Reading Room

A compendium of acquisitions and
observations from
A Cappella Books, Atlanta's only full-service bookstore since 1989.

25 Under 2-85 No. 14: Sean Michaels

Photo credit John Londono

Today’s contributor is a bit of a departure, as he doesn’t actually live in Atlanta—in fact, he’s Canadian. But seeing as how Sean Michaels founded the music blog Said the Gramophone, recently published Us Conductors, a haunting and beautiful debut novel about the inventor of the theremin, and was kind enough to send a banger of a list along, we’re making an exception. Tonight, he appears at the Highland Inn Ballroom with a soundtrack provided by Duet for Theremin and Lapsteel, so you know, he’s under 2-85 right now

If someone came up to me and said, “Hey Sean, I have not read your book but I trust your opinion on books for some reason - perhaps because of your honest face, or because you are from Canada, or because you have published a novel about songs and love and electricity, and these things do not lie,” I would accept these remarks with grace and humility. But I would also point out a few things: that songs lie; that love lies; that honest-faced Canadians are often nefarious. Still, I would happily recommend a few books. They are books that will not let you down:

1) Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is maybe the best novel ever written. It is all stately manners and butler memories and driving through England but there comes a moment when you realize that the politesse and topiary were just a diversion, and Ishiguro has pushed a thick arrow into your heart. Unreliable narrators are very difficult to write (I learned this with Us Conductors). Ishiguro makes it look effortless. This book is clever as a tiger and sad as long life.

2) Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is maybe the best novel ever written. It is allegedly meant for kids but grownups are just old kids, and this book is beautiful, brave and hilarious. It’s a voyage of fantasy and wonder through a screwball neverland, full of twisting language, penned by one of the greatest writers in the history of English. There are villains and heroes, djinns and eggheads, but its whimsy is all fricasseed wisdom. Like Alice in Wonderland crossed with Spongebob Squarepants. But with better similes. 

3) Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is maybe the best novel ever written. It is a novel of the Vietnam War that is shot through with longing, fireworks and visions of Paris. It is a long walk. It is a compass. It is about persistence, tenacity and dream.

4) John Gardner’s Grendel is maybe the best novel ever written. The voice of an old monster, teaching Beowulf backwards; a lesson in violence and will, in destiny, with a language that’s as pointed as a spear. I love when the fantastic can teach us something for the dully real. And I love when a sentence can feel like both a lock and a key. But look, I can’t keep going on like this, explaining away the greatest books. I don’t want to explain them. I want you to read them. Explaining feels like pouring water onto a watercolour, throwing a birthday cake into a river. It can be interesting but it feels like a waste. Don’t read my lines about Ishiguro, Rushdie, O’Brien and Gardner; and don’t read the lines I haven’t yet written, about Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen… Don’t read the words I’ve imagined writing about Junot Diaz, Zachary Schomburg, Karen Russell or Raymond Carver. Instead, go to your local bookshop and buy these books, and read them all, and then with treasure in your chest go out into the woods near your house and stand beneath the trembling leaves, or needles, the blue or black sky, and listen for the sound of insects, chirrup or buzz, feeling neither bigger than this world nor smaller than it; in fact you will feel exactly the correct size, the appropriate one, right and true, like sugar in a cube, like a sentence that is counting down, slowly, to its own inevitable conclusion. 
                                                                                                    —Sean Michaels

Jeez. Sean resizes us tonight at 7PM at the Highland Inn Ballroom. More information here.

25 Under 2-85 No. 13: Jessica Handler

I’m reading fiction all summer. I also, for some reason, can’t stop listening to “Wendell Gee,” by R.E.M. even though it’s something like thirty years old.

I’m an evangelist for the massive A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, which came out in 2011, but I adore it. Sayles worked some kind of magic to bring the Yukon Gold Rush, the Spanish American War, independence in the Philippines, and poor Topsy the elephant (look her up) to me.

Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I don’t want to be kidnapped. I don’t want to go to Haiti. I don’t want to know this character’s father. I didn’t want to put this book down.

Dep’t of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Watch out. You’ll want to write like this. I do. If a book were made of ice cubes or loosely connected fairy lights, this would be it.

The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock. So, Huck and Jim fell asleep on that raft and awoke later. Much later. And later still. Magic realism on the Mississippi, with guest appearances by the Jazz Age, the Ganges River and a certain Harper-Lee created chifforobe.

If you need me, I’ll be on the couch, reading.

