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  • Staff Picks

    We’re book people and here is where we share what we read.

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    Zama

    Zama

    by Antonio Di Benedetto

    NYRB Classics, 2016.

    The novel was written in 1956 and while praised by people like Borges and Saer, it was not part of the Latin American literary boom in the 60s because its lack of ‘Magic Realism.’ In recent years, Zama has been acknowledged as a masterpiece in the Spanish language, after younger writers such as Ricardo Piglia and Roberto Bolaño have mentioned it as an important reference. Di Benedetto tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, a creole civil servant in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata in the late 18th Century, who hopes to be promoted from his post in a remote province to the capital in Buenos Aires. Written in first person, we witness the contradictions of his hypocritical, small-minded personality as he plays the game to earn his promotion from the Spanish crown, which is deaf, petty and even meaner. Di Benedetto’s archaic prose –yet precise and full of purpose– creates an elusive and claustrophobic narration infused with very enjoyable absurdity and dry humor, plenty of 20th century existential anguish.

    One Hundred Twenty One Days

    One Hundred Twenty-One Days

    by Michèle Audin

    Deep Vellum, 2016.

    There is a story locked up in One Hundred Twenty-One Days, but it’s not in its pages. In this novel, the story is the space to which all the heterogenous chapters point to, but merely touch, as a tangent line does to a point in a curve. This mathematical reference isn’t casual; Audin, a mathematician herself, plays with narrative using language in different codes as a function to describe the lives of French and German mathematicians during the time of the World Wars; words as “an exquisite formulation for the unspeakable.”

    Blackout

    Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

    by Sarah Hepola

    Grand Central Publishing, 2015

    Who doesn’t like to feel empowered. Alcohol makes us feel like a better version of ourselves. And there is nothing wrong with that, at least as long as you don’t choose that funnier, wittier, brighter, more confident, more extroverted, more liberated version of you to face the world on a regular basis and deny your own insecurities. In her memoir Sarah Hepola shares with brutal honesty, dry wit, and warm heart how she opted for the latter. Her drunk stories are dark-humored, quite enjoyable and endearing (it’s impossible not to root for her), bittersweet sometimes, but it’s the second half of the book, in which she shares her experience after quitting and coming to terms with herself, that becomes an insightful and poignant manual to fight bare hands the “complete inability to tolerate the moment.” You’re probably far from alcoholism but this book may teach you a thing or two about yourself.

    Among Strange Victims

    Among Strange Victims

    by Daniel Saldaña París

    Coffee House Press, 2016

    Every now and then you come across a book that treats you different from the rest, and is that difference that drags you to that special (and familiar) area you enter when reading words that remind you how wonderful, enjoyable and enlightening Literature can be. Among Strange Victims is one of those rare and yet familiar books. Saldaña París delivers a sardonic and incredibly funny polyphonic story in which characters -captive in tedious and meaningless urban lives- start suddenly facing rather bizarre situations. Hypnosis sessions inducted with tequila mixed in mystical teen’s urine, unintentional marriages and virtuous chickens take the existentialism crisis into a whole new and hilarious level. Bolaño’s punchy prose and Houllebecq’s acid criticism turn out to be the ideal travel companions during this trip.

    Evicted

    Evicted

    by Matthew Desmond

    Crown, 2016

    Park trailer tenants blowing all their food stamp allowance in one lobster meal, urban guardians that preach the benefit of school to youngsters while rolling joints in their shared rooms, nurses addicted to painkillers with licenses revoked but still caring for others, and the people that make a nice living thanks to all that. These are the characters you’ll find in Evicted, a gruesome portrait of poverty in America which helps understand that homelessness, as most things related to our society, is more complex and related to us than we think. The poverty, the system that allows and perpetuates it and the market and opportunities around all this mess, is what Matthew Desmond masterfully depicts in one of the toughest and most pertinent journalism books I’ve read in years. Because more often than you think, there is only a back surgery procedure between you and that guy by the traffic light.

