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This book isn’t about that cold February morning in 1963. It isn’t about Teddy. It has little to do with posthumous mythology—be it useful for a particular cause or constructed for subjective gains. Don’t open the cover if you’re longing for clues as to how to best read “Daddy,” or “Lady Lazarus,” or “The Colossus.” Read this book because you want to hear the story of a young woman falling in love with the playful, yet duplicitous natures by which words bend, break, bother, and beckon—read it because you want to hear a story about a young woman realizing her life’s calling, not its inevitable demise.
Up until this book, I had yet to read any Mary Oliver. (Shame upon my name and family!). Yet, I’m glad it was this Mary Oliver book that I read first. There’s a reason Oliver is deemed both iconic and necessary. Her love for the natural world—the way a river sings, the slink of a snake’s skin, or the manner by which an empty field contains an unstoppable grin—is as profound as it is acute. Oliver’s poems slow down seasons, sunsets, and winds, only to make them viewable, inhabitable, and best of all, magical. Plus, when read aloud, the words become even more tasty!
In this all-encompassing history of—what were supposedly—the first man and woman on earth, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, unpacks the birth, maturation, and eventual death of one of humanity’s oldest and profoundest origin stories. Much like his other books, Greenblatt leaves no analytical stone unturned. By seeking out and scrupulously examining the multitude of disciplinary tissues which allowed for such a tale to become prominent, Greenblatt grants us total access. Whether it be through the lens of physiological historiography, traditions in oral storytelling, a cultural study of certain writers’ adaptations—cough, Milton—or observations regarding the possibility of an Eden like space during ancient times: this book has it all. By the end, I had learned far more than I had bargained for—which is always a good thing!
Though the letters which make up this collection were written by some of the most famous—or infamous, depending on your school of thought—authors of the twentieth century, this book is less interested in fame and more interested in the multiplicity of roles an editor might assume in an attempt to develop, appreciate, and maintain the creative selfs of those authors which they edit. Max Perkins was a chameleon. In one instance, a father, the next, a butcher of grammar and pagination, and shortly thereafter, an adversary soon-to-be followed by an unlikely friend—the man adapted according to the needs of the individual author. Hidden in this book are amazing anecdotes, heartfelt insights, and the all-too-true reality that one’s support system is even more necessary than one’s talent. Plus, Max Perkins is a hilarious letter writer who knew how to crack a joke.
It isn’t always the case that a collection of poems is published and within seven days the book is longlisted for the National Book Award—this is especially true when the poet is under the age of thirty. All the hype set aside, Don’t Call Us Dead is a potent, ferocious book situated at the intersections of race, sexuality, mythology, social justice, and faith. Though such a list of subjects might sound jarring or easily mismanaged, Smith’s eye for images, coupled with their ear for melodies, results in a nearly perfect orchestration of startlingly difficult, if not revelatory, themes. What if dinosaurs were the guardians of the hood? What might a paradise-after-life for all those illegally and unnecessarily slain by police officers look like? Smith gives us answers to these questions and much, much more. These poems are raw and masterful—they bite just as sharply as they soothe.
From New York City to Israel, combat zones to loading bays, pristine resort hotels to nicotine drenched rehab centers: Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, Moving Kings, examines the intricate and often frustrating approaches taken in those attempts to best perceive one’s sense of self. Though Yoav and Uri fought in the IDF for three years, their ties to Israel are waning. After moving to New York, the two begin to reestablish their lives free of outsider influence. They go to parties, drink too much, hit on girls, and occasionally find themselves pretending to be from somewhere other than their home. But the longer they try to escape their perceived or completely fabricated ties to a specific religion, race, nation, or family, the further they float away from one another. Cohen’s locomotive language, coupled with a spectacular eye for emotive detailing, results in a novel whose breadth and depth spans far beyond the initial page count. The settings, characters, and events of this novel bite like no other. It’s in the end that Cohen informs us that no single person, or place, or experience, is free from the world that surrounds it—our home is everywhere and nowhere.
I fell in love with Weike Wang’s unnamed protagonist long before I ever fully understood the character’s motives. There’s just something about her which makes it impossible not to adore her. Sometimes when she’s upset, she smashes beakers. She always measures her paychecks in pizzas, not dollars. She thinks her dog is a cat even though she knows he’s clearly a dog and he knows he’s clearly a dog but for some reason he still continues to act like a cat. She likes to watch “Mad Max” late at night because all the machine guns make her feel tough. She drinks a little too much. She tells the students she tutors they’re improving even when they’re not. But best of all, in order to better comprehend her recent break-up, strife-ridden relationship with her parents, and abandonment of her PhD in chemistry, this young woman turns to comic lyricism combined with a resounding capacity to analogize science upon the everyday. Whether it’s her depression, ambivalence, or genuine confusion, the protagonist of Weike Wang’s Chemistry tackles those convoluted, problematic systems of human interaction with austere wit and genuine honesty.