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin HouseDrunken Boat, BrevityNewsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. www.jessicahandler.com

25 Under 2-85 No.12: Mary Beth Holcomb

I love the kind of writing where nothing much and everything happens. Short stories are probably my favorite form; there’s a certain relish, as reader or writer, when every word matters. Also, stories are perfect summer sneaks — easy to read by the pool or on the beach, or holed up in a bathroom for the length of a SpongeBob episode.


The Collected Stories of Richard Yates Richard Yates
There’s not much to say about Richard Yates, except that he has a firmer grasp on humans than most anyone, anywhere. He’s brutal and humane, hilarious and grim, relentless and relentless. His characters feel like clothes wadded into a makeshift pillow on a camping trip — not good or bad, just misused, making you ache all the more for what’s missing.


Dear Life Alice Munro
Yes, her Nobel Prize win kickstarted this bender. I’ve read almost all of her stories since, but this collection happens to be first in my stack. You can’t miss with any of her books you’re lucky enough to come across, though. A writer who can open anything other than a joke with, “A woman goes to her doctor to have her prescription renewed,” and turn it into a haunting meditation on aging, memory, and loss deserves her rock star status.


Book of Hours Kevin Young
This is a collection of poems, not stories, surrounding the death of Young’s father and birth of his son. Funny, sad, smart, intimate and universal. His description of picking up his dead father’s dry cleaning will be familiar in all but the details to anyone who’s lost a loved one. His description of watching his son’s entrance into the world will be familiar in all its astounding detail to anyone who’s birthed a loved one.


Mary Beth Holcomb lives in Atlanta with her one husband, four kids, and three dogs. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Thought Catalog, and The Huffington Post.
You can find her at http://ratpetunia.tumblr.com 
and about.me/marybethholcomb.

25 Under 2-85 No. 11: Jayne O’Connor

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Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Angela Carter

This is a collection of haunting, grotesque, endearing fairy tales from around the world. The genre of “fairy tale” is very broadly used here, everything from werewolves to a backwoods, cannibal hillbilly who kills women and boils their breasts. Although none of the stories are what one might think of a traditional fairy tale, they are immensely entertaining. I was engrossed with the variety of styles and subjects, my favorites focusing on the devil himself. These tales are definitely not for children.

An Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition: Lewis Carroll

One of my biggest book pet peeves is when people associate drugs with Alice in Wonderland. Alice is so much more than some drug reference by Jefferson Airplane and this book proves that. This book annotates Lewis Carroll’s two popular books, explaining the contemporary references and making sense of the nonsensical. It reveals the children’s classic as intelligent satire instead a seedy drug tale for children.

Jayne is a native Atlantan. Her work has appeared in the Brooklyn street art blog, PURGE, and Fanzine. She has read for Vouched, Write Club, and Scene Missing among other live lit nights. She is the creator of hydeatl and has a propensity for falling down.

25 Under 2-85 No. 10: Fossil and Hide

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Fossil and Hide sprang from twin souls Jenny Watts and Karen Horn Smith two years ago, and their jewelry and accessories have been decorating the rock scene ever since. Their aesthetic sensibility depends on a refined combination of taxidermy, Roy Rogers, and Hell’s Angels, among other things. Here, they let us in on some of their inspirations. Check out their Etsy page

Karen Horn Smith
Empire of the Summer Moon: by S.C. Gwynne
<—-« Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History »—-> 

Captain Carter, who would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in Blanco Canyon, offered this description of the young war chief in battle on the day after the midnight stampede:

A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal’s side, whith six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage, brutal joy. His face was smeared with black warpaint, which gave his features a satanic look….A full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle’s feathers, spreading out as he rode, and descending from his forehead, over head and back, to his pony’s tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears; he was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of bear’s claws hung about his neck….Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, principal warchief of the Qua-ha-das. 

Jenny Watts
"Roky Erickson and the Aliens": by Joe Nick Patoski
(Part of an interview in the double LP Booklet ‘The Evil One’)

Q. All right, OK, Roky, would you briefly tell us how you first started in rock and roll and who your main influences were at the time?
How I first started? I first started playing piano, in the swamp. Who was I listening to? The Premier of Russia who died last night.
Q. Did you ever listen to rock and roll?
No, I never did.
Q. What do you think are the most noticeable changes in rock and roll over say in the past 15 years?
The piano parts and the razor in the keys.
Q. Do you enjoy playing music now or was it more fun in the ’60s?
Uh, …it was more fun I guess, then, earlier.
Q. Would you elaborate. Why was it more fun?
I didn’t hear you.
Q. What made it more fun in those days than it is now?
I guess the razor blade in the keys.
Q. Your recording output since then other than the Elevators albums reissued on Radar consisted of only a couple of EPs and a couple of singles. Why so few releases in that period of time?
Why so few releases in so few time? I guess because …uh…too many Russian spies.
Q. It’s obvious from the titles of your songs, that you’re a devotee of horror movies and other things of a generally quite unsavory nature. Would you explain why vampires, zombies, and devils and the like feature so heavily in your repertoire?
Yeah, I like things like that.
Q. Yeah? What kind of things specifically interest you?
Oh, horror 

