Staff Picks: Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Fernando recommends Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Roland Bush:

Josep Pla is one of those writers who was so prolific, whose work captures the people he saw in his day to day with such nuance, humor, and emotional precision, who had the talent of observation and getting into the heart of things better than most of his contemporaries, yet I find myself hardly ever thinking of him. Why is this?

Perhaps the title of this collection of stories, and that it clocks in at six hundred pages, makes this book kind of a hard sell.

Josep Pla was a Catalonian critic, reporter, and writer of fiction born at the end of the 19th century. Making his way all over Europe in his travels, he had front row seats to some of the biggest social events of the 20th century, and got to see how they affected everyday people. From people living in Spanish boarding houses, to French café owners, to dreamers in train compartments going into Germany, the moments Josep Pla witnessed in people are forever frozen in these little vignettes.

I will admit that upon reading the first story I had little interest to actually finish the book. However, something about the atmosphere and poetry in these stories seduced me. Perhaps because I am a sucker for culture-specific, regional works (like Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, or Letters from My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet), I tapped into the tragic human comedy and beauty in these stories. Now, I can say I am a reader devoted to the work of Josep Pla. His writing has only recently begun to be translated into English and I couldn’t be happier to discover more.

Book Talk: Becky Introduces Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation

Sam Lipsyte says “Deb Olin Unferth is one of the most daring and entertaining writers in America today,” and we’d have to agree. We’re very, very excited that her debut short story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, is now in stock, and we strongly encourage all you fans of fiction that embraces our “queasy, flickering, tender multitudes” to come pick up a copy today.

And if you’ve yet to explore the remarkably inventive, unsettling, and intoxicating world of Unferth, here’s a primer from our store manager, Becky Garcia, who discusses her first novel, Vacationwhich we also highly recommend.

Staff Picks: Inventive Impulses

Taylor recommends Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine:

I don’t know what’s already been said about this book, but considering the impression it’s left on me I would assume a lot of people have said a lot of terrific things… like ::: there’s such a warm atmosphere to this collection… elegant, dazzling, charming, tender, fearless… incredible control and craft, what lovely enjambment… an instant classic… I just couldn’t put it down… and really, it has become a book that I reread often. So many of the poems leave me slightly breathless, so many of the lines make me touch my hand to my heart. This book makes me feel less alone and/or ok in my sadness or optimism.

So what are we really looking at here? Just another book of poems in three parts from Copper Canyon. Just amazing cover art from Januz Miralles. Just a terrific title for a book of poems with terrific titles… I mean “Incorrect Merciful Impulses,” “Dear Enemy,” “Always Bring Flowers,” “Symptoms of Home”… yeah this book is solid and it hits on a lot of registers, like what it means to be alive right now and how we interact with history, which is sort of to say how we interact with death and those who have died and how sometimes we have to use metaphors because the pain of saying what we need is so great and how sometimes we must confront the sources of our pain directly and how sometimes we just need to feel human.

Even though each of these poems stands alone like a treasure chest of visceral images, snappy line breaks, effortless rhythm, inventive phrases and subverted cliches, the entire collection coalesces around revisitations of the sea, the sun, symptoms, fire, love and family. Not many books of poetry are for everybody, but this one is. I can’t wait for you to read it.

Book Talk: Becky Introduces Ken Fontenot’s For Mr. Raindrinker

Austin-based Slough Press has been publishing fiction, poetry, and essays for over forty years—and one of their most entertaining titles must surely be the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, by local poet and author Ken Fontenot. Set in the New Orleans of the ’70s and earning frequent comparisons to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, For Mr. Raindrinker follows the adventures of the indomitable Kent Soileau and his friend, balloon-animal-artist extraordinaire Mr. Raindrinker. Sound intriguing? Then have a listen to this Book Talk from our store manager Becky Garcia—and make a note to pick up a copy of Raindrinker next time you’re at the store (and be sure to attend our monthly Novel Night reading series for more Book Talks!)

