war. Gauld’s retelling centers on a gentle-hearted Goliath, better suited to administrative work than combat, who becomes a reluctant bargaining chip in a conflict beyond his ken. Somber, quiet, and darkly funny, Tom Gauld’s Goliath is a testament to the power of visual and narrative minimalism.
How--and why, and to what ends--do we tell stories about addiction and recovery? Whose stories get to be about the troubled genius, and who do we write off as a fiend, a criminal, or a bad mother? These are among the questions Leslie Jamison pursues in her far-reaching and gorgeously written new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. Pivoting between memoir, biography, and literary criticism, Jamison draws on a host of sources (including her own experiences with drinking and sobriety) to interrogate the myths and the romance that cloud our view of the intersection of addiction and art.
Sean Rubin's debut graphic novel Bolivar is a great idea beautifully realized: What if a single dinosaur not only survived extinction, but made his home in Manhattan's Upper West Side, living off corned beef sandwiches and buying copies of the New Yorker from the newsstand each month? What if everyone in the city--except a young girl named Sybil--is simply too busy to notice their prehistoric neighbor? Heightening this playfully absurd premise is Sean Rubin's art, replete with a level of detail and visual wit that captures all the chaos and whimsy of city life. Bolivar will thrill readers of all ages, and its hybrid comic/picture book style makes it particularly well suited for young readers new to graphic novels.
The world Vanessa Veselka builds in her novel Zazen is a singular and astonishing literary creation: not-quite-satire, not-quite-dystopia, it's a world much like our own but viewed through a layer of unreality so subtle it's often indiscernible. Della, our protagonist, navigates a bleak and alienating urban landscape while two faceless, nameless wars (War A and War B) rage ominously in the background. Her friends, would-be revolutionaries of various radical stripes, have one by one begun to flee the country. Amidst all this, Della develops a habit for calling in phony bomb threats, a habit that threatens to become something far more dangerous. This slim novel is so many things at once: exhilarating, funny, frightening, beautiful.
Denis Johnson is one of those authors I have a hard time talking about without lapsing into absurd superlatives, so I won't even try to restrain my praise for his latest (and, sadly, last) story collection. The title story alone is worth the price of admission, and ranks among the best short stories I have ever read; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is as disarmingly funny and as sneakily sublime as anything Johnson has written. We are lucky that Denis Johnson, who sadly passed away last May, has graced us with this final masterpiece--it's as fine a swan song as any author could hope for.
The long awaited film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name has finally come to Seattle, making now the perfect time to read Andre Aciman's arresting first novel. Seventeen-year-old Elio finds himself gripped by an instantaneous and debilitating attraction to his father's summer guest, a twenty-four-year-old American grad student named Oliver, who has come to their home on the Italian Riviera to work on a manuscript. Unabashedly erotic and intellectually stimulating, Call Me By Your Name contains some of the most gorgeous prose I have encountered in some time.
Between her two latest books — this story collection and her similarly excellent 2015 novel Eileen —Ottessa Moshfegh has become one of my favorite fiction writers working today. The stories in Homesick for Another World are dark and unredemptive; they find humor in misery and relish abjection. They are peopled with characters riddled with shame and self-loathing, leading to bizarre and sometimes cruel behavior. They are, in short, probably not for everyone. But readers with a taste for the bitter stuff will find Moshfegh’s writing delightfully distasteful and full of surprising moments and incisive commentary.
Sing, Unburied, Sing opens with thirteen year-old Jojo and his grandfather, Pops, killing a goat for the boy's birthday dinner. The scene, like all those in Jesmyn Ward's excellent new novel, is beautifully rendered; brutal and matter-of-fact in its violence, yet touched with a mythic quality that elevates it, turns it into something more. Ward's view of her characters is deeply compassionate and symbolically rich while always remaining honest and naturalistic in showing how the intergenerational effects of racism and poverty shape their lives.
Rick Perlstein's Nixonland does something remarkable, similar to what was accomplished in last year's Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America: it takes as its focal point a single, familiar figure while also offering a panoramic view of a critical moment in American history and culture. The book makes an compelling case for the career of Richard Nixon, with all its caustic rhetoric and manipulative machinations, as setting the course for the next half-century of American politics. Perlstein defines the titular “Nixonland” as a place where “two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans." As for the man at the center of it all, Perlstein draws Nixon as a sort of tortured Richard III type: cynical, manipulative, and very much a villain, but not without a certain underdog charm. And while you might be forgiven for wanting to escape from our own noxious political climate, Nixonland will at least let you escape to a time when our leaders were just as malevolent but quite a bit more competent.
Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty is one of my very favorite works of criticism, an incisive and wide-ranging consideration of the aestheticization of violence across a host of media. Nelson excels at finding intersections between genres you never thought bordered one another; between criticism, poetry, and memoir, for example. And while The Art of Cruelty is closer to pure criticism than some of her more experimental books, it shares the freewheeling style and adroit attention to language that mark her very best writing.
In the near future, a brain-implanted device called the “feed” has connected vast swaths of the American population in a telepathic network, a descendant of the Internet. But while the “feednet” has allowed for incredible wonders of convenience and hedonism, it also serves to blind its users to the violence and injustice that permeate their society. Fifteen years after its publication, Feed is heralded as a classic of young adult fiction, and M.T. Anderson’s insights about adolescent life in a technology- and information-inundated landscape feel more ominous and prescient than ever. Marked by wit and cynicism (the good kind of cynicism), Feed is a wonderful introduction to the potential of science fiction as social commentary.