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25 Under 2-85 No. 9: Jacob Blaisdell

You & I — Leonard Nimoy
RE/Search Industrial Culture Handbook
Karate Is A Thing Of The Spirit — Harry Crews
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle — George V Higgins
Rip It Up And Start Again — Simon Reynolds
Film As A Subversive Art — Amos Vogel
Hollywood Babylon — Kenneth Anger
...Or Not To Be: A Collection Of Suicide Notes — Mark Etkind
Tales The Western Tombstones Tell: Historic Graves Of The Old West — Lambert Florin
Scott Walker: A Deep Shade Of Blue — Mike Watkinson
Ponce De Leon — George Mitchell

Jacob Blaisdell is a collector and curator of recorded sound. He is likely responsible for the music you hear when eating some of the city’s finest foods, works for Criminal Records and 529, and will forever have better stuff than you. 

25 Under 2-85 No. 8: Chris Riley

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Photo credit Dylan York

‹‹ LONELY HEARTS OF THE COSMOS: The Story of the Scientific Quest For the Secret of the Universe // Dennis Overbye ››

I have my suspicions that the working title of this manuscript was Physics For Poets. The chapters have evocative, grandiose titles like “Delegates To Eternity” and “Bonfires On The Shores Of Time.” The author even uses the lyrics from the chorus of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” as an epigram. It takes a very relatable approach to the biggest of big questions, profiles the people who grapple with those questions, and allows itself ample room to reflect. It’s a science book without a single chart or graph. Needless to say, I loved it.

 

‹‹ HEAT: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice To A Dante-Quoting Butcher In Tuscany // Bill Buford ››

Bill Buford has a lust for life and a nose for a good story. Here, that story is him leaving his cushy New Yorker editorship to work his way up from the bottom rung of the kitchen at Mario Batali’s Babbo, then leaving Babbo for rural Italy to learn old-world traditions and skills — a narrative that affords wonderfully candid portraits of legends like Batali and Marco Pierre White. It’s funny, and moving, and informative, and often gorgeously written.

 

‹‹ EATIN’ HIGH ON THE HOG WITH THE RUDY FAMILY: A Collection of Recipes From the Rudy Folks of Pennington Bend ››

I discovered this charmingly illustrated, 70s-vintage Nashville family heirloom in a particularly dusty corner of a local Goodwill, the handwritten pages hole-punched and bound by a plastic spine. The title has something to do with the anatomical location of tenderloin and apparently denotes living extravagantly well. Happily, that extravagance embraces souse, sweetbreads, smoked ham hocks, liver stew, pickled trotters, and sow’s-ear sandwiches. If any Rudy objected to brains for breakfast, it must not have been deemed worth mentioning.

There are, of course, more familiar entrees for the squeamish — like a white wine-braised loin called “A Drunk Pig (Or Cook).”  There’s the requisite gallery of sundries like beaten biscuits, drop doughnuts, and poke salet [sic]. But it’s the utter lack of distinction made between the wide range of porcine ingredients that’s most intriguing to me. It’s like a humble Appalachian forbear of Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast. One page calls for canned soup, and one permits (without endorsing) margarine, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Someone could bring the rest of it to life with the full food-porn photo treatment, then print it on oversized glossy stock with embossed coffee-table binding, and the end result would be hailed as a benchmark of rustic “New Southern” cuisine. Behold, everything old is new again.

 

‹‹ THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks // Amy Stewart ››

I had the pleasure of hearing Stewart give a talk at the Atlanta Botanical Garden last year. The subject was the list of plants that are present in a classic Manhattan cocktail, how each of them got there, and what purpose each serves. It followed much the same progression as this eminently useful reference book — starting with the starchy species distilled to create the alcohol itself, continuing through those used as flavoring agents, and finishing with the standard garnishes. “I’ve written numerous other books about plants, and no one’s ever offered to carry my luggage until this one,” Stewart remarked while detailing how she spent three weeks drinking her way around southern France for “research.” Cheers to that.

