Staff Picks: The Musical Brain

Fernando recommends The Musical Brain and Other Stories by César Aira:

This is the first collection of short stories by the Argentine writer César Aira available in English. To say that nobody writes a story like Aira is an understatement—in a publishing world with a dearth of prolific writers of anarchic, surrealist, fearless fiction, his work comes as a relief for readers thirsty for the healthy unknown.

These stories actually feel more like surrealist paintings at times, or like complex art installations taking up an entire room. Even when a story starts off as an innocent childhood memory, however pastoral, it quickly unravels itself into a complex landscape. For instance, in one of these stories titled “The Infinite,” Aira recalls a game he had as a boy with a friend where one would say a number, then the other would say a higher number, and so on until they reached the highest number they possibly could until infinity. Or infinity times two. Or infinity times infinity. Or infinity times infinity times two.

In another story, the Mona Lisa melts into a thousand drops to finally leave the gallery and experience a sense of adventure. One of the drops starts a factory in Japan, while another starts an ad agency. Another has an intense sexual identity crisis, and eventually comes to own its individuality, while the other drops have their own unique experiences.

The best writers are the ones who puncture the yolk of what you thought storytelling could be. Aira’s work definitely does that, and it joins ranks with other great Argentine writers like Silvina Ocampo, Bioy Casares, and, yes, Borges. Every story in this collection is like a simple equation that ends up taking the entire chalkboard before you get to the end.

Staff Picks: Potted Meat

Kelsey recommends the novel Potted Meat by Steven Dunn:

Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2017) will make you take a beat. You will use this beat to think about everything and then nothing at all. His words will conjure up from the pit of your stomach things you try to ignore. Meaty bits, fuzzy beats. Hurtful things. It is an extraordinary book.

Potted Meat is a novel separated into three acts—Lift Tab, Peel Back, Enjoy Contents. Each act contains a series of vignettes that chronicle the life of a boy living in a small, southern town in West Virginia. These vignettes showcase a wide range of humanness—everywhere and in between from experiencing emotional and physical abuse by the hand of your family, to the flutter of being young and seen. There are silences in these traumas, and Dunn plays widely in this space.

Some of the most poignant examples of these silences in the novel occur after conversations between the narrator and his sister.

She says, If you actually found love what would you do with it.
That’s a stupid question.
No it aint, she says. Just answer it. What would you do with love.

The body and survival are important characters in Potted Meat, but love finds its way in and creates the silences in the novel that ring most crucial. Love is heavily juxtaposed in this novel with pain—sometimes these two things become inextricable. Familial boundaries, racial boundaries, physical boundaries are all pushed and pulled. Dunn flexes his talent for this movement using a voice sensitive to the visual.

On the narrator’s “Usual Route,”

Draped across the tops of three trash cans are large bouquets of funeral flowers, wilted off-white and droopy pink roses buried in full deep green leaves. The sun peeks over the mountains, rays poking through fog, tinting everything soft yellow.

A stunning experiment of the economy of words and space, coupled as a masterful example of visceral imagery, Steven Dunn presents us a contemporary bildungsroman that we should read, re-read, and cherish. Potted Meat is a novel of great power and importance.

Staff Picks: Hackers

Swedish poetry aficionado Taylor Jacob Pate recommends Aase Berg’s seventh collection, Hackers:

THERE IS A THREAT
THERE IS A FEMALE FREEDOM
THERE IS A WAR & THERE ARE WAR MACHINES
THERE IS A HYBRIDITY
        RABBIT
        HORSE
        MUD
        BLOOD
        BIRD
THERE IS A WAY IN
THERE IS A TRAP

Just lean back / and come along for the ride
The alternative ending / slits its own throat

A puzzling thrashing dance
Playful, perhaps, at moments
Not tangle, a direct spiral, like sutures
If: you have to ask/Then: who is the parasite

to hack: to chop: to cut: to hollow: to hew: to cleave: to cleft: to groove: to gap: to slice: to split: to sever: to bore: to notch: to gash: to crash: to assail: to breach: to invade: to incise: to infest: to impale: to crack: to drill: to puncture: to pierce: to ax: to jag: to open

to open
to open
    open

this book is piercing/quiet    this book is angry/music    this book is hyper/active    ANONYMITY IS NOT THE SAME AS NAMELESSNESS    this book is a survival/code now is the war of the worlds    now everything is electronic    this book is not/propaganda    this book is a mirror: you are an animal body      too              ARE YOU HOLLOW    this book is a dark/lamp    this book is biological/theater: the players are the bodies with & without names: the bodies are no longer empty: full of  full of    full    this book is a flood/body/belly/before before    this book is a ghost/algorithm     there are three ways of handling danger        Fight: playing dead is not the same thing as being dead

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.

Staff Picks: Fasting for Ramadan

Taylor recommends Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali:

How do we define family? Traditions? Vacations? Shared Meals? Shared beliefs? How do we draw the line between faith & understanding? Food & body? The SuperNatural & anxiety? What makes words into poetry? Is it the not letting go? Is it the rain? Or lack thereof?

This book in its most simple form is a diary. OR> An exploration of exploration. OR> Experiencing an experience. OR> Can we be forgotten? OR> Once I met a man who I was sure was me myself but also him himself & that, though we had never met, had never seen one another, had always been separated, we had never been separate. OR> I never sleep because night is when I eat. OR> Maybe we have to be truly empty to understand emptiness?

PART 1: THE MIND’S REACHING OUT

One feels, at the end of a day of fasting, like a branch of a tree or a bone bleached in the sun…
Sometimes even your own language disappears…
Tell me the difference between entity & eternity…
How Small & tender the ego is…
I wonder if I will always be like this…
I’ve always thought of a poem as an open door…
But holiness is everywhere, in the ordinary days as well…

PART 2: GROUNDED IN THE BODY

White sunlight comes through the window…
What is cleaner than fire…
These are drugs I take…
Each morning I am up early enough to look at the moon…
The fast takes us from a self-oriented universe into creation…
My body is a transitional site, a holding pattern…
I dream to come back, to have it be really mine again, my lovely brother, my corpse, my shield…

Elegant & intimate; you won’t want this book to end.

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.