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Joel is a thrice-degreed English nerd, ergo the paper on his bookshelves vastly outweighs the paper in his billfold, but he doesn't mind. He aspires, sometimes, to be a Professor of English Lit., and to be a writer. He has published one piece of short fiction; you can ask him about it if you'd like. His favorite book topics are the degradation of the human soul (whatever that is), awkward family moments, and psychopathy. When he's not reading Russian or Indian novels, he enjoys quality time with his dog Albie, a gentle, if occasionally obstreperous, Labstralian Sheprador.
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I'm starting to realize that there is one real test to determine whether a book is good or not: unforgettability. I've read and forgotten some of the "best" books ever written (this is, in part, due to the fact that during my twenties, if I wasn't reading, I was probably furiously chugging boxed wine). But this book, in spite of the fact that it's short, is one that I couldn't forget even if I wanted to. And part of me does want to forget it. Part of me wants to unread the short, declarative sentences that describe an abuse so vivid and terrifying that you'll actually start to feel it. Part of me wants to unread the addiction, the manipulation, and the beatings. But part of me doesn't. It's a beautifully written story about the choices we make in small moments, and the choices that are made for us by people who are supposed to protect us. It examines the awful permanence of mistakes made hastily that can never be corrected. And how we live through these mistakes, even though it may be hard, and we may not really even want to. I read it in a day. I expect it to stay with me until the boxed wine does me in for good.
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Remember Jason Russell? Probably not. I forgot his name. I had to google "Kony 2012" to figure out who I wanted to compare Aimee, a character in this book, to. Remember Kony 2012? That largely misguided foray into international public philanthropy that America undertook, at least via the internet, back in 2012? Where we tried to save Uganda from overlord war criminal Joseph Kony by watching a Youtube video and admonishing the Horrors of Africa with punctuated gasps on Twitter? (Turns out we do that kind of a lot, and to what end we've still yet to discover.) This book reminds me of that whole Thing. It criticizes with such precision the idea that America and its phalanx of celebrity do-gooders can repair the world we've played a major role in destroying with money and positive attitude, but without bothering to understand why a situation has occurred, or how we might have played a part in its having occurred to begin with. But this fails to convey the true quality of the book. It's a novel about exploitation in more than one way, but it's also a fast-reading novel about a girl dealing with the problems we all face: weird friends, weird bosses, weird fathers, and getting caught, on video, doing something she'd never live down. Written with Smith's classic humor-laced tragic wit, it's one of my favorites of 2016.
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Credit goes to our book buyer Buddha and event manager Lauren for convincing me to read this book. And now I'm crediting myself with this attempt to get you to read it, because it is, in a word, ___________. (I can't think of a word good enough to describe it.) I almost got into a car accident in the In-N-Out drive-thru because I refused to put it down. The cashier looked at me like I was insane, which I was, temporarily, because this book is insane. From the moment I started it I clung to it like a vestigial fetus, and now that I'm finished, I feel, like the twin who survives by consuming its other half, indebted to it. It is an addictive book. It's hilarious and tragic. It somehow approaches slavery, "that peculiar institution," with both levity and severity. How could a novel about a modern day black slave owner be anything other than ironic, absurd, and fascinating? But it's more than that too. In spite of its complexity and brilliance, it reads quick, if you want it to, but my recommendation is that you draw it out as much as you can, because when it's over, you'll never read anything like it again.
In 2004, when Rick James said, chuckling sadly, that "cocaine is a hell of a drug," he was probably referring the role it had played in his personal life. What you'll learn in Saviano's book is that cocaine is responsible for more than just individual, emotional hell. Undeniably, cocaine is responsible, over many years, for a series of complex, now seemingly-endless sociopolitical infernos that have turned parts of Colombia, Mexico, and the United States into literal hellscapes of torture, enslavement, overdose, and a litany of other malfeasances practically unthinkable. It is with a narco's heart and mind that you must read this book. Benumbed, by the end, to decapitation, human trafficking, and corruption, you'll understood the book for what it truly is: a metaphorical cocaine itself - a record of cruelty so immense and depraved that it zombifies the senses. But much like with cocaine, you'll be compelled, like a bloodshot insomniac, to turn the next page, whether you want to or not.
