Staff Picks: The Babysitter at Rest

Fernando recommends The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George:

Jen George is as close to being a rock star as anybody who is not a musician can be. 

Her debut book is put out by the independent press Dorothy, a publishing project, which is one of the most daring, innovative presses out there. Every story in this collection pulsates with energy that is entirely original and fantastic.

Speaking as a person who never went to college, if I’m reading contemporary American fiction I’m foremost drawn to writers that didn’t attend an MFA program. Though I didn’t know Jen George was one of these rare specimens when I started reading this book, after the first story I felt right away that this author is something special and I rejoiced. I am grateful for the rarity of this collection.

I realize in a review you’re supposed to describe the characters and “plots” of some of the stories in the book being reviewed, but part of the fun of this collection is experiencing it on your own. Kinda like trying to tell somebody why the record Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs is a masterpiece. It can’t be done, you just have to experience it.

In South Texas the expression ‘throw you corner’ is used when somebody backs you up with something (example: You: “I gotta go tell that obnoxious guy to move his car.” Friend: “I’ll go, too, and throw you corner”). I can say that reading this book, you definitely feel Jen George is out there somewhere throwing you corner. And there’s not a lot of young fiction writers you can say that about these days. Unless, of course, they’re put out by the Dorothy project.

Choosing Wisely at Malvern Books

If you fancy treating yourself to a splendid new book but you’re not that familiar with indie press offerings—or you’re simply overwhelmed by choice—we’re here to help!

We feature information on a lot of our recent arrivals on our New Books page, so that’s a great place to start. And our In The Store page shows photos of our monthly displays, helpfully organized by theme (like our Short Novels display, pictured above). Our erudite and enthusiastic Malvernites also post their Staff Picks here on the blog.

And be sure to take note of our Shelf Talkers cards when you visit the store. They feature personal recommendations from our staff, often with a comparison to a writer you already know and love.

If you like Ursula K. Le Guin, progressive ideas, and innovative fiction, the Ravicka Trilogy by Renee Gladman is for you. (Start with Event Factory.)

If you like Kurt Vonnegut and the Wu-Tang Clan, you’ll love The Free-Lance Pallbearers by Ishmael Reed.

If you enjoy the films of Tarkovsky, grimness, and the fantastic, you’ll love the work of 20th Century Russian writer Andrey Platonov.

If you like the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Andrei Tarkovsky, then try the cinematic novel The Glacier by Jeff Wood.

And if you don’t follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@malvernbooks), you really should, as we post heaps of photos and info on new arrivals and old favorites, plus links to rave reviews that should help you pick the perfect new read(s)!

Staff Picks: One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin

Schandra recommends One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated from the French by Christiana Hills:

In honor of the March for Science that happened on Earth Day, April 22nd, the staff put together a STEM-inspired display of books by or about scientists, mathematicians, and doctors.

One of several titles on the display that I personally recommend is One Hundred Twenty-One Days, the debut novel of acclaimed mathematician and Oulipo member Michele Audin. Oulipo, of Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud fame, is a workshop of predominantly French-speaking writers and mathematicians producing literature using constrained writing techniques. This novel is only the second book by a female Oulipian to be published in English. Rendered here masterfully by emergent French-to-English translator Christiana Hills and printed by Texas’ own Deep Vellum Publishing with geometric cover art by Anna Zylicz, One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a posterchild for the representation of women in translation, STEM fields, art, and literature.

It is difficult to summarize the plot of this novel, primarily because the plot is more like a word problem only solvable through careful reading. And like a math problem, there is a great deal of satisfaction inherent in its completion. I can say that the book’s focal point is a community of scholars, mathematicians, and their families orbiting around the University of Strasbourg during the first and second World Wars. As Amanda Sarasien of the blog Reading in Translation expertly noted:

The daughter of a mathematician who was tortured and killed by French parachutists in the Algerian War, Audin is, herself, a mathematics professor at the University of Strasbourg. Not only does the University … serve as a kind of polestar for the novel’s various narratives, mathematicians’ daughters figure prominently as nodes where the orbits of these narratives cross paths. It is in those moments where a woman’s voice takes over the narration that the novel achieves its greatest emotional resonance.

Audin’s Oulipian constraints demand that every chapter find its own voice in the sparsest possible prose, in some instances reaching the extremes of nothing more than hurried notations. Each of these distinct voices sing loudly without overwhelming the choral whole. More concrete literary constraints showcased in One Hundred Twenty-One Days include purposeful alliteration, palindromes, anagrams, and acrostics, all of which, more because of their artfulness than in spite of it, go unnoticed to the casual reader. And where one might anticipate that these confines would limit such a book, they serve instead to liberate its form far beyond the traditional novel, oscillating stylistically chapter to chapter from a childhood in Africa told as fable to a scholar’s historical research notes to a reporter’s interview transcripts to the diary entries of a combat trauma nurse to…to…to… To borrow from Anne Sexton, “[Y]ou could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.”

The experience of reading this book is quite a bit like going through guided research or detective work. You might be reading a diary entry and notice a stray detail not immediately expanded upon. You will wonder why it’s there or how it relates to what has come before. Then, two chapters later, perhaps in an interview or an obituary, the detail’s relevance is made marvelously clear. Audin draws on the pleasure intrinsic to discovering the kind of monumental historical coincidences and improbable confluences of people and events with which this novel is fragrantly ripe.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a unique find for enthusiasts of works in translation, French literature, history, mathematics, psychology, mystery, poetry, and humanity (so basically anyone). If The Diary of Anne Frank or the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Lights We Cannot See speak to you, so will this.

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.