I’M ON A TREASURE HUNT. I’m tired of hearing people say there are “no good books left.” Yes, the market is inundated right now, but I’m on a mission to find the best literary fiction out there provided by the “little guys.” I’m digging through the muck to find rare gems: meaningful and culturally significant literature that engages and says something more than vampire love.

Today the book market is dominated by Amazon and big publishing houses, so I want to give a nod to the small presses who are fighting the good fight. ALL the books I read here have been published by small presses and (whenever possible) purchased from local bookstores.

You won’t find negative reviews here. The market is too vast to waste anyone’s time with bad reviews. Rather, you will find that I am selective about the books I read, and if I don’t like something, I won’t review it. In other words, I won’t give you the dirt, only the plunder.

I will be posting quarterly book recommendations for writers, avid readers, and anyone who thinks good literature is dead. I will also have "Throwback Thursdays" to show some of my old book collection to promote the preservation of classic stories and the art of beautiful bookbinding.

Monday, December 29, 2014

3 Must-Read African Novels

Here is something despicable about American primary schools and high schools: they neglect African history and ignore African literature. Colleges and universities fall to similar patterns, but not ubiquitously, which gives me hope. I was able to complete an African Studies minor back in my university days, but the course offerings were too lacking to create a major in that subject.

My admiration and fixation with African literature was instigated by my sister, who studied abroad for a semester at a university in Kenya (when she told this one woman she was going to Kenya, the lady replied, "Oh I so admire people who go over there to do charity work!" And my sister corrected her with, "No, I'm going there to study…" Just in that simple exchange is a microcosm of how uneducated we Americans are about Africa and the many countries, cultures, economies, and influential people occupying the continent).

My sister was the one who first recommended Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know Adichie has finally received the limelight she deserves in the past year, but people's praises shouldn't come from Beyoncé's say-so; they should come from her talent. I've followed her development as a writer for some time because I like her style, storytelling abilities, and careful dialogue. Her lyrical, heart wrenching debut novel Purple Hibiscus brought me to tears, but not as much as her portrayal of the Biafran War (another history lesson glazed over by US schools) in Half of a Yellow Sun. So yes, those are must-reads, but my official recommendation is a book I just finished - and no, it's not a small press book, and it has already been reviewed by some big wigs, but I'm going to recommend it anyway because African literature itself is underrepresented:

1) Americanah

The glowing reviews speak for this book already. But let me say a few timely things about it. These past several months, in light of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown jury decisions and other tragic deaths, our country has been tense and forced into important discussions. These events brought a lot of unpleasant truths into the light where mainstream society can't turn a blind eye anymore. I have followed these cases and protests closely, and when I read people's arguments about this or that (or witness the painful arguments of family, friends, or worse…Facebook acquaintances), I am reassured of one thing only: White people, particularly of the middle and above income brackets, are out of touch with the experiences of black Americans. It doesn't matter what you believe about the Garner-Brown cases because this truth still stands. A large portion of debates are occurring because people don't see eye-to-eye in terms of their personal observations; they aren't willing to listen or believe that someone could have different experiences in this "land of the free." I can speak to this, having grown up in one of the most de facto segregated cities in America - Buffalo, NY. 

Americanah is a must-read for mainstream society to better grasp the concept of race in America. Told through the vantage point of a Nigerian ex-pat, the novel shows how race plays into everyday interactions with Americans. I admire Adichie's bold observations about our culture - things that perhaps only someone from an outside culture would see. At times it's preachy and sometimes the author's voice takes over; it is more of a cultural commentary than an immersing story, the way I found Purple Hibiscus. But regardless, I think what the author has to say is important to hear, and the medium of the novel has broadened and diversified her audience.

2) Nervous Conditions

Here comes another dose of honesty, this time on Western influence in colonial conditions. Tsitsi Dangarembga (it's not so hard - as Adichie wrote in Americanah, We've learned the names of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, so why is an African name so difficult?) paints a hard-hitting picture of life in Rhodesia, what is now known as Zimbabwe.

Dangarembga is from Zimbabwe, a country that was colonized by Britain and not recognized as independent until 1980. So she writes from experience, plunging into your heart with truth. As the book follows the coming of age of a teenage girl as she tries to understand herself in the context of her culture - a culture that is continuously deemed lacking and uncivilized by her Western educators. This is an intense and thought-provoking look at life for Africans in colonial times, and a glimpse at what still remains in this post-colonial era.

3) God's Bits of Wood

Sembene Ousmane writes about a railroad strike in 1940s Senegal - but touches on so much more. In this 1960s novel, he weaves through the motif of coexistence amidst hatred. The story is based on historical events and artfully portrays the cultural values of that place and time - values of human rights that make this novel timeless and noteworthy.

