The Lost Scrapbook (1995)


Now here’s a friendly little book that is notorious for being unknown and overlooked. If you’ve read it, you’re likely the passenger of one of three channels: (1) You trust William T. Vollmann’s judgement*; (2) you heard that the novel has been lumped in with the names Gaddis and Pynchon; or (3) your tastes coincide with those of Steven Moore. My own arrival is the result of a confluence of these channels, catalyzed by the Goodreads recommendation engine. While its affinities with the likes of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al. are not as prominent as I expected, Evan Dara’s debut novel achieves that almost impossible echelon of sui generis for which I pine. That is, I’ve read The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow, but I can still say that The Lost Scrapbook is a unique experience that stands on its own.

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The Tunnel (1995)


After twenty-four days of finally working my way through William H. Gass’s masterpiece, I can say that my nails feel as besmirched as Herr I’m-Not-German Kohler’s. Gass, in his highly entertaining notes to the editors of the book, states that “[t]he reader is to feel, as he or she doubtless will, as if they are crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness.” Quite right. And in his interview with Michael Silverblatt (whose blurb adorns the cover of my Dalkey Archive paperback), Gass makes no qualms about the aspirations and demands of his book. Silverblatt, an avid and insightful reader if there ever was one, even confesses to swaying–yet not faltering–under the heft of the first 90 pages. The Tunnel is deliberately large, complex, and difficult. How else shall we, as readers, grow?
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The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos (2018)


The latest iPhone is great, but the real buzz in science and technology is the plight to colonize Mars. Perhaps still too far-fetched for some, the race to be the first commercial shuttle between Earth and Mars is a very real and burgeoning enterprise, with unthinkable funds being expended (and sometimes exploded) along the way. Recent movies and books such as Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2011; 2014), and The Terranauts (2016) have begun to imbue collective popular consciousness with the rather old space ambitions, but it is often hard to separate fact from fiction when they are so tightly coupled. This is where Christian Davenport’s forthcoming book, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, fills a rapidly widening void. A reporter for the Washington Post, Davenport has extensive material and history from which to work, and a reporter’s knack for stating facts and extracting the perfect array of material to tell the story.

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The Red Word (2018)


Sarah Henstra, despite most marketing blurbs I’ve read, is not merely a fresh young voice graduating from her YA novel Mad Miss Mimic (2015) to her debut adult novel The Red Word; she is a PhD-holding professor and graduate practicum director at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Her specialization is 20th-century British literature, upon which she has various scholarly publications. She is a board member of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP), and she was on the steering committee of the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit. Already, she is busy with a new work of fiction entitled Dear Little Jo. Yet for all of her pedigree and hard work, Sarah Henstra has delivered a novel that finds trapeze-artist balance between wide accessibility and complexity. With such a sensitive and contentious subject, she somehow manages to avoid satire and kitsch on the one hand, and sterility on the other. The Red Word is gripping, important, and probably not what you expect.

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Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley (2018)


Are you left wanting after reading the Wikipedia entry for Aleister Crowley (“The Wickedest Man in the World”) but also daunted by Richard Kaczynski’s 700-page Perdurabo? Colin D. Campbell’s introductory text is the answer. Neither exhaustive nor limpid, Campbell delivers a three-fold primer on Crowley and Thelema within 200 pages: biography, Thelemic philosophy, and Thelemic application. The prose is conversational, opting for passion over pretension even at the expense of an overuse of exclamation marks and a few knee-slappers. There is no complex thesis in the sense of a critical study—if there is a theme that drives the book it is that Thelema is more relevant than ever, with its very foundation built upon individualism sans conflict. Campbell’s subject matter carries with it its own inherent intrigue to which has been attached much fantastic baggage. This text offers a sobering look at a complex and shrouded figure.

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No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017)


If we heed the advice of late-Renaissance polymath Francis Bacon and agree that the chief purpose of reading is “to weigh and consider” then Ursula K. Le Guin’s compendium of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters, is an essential text. The book represents a selection of her blog posts, spanning the years 2010 to 2015*, which may cause some would-be readers to recoil (i.e. those who cannot justify purchasing writing that is available for free online), but I submit that you’re paying a nominal convenience fee to have someone else pick the choicest texts from the expansive repertoire and compile them in a handsome volume. A lot of books promise the provocation of thought, but Le Guin actually delivers. Pass up on a few overpriced lattes if you need to—the stimulation here is far less ephemeral than caffeine.

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Hotel Silence (2018)


Coincidentally, I read John Barth’s debut novel, The Floating Opera, just before reading this winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize. Both books, as it turns out, are preoccupied with Hamlet’s universal and perennial question: “To be or not to be” (this question, incidentally, is a great way to remember how to avoid split infinitives). Barth’s and Ólafsdóttir’s protagonists open their narratives with the decision to commit suicide—not to be. And both characters keep a cool-headed disposition that invites us to consider such a morbid determination without revulsion. But whereas Barth’s book toys with timeline and perspective and, in general, expresses his signature zest for language, Hotel Silence is a straight-forward rush of a story, told in the first-person present, that threatens to vanish as quickly as it appears if one doesn’t slow down.

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Interpreter of Maladies (1999)



One of the reasons I read is to break the threat of ego- and ethnocentrism. As Nabokov advises, we should not select our reading material based on what most closely reflects ourselves[1]; or, as Yale professor Amy Hungerford puts it, we should read to find out about who we are not[2]. Upon these twin coils of mature reading, I welcome the works of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, for what better way, as a reader, to gain sympathy for others than to glean from first-hand experience? As Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston do for the Chinese-American experience, so does Lahiri for the Indian-American experience in her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies.

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Holy the Firm (1977)


“Write as if you were dying.” This is the admonishment Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard gives readers of her 1989 book The Writing Life. The grim truth behind this charge, she points out, is that we are all dying. What Dillard is getting at is that the writer should jettison anything that does not matter in the face of death. It’s great advice, so long as one doesn’t wish for a lucrative writing career. The advice hints at the debate between genre and literary fiction, traditional versus experimental writing. In Holy the Firm, Dillard directly addresses her audience: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” Amusingly, the disclaimer comes a quarter of the way into the text, as if she suddenly remembered to point this out, as if she became aware that the reader, by this point, is wondering what exactly the book is. In one way, what this slim little volume is is the embodiment of her own advice.

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The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound (2017)


As with studies of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I am willing to follow any brave soul into the thickets of the famously difficult Cantos or the brackish writer behind them. The compounded (excuse the pun) difficulty with Pound, however, versus the perverted German nationalism posthumously ascribed to Hegel, is twofold: “…Pound’s difficulty lies not only in the challenge of how to read his poetry, but also in how to reconcile it with his life’s contradictions.” And his contradictions are many, as Daniel Swift shows. Like Richard Wagner[1], Joseph Conrad[2], and perhaps more closely Knut Hamsun, one encounters a bifurcation of mind upon contact with a deplorable artist’s great work. Yet, like the troubled Hollywood star, there is something that draws us into their lives, something that fascinates us and invites us to form an opinion however well or ill informed.

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