Staff Picks: Hadlíz With His Trump Hair

Stephanie recommends The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz by Ladislav Novák (translated from the Czech by Jed Slast):

When this book first arrived at Malvern in September 2016, I believed there was no way Donald J. Trump would ever be elected president of the United States. He seemed so obviously a jester for an evil we wouldn’t let win. So when I started reading The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz, I saw the visuals of Hadlíz, with his Trump-esque coif, as a freakish prediction from the 1970s of Trump’s goofy-but-traumatizing presidential campaign and it made me laugh. Look at Trump as a slice of pizza! Look at Trump punching another, fatter Trump in the face!

But as I started reading the text and not just ingesting the images, the comparisons between Mr. Hadlíz and Trump lost their humor: “Clowning and dissimulating, he invites us to have fun with him. To make our forgetting even more profound? To easily get us under his control? Under no circumstances should we trust him too much.”

Now that Trump is in office, the accidental connections between Hadlíz and The Donald stand out even more.

Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press focuses on contemporary writing from central and eastern Europe. The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz (Twisted Spoon, 2002) is a combination of poetry, prose, and visual art, featuring twelve images created by froissage, a method author and artist Ladislav Novák invented to interpret crumpled paper.

Hadlíz is carved from the quotidian: an unused daily calendar gifted to Novák at the beginning of 1976 (a year before Trump married his first wife, a Czech model). Of Hadlíz’s genesis later that year, Novák writes: “Near the center of the sheet and in the middle of the creased lines there emerged a suspended figure in the original white color of the washed background. It suggested to me the title: ‘Mr. Hadlíz as a floating cloud (as an eiderdown).’”

The writings were composed sixteen years after the images, in 1992 (a banner year for Trump, as three Trump hotels filed for bankruptcy protection).

With his reliance on clowning (“Mr. Hadlíz of course isn’t just joking”); predatory behavior (“Mr. Hadlíz may be free but will she freely comply?”); and his own inner voices (“these voices are more than dim visceral whimperings”), Hadlíz With His Trump Hair entertains and terrorizes throughout The Transformations, which at one point asks, “What sort of age have we lived in, do we still live in?”

Hadlíz can be taken as a Trump figure up until the book’s conclusion, when Hadlíz shows emotional growth, something Trump has no interest in. We remember that Hadlíz isn’t real, that he is a kind of cartoon and therefore can have his easy redemption. But Trump wasn’t carved from paper and chance and is not a cartoon. Trump is real and somehow our president. “What sort of age have we lived in, do we still live in?”

Staff Picks: Necessary Silences & An Uncanny Monologue

Stephanie recommends 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu:

Yu uses poems by Collins, Oliver, Pound and more to skewer the original texts (and their creators) for their racist representations. “Often I run out of ideas / for poems,” Yu writes in a riff on a Dan Gerber poem, “but then I remember I am an American / and so can end my poem with something Chinese / and call it original, like that / ancient American railroad / built miraculously by silent hands, / helping me drive my golden spike home.”


Fernando recommends Amulet by Roberto Bolaño:

What can I tell you that you don’t already know? Perhaps it’s too easy to recommend a book by Bolaño, but this is the first novel by him I ever read. I bought it on a whim around 2007ish, after having witnessed his corner of the shelf at the local bookstore get a little bigger year after year. Finally I said, Who is this guy?, and picked one up. I will say now, after ten years of distance, that nothing could have prepared me at that time for Amulet.

This is a story about immigrants, about the government doing the unthinkable, and about resistance. At the time a novel like this was not easy to come by, especially one that was contemporary. It is narrated throughout the course of twelve days by an older Uruguayan woman as she hides in a bathroom stall while the army invades the university in Mexico City. She calls herself the mother of all poets and passionately recounts her life, passions, fantasies, and fears.

Maybe since 2007 Bolaño’s popularity has gotten out of control, but I try not to think about this when I consider one of his books as a work of literature. Though his longer, imperfect novels are certainly works of art in their own right, I really enjoy the impact and immediacy of shorter ones like Amulet.

By the end everything is devastating and holy, in a way only the rapture can be. Even if you’re in a crowded room as you finish it, you’ll feel completely alone, in the best way.