 

‹‹ CONSIDER THE OYSTER // MFK Fisher ››

This book is an oyster. It’s small, and it’s strange. It’s not for everyone. It may be consumed swiftly and thoughtlessly, but a few special souls will savor it, take a deep breath, and know they now feel alive.

Chris Riley is a writer, musician, and food enthusiast. His sporadic beats can be heard at http://youngsquireriley.bandcamp.com. You can find him answering wrong-number phone calls at Argosy or playing funk and soul records every other Thursday at the same.

25 Under 2-85 No. 7: Steve Pomberg

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Money by Martin Amis
Dark/Witty/Hilarious

Story Of The Eye by Georges Bataille:
Who doesn’t love a book about deviant sex and the Catholic church?

Blood Meridian and Child of God by Cormac McCarthy:
Brutal tales of the dark side of our beloved USA.

Steve Pomberg is a photographer, painter, and all-around bad brain. He recently sent me the above photo from Tel Aviv. Check out his work at Capsule through the end of the month.

25 Under 2-85 No. 6: Wyatt Williams

Two recent novels have impressed me. Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball tells the story of a young man in Japan who confesses to a series of crimes that he did not commit and then goes silent, unwilling to say a single word in his own defense. The circumstances of his strange confession and subsequent execution are recounted through interviews, conducted decades later by a narrator whose life has been interrupted by another unexplained silence. While reading it, I had the familiar, eerie sensation of watching a true crime documentary, that this was both fact and not fact, a series of real events that had been manipulated into narrative beyond recognition. I think Ball may be an unrecognized bastard descendent of Kafka.

The other one I loved lately was The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland. The novel concerns the unraveling of Lena, the last transcriptionist working for a newspaper in Manhattan. Though the paper is called the Record and the year goes unmentioned, the book obviously concerns the New York Times in 2003. Rowland, who apparently spent some time working as a transcriptionist for theTimes, gives us almost unfiltered access to Lena’s thoughts. Aside from typing out stories of bombings in Baghdad, Lena quotes dead poets, has conversations with pigeons, socializes with statues. At times, she fears that she is turning into the machine that she uses to transcribe. She is a fascinating, literary loner. Eventually, a blind woman’s suicide and some deeplyflawed Iraq War reporting interrupt her inner monologue, causing her to act. I hope this debut is the beginning of a long literary career.

Both of these books seem to exist in imagined, slightly altered versions of their settings. For Ball’s novel, it seems to exist in the foggy, surreal Japan of Kobo Abe novels and Akira Kurosawa films. Rowland’s Manhattan is more specific, a place where the names have been changed but the streets have remained the same. If you happen to be going to Japan or New York this summer, they’d make perfect companions. If you’re not leaving your couch this summer, they’d be good companions there, too.
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                           Photo credit: Dustin Chambers

Wyatt Williams is a writer based in Atlanta. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. Check him out.

25 Under 2-85 No. 5: Jamie Allen

DELIVERANCE
James Dickey
You’ve been in Atlanta how long and you haven’t read this? It ain’t about the “squeal like a pig” scene. Dickey’s prose turns into poetry, stops time, and somehow weaves a man-vs.-everything tale that remains relevant today. Why do we continue to destroy our history, Atlanta? What are we afraid of?

OLD MAN AND THE SEA
Ernest Hemingway
I know, I know, another man-book by a Big Man Writer. But again, have you read this since college? No chapters! Just an uninterrupted story with very little dialogue! All description and thoughts and fight! Really quite like a magic trick to pull off. Also, since it’s summer, you can read this and pretend you’ve been fishing. 

THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT
Aimee Bender
I usually just stumble upon Aimee’s stories in magazines or year-end collections, and I’m like, Hey, wow, wow, I dig this. Then I look on the Internet and find that either people love her writing or absolutely loathe it. All the more reason to read her debut collection!

THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING OF THE CENTURY
Edited by David Halberstam
Where sports meets literature. Special “determine if you are human” challenge: Read “Pure Heart” (about the life and death of Secretariat). If you don’t cry, you are not human. 

PERFUME
Patrick Suskind
If you like to smell things and/or read about murder, this is for you. Also, it was one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite books, and everybody’s talking about him again, so … meet the Scentless Apprentice.

Jamie Allen is the mastermind behind the Inman Park Squirrel Census and has published work in McSweeney’s, Grantland, and the Missouri Review. Check out his piece (it’s about squirrels) in the summer issue of Oxford Americanand look for him wherever coffee is sold.