In the contemporary era of smart phones, mass media, rampant political grotesqueries, preconceived judgements based off of appearances, and the split of Brad and Angelina, what does one have to sing praise of, or for? In the case of Olds, there is still a great deal of singing left to be sung. One’s thoughts, body, friends, lovers, and best of all, sense of self, are still worthy of versified adoration. With an intense subjectivity, Olds writes in a style that is anything but demure. Free in both form and wit, this collection is filled with wry, awkward, and unique observations. Odes to the various essences of femininity and heteronormative feminine relationships offer an astounding view of what it means to be a female in relation to one’s age. As if that were not enough, you will be laughing every page.
Elkin’s history of the subversive and exclamatory manners by which women walk throughout urban spaces is as exhilarating as it is necessary. From Jean Rhys to Martha Gellhorn, this book surgically deconstructs the sexist conceptualizations of flanuerie and replaces them with something more informed, subtle. I found myself rereading passages over and over again—there is a musicality to these arguments which makes them unshakable. A blurring of memoir, literary theory, and gender studies, “Flanuese” is an honest, and insightful read for anyone who wishes to fully comprehend the artistry of strolling about town.
Don’t let the title trick you: though Batuman’s debut masquerades as a Bildungsroman story following a peculiar, completely aware, yet somehow disconcerted protagonist, the central pillar of this funny novel is the confusion that results as one enters into a linguistic community. Selin, a bright freshman at Harvard University hopes that her education will result in a more apt ability to discern meaning from a world filled with cliché dorm room posters, familiar romantic narratives, and those annoying acknowledgements offered as responses to writing which is painfully autobiographical. With tragic insight and exceptional pace, Batuman’s narrative of a young woman coming to terms with the reality of the words which surround her is an enchanting read.
Chang’s exquisite history examines the process by which the vernacular—an authentic art form—inevitably becomes the massified—various commodities mimicking cultural expression. This book covers every facet of hip-hop culture: scratching, breaking, tagging, rapping, MCing, DJing, and the rise of record labels, are explored with insightful care and critique. Chang’s holistic perspective and grassroots approach results in an artist’s and listener’s history of a truly American phenomenon. The analysis provided throughout these pages is beyond provocative—this book makes you rethink your conceptualization of both hip-hop and popular music/culture.
Whenever I find myself struggling to fully unpack a poem—which, if we are being honest, is often a daily experience—I reach for this collection of lectures. Ruefle writes in a colloquial, yet somehow theoretical, language. These lectures are wise, silly, and at various times, frightening. They will remain fixed within the brain long after their final words are consumed. Though one often wishes for resolution—especially when attempting to comprehend a poem and or poetry—Ruefle’s lectures deliver a pleasant opposite. Even when the poet is attempting to expose those various issues central to the existence and workings of poetry, Ruefle simultaneously respects the necessity for certain questions to remain unanswered. A must-read for any and all lovers of poetry.
With sincere adoration and an exhaustive critical scope, Buell investigates those American works which have become integral components in our nation’s striving to better understand itself. The book’s excavation goes beyond a terminology of the "Greats" or "Greatness." Instead, Buell witnesses both the novel and its posturing within American culture as the result of a particular writer’s imaginative capacity to encapsulate. Morrison, Fitzgerald, Lee, Stowe, and Pynchon are just some of the few writers taken up for consideration. In committing to such a difficult and problematic task, Buell reimagines the skeletal framework of American literature. As a result thereof, the definition of artistry is drastically changed to be far more inclusive and one might even suggest, moral. If you have ever wondered why "Beloved" or "Moby-Dick" is supposedly one of the greatest American novels, spend some time with Buell—he will enlighten and excite in manners often overlooked.
Like most avid readers of poetry, there resides a special place in my heart for Sylvia Plath. Which is quite funny since there remains a great deal about Plath: her upbringing, marriage, friendships, opinions regarding her work, and suicide which we still don’t completely comprehend. Instead of constructing a definitive portrait, Malcolm unpacks Plath’s confusing, contradictory mythologies with grace and analytical patience. This book is subtle, informed, relaxed, and unrelenting in all that it observes. In the end, Malcolm does not argue that there is one or many versions of the beloved poetess. Quite the contrary: there are many, many, different versions of us, the readers, who ensure, sometimes to the point of demise, that our mythology, our idea of Plath, is the real version which used to be alive—as if a poet ever truly dies.
Though admitting such may be an act of blasphemy, I had yet to read any Keith Taylor poetry until this collection (gasp!). Alas, I now find myself angry at past Bennet. Throughout these poems Keith exposes the reader to a bevy of images, noises, and best of all, revelations. There are startling little surprises within every poem. Whether it be the timbering of antique trees or observations felt while peeing outside on a cold night, Keith’s speakers go to those places most often hide from. It is with sincere honesty and an unabashed desire to exhibit the difficult that this collection grips any who read it.