Imagine James Bond jumping into the Vietnamese jungle with the cast from Apocalypse Now, only to be captured and treated like Winston Smith at the end of 1984, and you have Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize winner. Sad while witty, it presents the multitudinous experience of Vietnamese immigrant veterans who fought alongside the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war, people dealt a double-blow of displacement: exiled from their now-communist homeland, and rejected by an America they tried to protect during the war. At once philosophical and visceral, it raises especially relevant questions about politics, party loyalty, and the value and legitimacy of democracy at home and abroad. But it's more than just a revelatory war novel, or a contentious political novel. It's a novel about the deterioration of a mind relentlessly tormented and abused by racism, alcoholism, self-hatred, and the ghosts of its victims. Ultimately it's about the incongruity of being a compassionate, loving individual in a hyper-political world that dehumanizes all of us in service to an alleged greater democratic cause. A cause that, when you try to grab it, or even glimpse it, somehow always seems to slip through your fingers, to vanish at the last minute. A cause that cloaks depravity in sacred flags, leaving in its wake little more than nonsensical rhetoric and the dregs of human slaughterhouses.
Remember childhood? Managing lemonade stands, playing sports in the street, swimming til your eyes caught fire from the chlorine? Or maybe you're not from Arizona, in which case I'll try to hide my jealousy as best as I can. But in spite of potentially differing backgrounds, there's a chance we both feel the same nostalgia for youth that occasionally reading can fulfill, or relieve. Books often provide a beautiful, transportive experience. This experience is one of the chief achievements of art. It's truly wondrous. Ergo it pains me to inform you that you will not find fulfillment, relief, or beauty in this vicious, crippling novella. Or maybe you will - maybe you'll be struck by an unexpected nostalgia - if your dad was a druglord psychopath and you spent your days trapped inside a prison/palace where beheadings were as common as breakfast, and you were as concerned about extradition as you were about action figures. Fret not, though. Villalobos filters this atmosphere of terror and violence through an innocent, endearing little boy whose youth still facilitates the boundless capacity to dream in a world punctuated by living nightmares.
I don't care about plot. Plots are for the movies. Books need, secondarily, good characters, and, primarily, unique narrators. I don't want some snooze-fest of a cool-guy detective bragging about disarming bombs and bombshells for an entire trilogy. I want defiance of expectation. I want to view and understand the world through the mind of someone on the outside. Adam Johnson is perfect at creating these people, people who are both outlandish and real at the same time, people who can be kind, caring, confused, and evil all at once. Examples: former Stasi prison wardens, sympathetic sex offenders, drone-builders, UPS drivers, etc. And it's written in a style that is quickly becoming a personal favorite: the looong short story. They're stories you can read one at a time, in single sittings, that leave you fulfilled like a novel does, but haven't taken you a month to plow through. Compare them to good peaches: Each of them is plump, juicy, and delicious on the outside, and terrible and disgusting at their core.
If you've ever been punched in the face, you know that what they say is true: there are moments in a person's life that change everything. Before, you were one way. Then something happens, and afterwards you're different, forever. Reading Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a lot like being punched in the face, but because it's a collection of flash fiction and not a novel, it's a lot like being an amnesiac who gets punched in the face every three minutes, forgets, and has to relive the whole epiphanic, traumatic, sometimes earth-shattering experience over and over again. The impact with which Williams impregnates these stories - most of which are under two pages, some of which are under two sentences - is akin to an act of God itself. She expands small moments, diminishes big ones, and always reminds us that as often as Everything seems meaningless, there are an equal number of moments where Nothing can hide the most meaningful things of all. I caution you to avoid stories 15, 16, 23, 53, and 73 for fear of your soul imploding.