    My Brilliant Friend

    My Brilliant Friend

    by Elena Ferrante

    Europa Editions, 2012

    Nobody like Elena Ferrante (pseudonym of an unidentified character) has been able to portray so intensively the complex and sincere friendship of two friends called Lina and Lenu. My Brilliant Friend is the first volume of 4 in which Ferrante introduces us to the two indisputable characters. The story focuses on the infancy of the girls spent in a decadent suburb of Naples in the early 50s. Beyond characters, stories and memories of childhood, the author awakens us with everyday drama that catches and chokes for its reality and closeness. Those who have already read the tetralogy say that all the feelings that are generated throughout life are explored without censorship. Once you start reading the first one, you will explore what many have already called the Ferrante drug.

    On The Edge

    On The Edge

    by Rafael Chirbes

    New Directions, 2016

    Spain, a country that has gone under different and turbulent periods during the last century, always have suffered to take itself seriously and claim its position in the European scenario. The last part of this complicated puzzle was placed after the big 2008 economical crash, where Spain, one of the most inflated real estate market in the world, collapsed in a recession without precedents in recent history. Chirbes captures some of the subtle human reasons and consequences of this new episode of Spain´s struggle to conciliate past, present and future, with characters that are both victims and perpetrators of this sordid scenario. On the Shore is considered one of the best Spanish literary works of the last decade.

    Submission

    Submission

    by Michel Houellebecq

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

    Submission, Houellebecq´s most controversial novel so far, satirical and incredibly funny, envisions the 2022 France presidential elections led by the Muslim party, a probably unlikely but possible scenario. His main character, Francois, an intellectual Sorbonne lecturer with a sophisticated food taste, lascivious sexual inclinations and high drinking needs, witnesses how our venerated western society adapts to the drastic cultural switch. During the inconceivable process, he´ll start wondering whether we all prefer to offer submission in the end -despite our values and intellectual decisions, or maybe western culture is simply doomed anyway.

    Sphinx

    Sphinx

    by Anne Garréta

    Deep Vellum, 2015

    Sphinx is dark mercury, an elusive first-person narration of a genderless love story that unfolds in the decadent nights of 80’s Paris. Witten under Oulipian constraint (Oulipian literature uses constrained writing techniques as a way to trigger ideas and inspiration), Anne Garréta constantly makes us evaluate the nature of male/female roles in the relation by removing every mention to the protagonists’ gender. Oh, and don’t miss the translator’s notes at the end of the book, they’re fascinating.

    Freedom

    Freedom

    by Jonathan Franzen

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

    One of my resolutions this year is to catch up with American Literature. I’ve started with what some call the Great (contemporary) American Novel. The book is up to the expectations; Freedom is a profound, rich and unsettling portrait of middle class America in which Franzen models with acute psychology a bleak, yet somehow heroic set of characters that struggle with the boundaries of their personal liberties.

    speak

    Speak

    by Loiusa Hall

    Ecco, 2015

    Speak is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve read from (and in) 2015. Louisa Hall’s multiple voice narration about AI unfolds elegantly a deep reflection on what it means to be human. As a reader, I particularly loved how the author pushes the story forward and creates meaning just by the delicate intricacies between the different voices’ stories; there are no statements, it’s up to us the readers to build up the story and to come up with our conclusions. A book packed with Eureka moments.

    como la sombra se va

    Como la sombra que se va

    by Antonio Muñoz Molina

    Seix Barral, 2014

    Antonio Muñoz Molina desarrolla en paralelo dos relatos: el de la huída a Lisboa de James Earl Ray después de asesinar a Martin Luther King y la propia autobiografía del autor alrededor de los días en que gestaba su segunda novela, El Invierno en Lisboa, a finales de los 80. La Historia como novela y al contrario que Mailer no viceversa; un escarceo brillante entre lo real y la ficción en el que el autor recompone con agudeza y empatía lo que debió pasar y no sabemos. Lo mejor: las reflexiones del autor sobre el proceso de contar una historia.

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