My last two recommendations are on the older side, but they are worth reading for insight into history, culture, and the human experience. I hope even more African authors emerge in the coming years, and I keep the great ones in mind: that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie keeps publishing, and though Chinua Achebe has passed, I will certainly continue to read his work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Andretti in the El Camino" by Terrance Manning, Jr.

Today I'm going to switch it up a little. I'm not going to review a book but a short story - a worthwhile story nonetheless. After reading "Andretti in the El Camino," I immediately subscribed to Boulevard Magazine. I think it's important to support these publications for their cultural value - and like small book publishers, they too are fighting the good fight! Through their intensive review process, many of these small magazines uphold the cultural integrity of storytelling. I highly recommend subscribing to at least one literary magazine to follow up-and-coming writers, new styles and ideas, and see what you need to live up to (if you're a writer).

You can read Terrance Manning, Jr.'s story here.

Manning's imagery is strong from the beginning - depicting a hardass (and a bit unhinged) father, three resentfully obedient sons, and a reticent mother. The story revolves around Jay, a young man who is trying to connect with his father long after his death. He has a job removing asbestos in buildings - asbestos that his father once installed back in the day, asbestos that ended up killing him - and in his spare time, he's restoring his dad's old El Camino.

Yes, this is a motif that has been expressed a million times…a son must live with his father's mistakes long after he is gone and overcome the age-old battle of understanding who he is, and his manhood, through his father's legend. But Manning tells this story with care, attention to detail, irony, and depth. He adds internal complexity to a storyline that risks being cliché - but there are no cliché's in Manning's writing, just well-developed characterization and several hard-hitting realizations.

For months, Jay thinks he has come down with Mesothelioma from the asbestos, like his father. In the end, he wonders: "Maybe I had what my father had, that I could, for some reason, inherit it from him." This strikes hard as a metaphor for the qualities and lessons we inherit from our parents - the good, the bad. And even the bad qualities can ring with nostalgia. Jay often works without a mask, breathing in the asbestos, imagining it's his father's breath.

Above all, I love the juxtaposition of character memory. Jay recalls his father as erratic, unsettled, and angry, while his mother and uncle remember him as a "good man" with spirit and imagination. One person can have many faces in a lifetime, and each of us can impact the people close to us in so many different ways. By the end of the story, we see Jay's memory has transformed simply because he wills it to.

As for Andretti (a world champion racer) driving El Camino, he symbolizes yet another part of the father's legend; someone father and son both aspire to be, in some way, through the ownership of that car. The question is, will Jay ever be able to restore it, or will he find solace in memory, imagination?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

#tbt: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám

I love my version of this Rubaiyat*! It is huge, weighty, and leather-bound - a look and feel that lends itself to the ancient text inside. The poem was written in the 12th century, but this book - a full translation - was printed in 1938.

The beautiful, encapsulating illustrations were done by Hamzeh And-ullah Kar. On any paper, this poem on the purpose of life is enchanting, but it is even more magical when it is delivered through this old book.

*A Rubaiyat is a form of Persian poetry. Omar Khayyám's work defined the genre, and Edward Fitzgerald's translation is still praised for its accuracy and thoroughness.

The title has been carved and painted into the leather cover. This book also came with a jacket that the book slides into. I don't know if the creators intended it for better preservation, but it really has kept things intact.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

#tbt Oldie Books: Longfellow Wrote Short Stories?

People read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in high school and generally not in their spare time. That's why I'm a bit of an odd bird. I've enjoyed reading his old short stories even more than his poetry. What they don't teach you in high school literature class is that these old writers had a sense of humor, and you're allowed to laugh at what they write. Teachers often put each writer in a bubble: this writer did x, this writer did y, and that writer did z. I didn't discover that Longfellow wrote short stories until I got "The Continental Tales of Longfellow" as a gift. His stories are strange, often with absurd conclusions, and not at all like his poetry, which is why I like this book so much. Most of all, I like the broad pages with large open spaces.

This book was printed in 1948. The rims of the pages were painted blue to match the cover, and the binding is engraved in copper. What makes this book of prose so special is that Longfellow published most of his short stories anonymously. The creators of this book, over sixty years after Longfellow's death, wanted to show his works that were never studied or observed much during his career. That's an interesting concept - will that happen to some writers of today, sixty years down the road? Will someone be unearthing their ebooks from a digital stockpile and resuscitating them?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

#tbt…Is Bookbinding a Dead Art with the Invention of eReaders?

