A great book for the grown-up punk, or anyone who just likes to read about the darker side of life. Bunny Munro is a traveling salesman with charisma, a drinking habit, drugs on hand, and a nine-year-old son hitting the road to escape his wife’s recent suicide. As the titles suggests, this trip turns into a downward spiral of bad decision making, great entertainment. Do not gift this to anyone who enjoys Oprah Book Club selections. Give this to the guy that sympathized with the protagonists in Camus’ The Stranger.
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A smartly assembled collection might well be the best way to dive into the diversity of literary talent and perspective on display across the continent. Gods and Soldiers is just that type of starting point. Rob Stillman, editor of the literary magazine Tin House, has first-hand knowledge of the scene, both from submissions by African writers to his magazine and from his participation in a literary festival in Kenya. That experience and understanding informs the depth and scope of this anthology of 30 distinctive African voices, with those new to Western readers writing with the same crackling passion and insight as the more familiar names.
Ultimately, this is a collection of, by and about modern Africa, of writers and characters negotiating their way through timeworn realities and new possibilities. The concluding selection, a short story by Ivan Vladislavic, shows how difficult that negotiation can be, as a discarded piece created for a South African museum exhibit bears the power to elicit reactions based on age-old, discredited power dynamics. It’s as if to say that no matter how far they’ve come as people and as nations, in Africa the past is never really, completely gone, at least not yet.
Perhaps the strongest theme emerging from Gods and Soldiers is that there’s no singular “voice of Africa”, no overarching cosmology to unify the continent’s literature. But that’s a great thing, in that more and more writers are finding their places within our global literary landscape.
Michelle Obama is in good company, fashion-wise. Recall her outfit at the 2009 inauguration of the President? Now imagine Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice gussied up thus. Strutting beside them; Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter and Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo illustrated gorgeous covers for these three classics, making this special Penguin collection an irresistible lure for the haute couture-minded book collector. (Ruben and his wife, Isabel, worked together on Obama’s gown, and together they were recipients of the 2005 Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for their work in fashion. You’ve seen his work in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.) Classy covers for classic books; they’ll wear well for a long time.
No one understands the hold music has on us quite like author Nick Hornby. Being an audiophile himself Hornby appreciates how, at least for some, the records we buy and the bands we love can take on a greater significance beyond their immediate aural pleasures. Hornby knows how music can come to dominate our lives, and how we can come to define ourselves by the music we hold dear. Hornby’s most famous protagonist, Rob Fleming from High Fidelity, goes so far to say that you can’t be a serious person if you have less than 500 records. But High Fidelity isn’t just about music. It’s also about love, death and the perils of relationships. And so is Hornby’s latest, a self-described quasi-sequel to High Fidelity, Juliet, Naked.
At first blush, Juliet, Naked seems to be exclusively about music, too. The novel begins in hilarious fashion, as our British protagonists, longtime couple Duncan and Annie, make their way across the US on a musical pilgrimage. The impetus for this magical mystery tour is Tucker Crowe, fictional musician and notorious recluse, who hasn’t been heard from since 1986, when his famous break-up album, Juliet, was released. It’s said that the greatest pop and rock songs are almost always about love—wanting it, getting it, losing it, trying to get it back. And in a sense, that’s what most Nick Hornby books are about, too. But his books are also about the things in our lives that we use as substitutes for love, the things that we cling to in the absence of relationships in an effort to make sense of our world—namely, music, or art. But as Duncan discovers, and Rob Fleming before him, your records can only nourish you so much, or as the Motown song goes, ain’t nothing like the real thing.
All three books would make a great gift set for any Simpsons fan, especially if they have a modicum of artistic talent. The Greetings postcard book appeals to the sophomoric humor we expect from the Homer level of things. Masterpiece Gallery blends Lisa’ sophistication with Bart’s bratty humor. The Handbook is the best of the lot: quite simply, how to draw all the Simpsons’ characters in all their many modes of comic being. Naturally, it’s funny, too.
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