Most books are bad. Just go on [redacted] and take a look at how many books are selling for a penny. A lot of books are good. These books make us smile, entertain us (important note: we carry many of them here). Some books are great. These books are taught, stand the test of time, remain in print for hundreds of years, make great dinner conversation in more than one country, get translated into 60 languages. Few books are personally transformative. These books make you think, "whoa, my life is different for having read this." Even fewer are permanently transformative. These are the books that come back to you in misty visions on your death bed (see: the Waves, by Virginia Woolf). And the rarest books are the ones that have the power to be lastingly transformative to cultural masses. These books have the power to change how we live and how we treat people in the actual world, which in turn changes how other people live and how they treat people in the actual world. Shrill, by Lindy West, lives among the rarest category of book: the life-altering, life-improving (without being new-age, proselytizing self-help bullcrap), literary-political. You'll literally be a fuller, louder, better human being for reading it.
Put away your ballots for the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize, and the Pulitzer, we can declare a winner prematurely, and it won't even be close. (Picture pitting Secretariat against a bunch of three-legged donkeys with gout.) The sprawling chronicle of a Kentucky horse breeding family, Sport of Kings weaves its way through the lives of breeders, trainers, slaves, and horses with seamless arc and an unending depth of character. It's a book that reads like gambling - in consecutive breaths you'll be seething with rage and jumping with ecstasy at the continuous shift from despair to triumph. You'll be transported from the bucolic, natural beauty of verdant rural Kentucky to the hideous, stinking abattoirs of urban Cincinnati. Equal parts slave narrative, family drama, and living epic, Sport of Kings is the Moby Dick of the terrestrial American South. It is an unmissable book.
Blackass begins with a nod to Czech surrealist Franz Kafka, as its main character, a Nigerian named Furo Wariboko, wakes up transformed into (not a beetle, but) a white man. After the metamorphosis, the world of Lagos opens up to this pale, red-headed colorshifter like you wouldn't (or maybe you would) believe. The absurdity of the situation pairs well with Nigeria's colonial history, and the all-encompassing gridlock of Neocolonial Nigeria, which Barrett illuminates in full detail. His descriptions of traffic jams are so vivid that you'll start riding your bike to work; his descriptions of Nigerians kowtowing to white Furo and his ever-growing privileged arrogance are so painfully realistic that they may actually get your mind gears churning about the undeniable racial privilege still afforded to white people pretty much everywhere. But it's not all political satire - there are real characters in here too, and for all of its thematic complexity, it's actually a breeze to read. A novel about transformation and the varying freedoms or imprisonments granted by change, Blackass cleverly satirizes the color line by transgressing it repeatedly and mercilessly. And while the Furo's actions may be reprehensible, Barrett forces us to understand why it only makes sense for him to have done exactly what he did.
I have been waiting eight long and terrible years for a novel to be as good as the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The wait is over. I know I'm a little late to the party (A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize in October), but I would be neglecting my duties as a human being and rabid lover of Postcolonial literature if I allowed you to walk past this book without figuratively grabbing you by the coat collar and screaming READ ME READ ME in trite but completely justified capital letters. An anecdote about how good it is: We here at Changing Hands have been tasked with writing a review of our single favorite book of 2015, and I had one all ready to go to print. Now I have to delete it and start over because it would have been a lie. In actuality, it took until December 12th for me (unwittingly) even to start the best book I'd read all year, and I read the giant, wonderful, fascinating, historical, multilingual, murderous brick of a novel in thirty sleepless, frantic, more-coffee-in-my-veins-than-blood days and nights. A Brief History of Seven Killings. I can't say any more about it that it doesn't say for itself. Except one more thing: much like the still-living characters in the book can't, once you've finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, you'll never forget the name Josey Wales.