No! Printing and bookbinding is not a dead art - in fact, in its rarity, it becomes more of an art. Every year, my hometown hosts a small press book fair to show some of the unique books being printed out there. Some publishers also print "collectible" editions of books to last a long time. I also recently received a book that was leather-bound, printed by Easton Press, which focuses on creating high-quality, lasting books.

I have a Coleridge book that was printed in 1995, and I know it will last long past its centennial in 2095, so I can pass "Kubla Khan" and the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to my kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. The book is leather with gold engravings, pages painted gold. The only difference from the old books is that the pages aren't hand-cut, so they are smoothly intact.

As enchanting as old things are and intriguing their pasts, I'm not opposed to printing new books in the old way. It's wonderful when books can last 100+ years, but paper isn't made to last ages past that. My book of Whittier abolitionist poems from the late 1800s is falling to pieces, to the point where I'm afraid to open it. The pages have all detached from its glue binding. But the cover is beautiful - hand painted and still vibrant. My point is we don't necessarily need to preserve the books forever; but we should preserve the art of creating quality books.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stories by Jerry Wilson

Publisher: Mongrel Empire Press
ISBN: 978-0-9833052-5-5

When author Carter Revard reviewed Blackjacks & Blue Devils, he wrote, "Steinbeck could have learned a lot from this book." So, I was intrigued enough to buy it. I mean, that's really something to say about one of the Great American Novelists, and it sets up quite the expectations.

It's possible that Revard was referring to the idea that Steinbeck could learn brevity from Jerry Wilson. Where John was notoriously long-winded, Jerry was VERY short and sweet. But all jokes aside, here is my take on Revard's comparison: both Steinbeck and Wilson set out to encapsulate the spirit of America's past. Our pioneerism (I looked that up, and it is NOT a word apparently, but I like it anyway. What can I say, perhaps I'm a linguistic pioneer?) These stories reveal American heart. Our cruelty, our greed, our lust. Our assiduous work ethic. Wilson's theme takes us through the landscapes of Oklahoma, those stretches of dry earth where history rises like a dust storm. And yes, The Grapes of Wrath begins in Oklahoma, too - but I believe Wilson's book accomplishes something very different.

While I am refuting Carter Revard's claim, I am also giving a nod to Wilson, who is genuine and true to his own style - not copying Steinbeck or attempting to beat out other novelists of the frontier. Instead, he is shining new light on old backdrops, illuminating voices that strike the heart in a different way.

Wilson's book is a series of snapshots. It is a flip-book through Central American history. His fluid writing style and piercing descriptions pulled me into quick breaths of time: The Dust Bowl, Oklahoma Land Runs (which, to be honest, I didn't know about before reading this book), the Depression and bootlegging. These quick snapshots of the past are characterized by strong emotion and people who just as well could be real.

Mongrel Empire Press strives to find quality, thoughtful literature without regards to genre, discipline, or author biographies. As its name implies, its publications are a wild mix of styles, genres, and topics - though the press does admit to a little favoritism toward Oklahoma authors. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see a press that isn't concerned about sticking to a marketable theme, but merely high-calibre writing.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

#tbt Oldie Books

I recently came into possession of a 12-part Wordsworth collection. It was printed over a century ago…and this particular collection has never been read. How do I know this? Because the pages have never been cut.

It's fun, doing things the "old way" as I read a long epic poem titled "The Excursion." I have to cut open each page like a present as I move through the book. I wish I'd come across Part I of this poem, "The Wanderer," in high school because it encapsulates how I felt as a teenager - and how I still feel at times - yearning to wander freely in the mountains. (A romanticized notion, I realize! Wordsworth's appreciation of nature has always captured me).

These books were printed in 1911 and are bound with fabric. I think the reason they survived for so long is because whoever owned them kept them in a personal library with some measure of climate control. I'm picturing the previous owners as socialites who preferred to show off their books rather than read them - but of course, my imagination could be way off! But there has to be some reason why the books have zero damage from humidity, and no wear and tear. And best of all, they have never been opened in a hundred years. A part of me wonders if I should keep them unopened to maintain the value of the books - but what is the point of keeping them if I don't read them? Books are meant to be opened!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Introducing…Oldies of the Month #tbt - Leaves of Grass

I'm a collector of old books. There's something about their smell, the sound of the hand-cut pages, the weight of their leather binding, that creates an unmatched beauty lost with ebooks and paperbacks. Book covers today can be awesome - I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I love a good one! A lot of time is put into their design and printing, but not like when they used to do it by hand.

Most of my books hail from the 19th century and early 20th…back in the day of steam-powered iron presses. Cloth bindings became more popular in the 20th century, and then paperbacks in the 21st, which is why I value a rare leather-bound book, its cover engraved by hand and its pages painted with gold.