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Picture the brains of Leo Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez individually uncoiling, and then recoiling together to make a superbrain, and then injecting that superbrain with the slow-plotted, careful style of Cormac McCarthy and the mystical web-weaving of Salman Rushdie. Sorokin's The Blizzard - every bit as mysterious as its cover - is what you get. The Great Russian Novel meets Magical Realism meets zombie apocalypse in this newly translated novella of blunted surrealism. Featured are: Miniature horses that whinny like chipmunks; a drunkard the size of a milk jug who uses a pickle as a recliner; exotic drugs that make you hallucinate your own execution; oh, and zombies. But Sorokin's style is so devoid of heavy-handed fantastical description that it hardly requires any suspension of disbelief. He does what great Russians did before him - he makes the outlandish seem normal. He calls no unwanted attention to the strangenesses that live in this book, and they are more real, and more terrifying for it. Embrace the cold while it still lasts and round out your library with a novella that will delight you with a completely normal account of the completely abnormal.
I'm a big fan of creepy stuff, ask any of my coworkers. And there's a big difference between good-creepy and bad-creepy. Good creepy is that cold feeling you get when you read something unsettling and provocative, something that makes you question age old notions bequeathed officiously to you by conservative grandparents and overly-aspirational priests. Bad creepy is looking out of your bedroom window to see someone (other than your reflection) looking back at you. I've found that the best books contain some of both. A Wild Swan is 90% good-creepy and 10% bad-creepy. It's playful enough to trap you in a zone of comfortable creeped-outness, but just dangerous enough to frighten your face off. It also has that necessary quality that the frightfully uncanny must possess: after scaring your face off, it makes you stare at your own disembodied mug until you learn something about yourself that you'd never have known otherwise. You can read these faux-folk tales in a night, but that's mostly because (a) you won't be able to sleep after you start, and (b) you won't want to.
The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government (Paperback)
There's no denying that the United States has produced a lot of scumbags. Many of them are either actors or athletes, so their scumbaggery is largely irrelevant, if grossly lime-lit. Neither of these things can be said for perhaps our most incorrigible and unprepossessing of brethren, former CIA overlord and superspy Allen Dulles. Pull back the curtain on Mr. Dulles and the covert mayhem that took place at his filthy fingertips (endorsed Naziism, brutal torture, high-profile assassinations) from World War II to the Cold War. A great book for historians, especially ones interested in the secret and sordid history of the United States' subtlest of daggers, the Dulles-run CIA.
If you're anything like me (which, God help you, you aren't), you spend your New Year's Eve holiday sitting quietly at home, sipping a white wine spritzer or Sazerac, fondly ruminating over the best books you've read in any given year. This year, Franzen's latest, Purity, eclipses by far and away any other candidate. It's love, lust, and lunacy packaged in writing so clean and sharp you'll be almost surprised when you reach the end and discover that you're still yourself, and not one of the novel's fascinating, flesh and blood characters. Nobody captures character depth and complexity like he does, and the plot is as rich and unpredictable as any of the bestselling mysteries you read this year but that you'll never remember. It's one of those Big Books that will snatch a month of your life away, but will leave in its wake the recollection of a literary experience only an author like Franzen can deliver.
A near perfectly written, hilarious satire of German colonialism, and of obsession stretched to prolixity, Imperium is an immediate modern classic. It's severity smacks of Virginia Woolf; its style of Vladimir Nabokov; its subject of Joseph Conrad's foray into the dark, savage continent - a now taboo (as it should be) philosophical viewpoint that Kracht pokes fun at with the sharpened rod of his impressive wit. The full-bodied characters Kracht creates in such a concise novella is a feat outdone by very few, especially contemporarily. Perhaps you've experienced this with other books, but the moment I finished the last sentence, I wanted to start with the first one all over again. This is one you'll want to revisit both for its complexity and for its tragicomic brilliance.