It's remarkable that these books managed to stay so intact for 100+ years. Each page is jagged because they were cut by hand, each cover embossed with gold lettering.

This special segment is fitting for this blog because the old classics - Burns, Whitman, Longfellow - were first either self-published or printed by small presses. So I'm introducing a new type of #tbt…Oldie Books, where I'll share a gem from my book library to appreciate the old ways.

My #tbt today is Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. This book is a true encapsulation of the work inside! It is one of a kind, from 1900, with some incredible features. See for yourself:

 Title page, written by hand

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review of Adam Klein's - THE GIFTS OF THE STATE -

February's book recommendation is…

The Gifts of the State

Editor: Adam Klein
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Price: $14.95 paperback, $7.99 ebook
Link: Buy Here

You'd think I would choose an uplifting book for such a depressing month as February. Not so fast. We're in the thick of winter's threads, days of cold and grayness weaving endlessly, but I guess you could look at things this way: I picked a book that makes it seem like life ain't so bad anyway.

I really respect what Adam Klein did with this collection of short stories. He took a group of Afghan students in Kabul and asked them to find an authentic voice of fiction for Afghanistan. As Klein says in the introduction, fiction is not at the forefront of Afghan concerns, so it doesn't yet get the attention it deserves.

This collection is unique because it provides us with Afghan voices. This is a chance to hear from people who grew up in Afghanistan through its erratically violent political tides, who can tell these important stories in a way that an outsider cannot. The stories have been written first-hand in English, so neither are we seeing these words through the filter of a translator. (Of course, one could argue that a truly "authentic" Afghan voice would be writing in its native tongue, but let's consider who the audience is for this book. Isn't it important that Americans - who have occupied their land since 2001 - pick this up to understand the heart within this country?)

This collection of varying stories provides something a novel cannot: a broad scope. Afghanistan has seen occupations by communist Russia, Islamists, the Taliban, and America. It has been plagued by guerrilla warfare since the 60s. But that is just the political history. We must not forget the people who suffered through it, the ones who had to make crucial choices for the sake of their families, the ones who still wanted love and peace and happiness. What was it like for Afghanis to find out about 9/11 from the sound of a forbidden radio? What was it like to look up to a father who joined the mujahideen to fight communists? What was it like to avenge a sister's rape and murder? What was it like to guide US soldiers through unpredictable terrain? What was it like to run a forbidden bookstore, or feel lust, or play a forbidden rabab, during Taliban rule?

The writing itself doesn't have the innovativeness of David Foster Wallace or the lyricism of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But that's not the point of this book, I don't think. The content and voices are what matters. It opened my eyes to things I never thought about. It put me in shoes I've never walked in before. Isn't that what a book is for?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review of xTx's -BILLIE THE BULL-

My January recommendation is BILLIE THE BULL by an author known as xTx. That name's easy enough to remember, right?

Publisher: Mud Luscious Press / eprint: Dzanc Books
Price: $10.00

The first time I read Billie the Bull, I grasped for more. xTx says a lot with very few words, but while this book only takes a couple hours to read, every chapter is charged with meaning, symbolism, and layered emotion - which is why the moment I finished it, I read it again. And again.

In the fashion of xTx's writing (she likes lists), I will enumerate what this tale is about:
1) A giant woman
2) An insatiable man & his collector
3) A big son
4) A normal-sized son
5) The death of a bull

Admittedly, in the end I wanted Billie to be at peace with her past, or at least find something happier than the torment she faces as a woman with gigantism. But what I wanted is irrelevant. Given that xTx parallels Billie's story with the savage reality of bullfights, you can pretty much predict that there's going to be carnage.

I'm not saying I'm an advocate for sunshine endings just for the hell of it. I'm just saying this book left me silent and contemplative for the rest of the day. I was struck by Billie's words:

One might say that you can never leave these sorts of things behind; that the scars they made are permanent. Scars that stay with you no matter if you choose to leave them where they lay, or if you hold them tight so they can remind you of what they make you think you are.

Dzanc describes this book as a story of a mother's love for her son. Which is true. However, I think it's about something else. It's about how society treats a spectacle. It's about collective bloodthirst. For me, it has a taste of feminism and animal rights, but you don't have to read it through that lens. In all, it gives us a glimpse of what it's like to be "the bull," a reality that transfers to many walks of life.

I'm recommending this gem based on xTx's engrossing language and unique storytelling. I don't recommend it if you want something straightforward. Some questions are left unanswered or hidden in a puzzle of words, but while the end is unsettling, it is complete.