Ignatius Reilly is the greatest anti-hero in the history of American literature, and the rightful protagonist of John Kennedy Toole's only novel. But what you'll realize here is that this is a modern-day epic told through the eyes of about a dozen different characters that you think will never, ever be able to be weaved into a satisfying ending...until it does. A masterpiece of storyelling & by far the funniest book I've ever read, too!
An unmatched book of poetry by one of the faces of the Beat generation. To me, no poet has quite matched the pace and patterns of our internal narratives like Ferlinghetti. A readable, sprawling poetry collection that will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.
Anyone who has ever worked a dull & demeaning menial job will enjoy this book. Gina Tron gives us a tongue-in-cheek tour of her long resumè - the ravenous bosses, the strange co-workers, the crying-in-the-bathroom tragedies, and everything else we can't help but remember about our worst jobs. But despite the very real horrors of minimum-wage labor, this book is funny, and despite yourself you'll be smiling right along with Gina Tron through every poem in this collection. In the end, I think the best part about Employment is that it doesn't sink into its own tragedies. Which is really all we can ask for from a mindless job, right?
One of those books I love so much that I almost don't know how to describe it. A very basic plot summary: Nightmare Alley is the story of the rise and fall of a conniving carnival mystic. But that one sentence doesn't even begin to do this book justice. It's a glimpse into the often-ignored and maligned world of the Depression-era carnival, and a reminder that the horrors of those inside don't end in the fairgrounds. And, oh, every chapter is headed under a specific Tarot card, which adds a fun twist to the very structure of the book. Here, the old cliché is true - you won't be able to put this book down.
I have a tendency to fall into the habit of reading a never-ending string of novels, and on so many levels, picking up Budi Darma's People from Bloomington - a short story collection - was a breath of fresh air. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, these stories give an often chilling voice to characters on the fringes of a college town, people who lack a bond to the glories of the community (or what they imagine those "glories" to be) and are determined to produce those bonds whether they are reciprocated or not. These are stories of longing, stories of loneliness, and often stories of horror. In the end, People from Bloomington is, quite simply, the best book of short stories I've read in a long time, and one that reminded me how great the form can be.
This book changed my life - and as much as I love reading, I can't say that about many books out there. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much here - the novel details the life of William Stoner, a languishing Literature professor at a small liberal arts college. But underneath Stoner's story runs rivers of small victories and sufferings that mirror so much of the lives we are so quick to assign to the mundane, the daily battles that often go unstated in capital-L Literature. If you're like me, you'll cherish the time spent with Stoner, and miss him every time you drop this book back onto your nightstand.
Checkout 19 is many things: a book about books, a book about storytelling, a book about how we converse through the arts we love. But what catapults this book above the generic "book about books" formula is that we see the art begin to consume our unnamed narrator, infecting her growth into adulthood to the point of horror. Like life itself, there is nothing linear in the telling of this story - reading it felt like I was reading four different books at once, every sentence a dark parade, every word infused with minor-chord beauty. In the end, Checkout 19 is a fascinating and off-kilter coming-of-age story about what happens when the art consumes the reader, rather than the other way around.
An intricate look at the most (in)famous moment of Chicago's long labor history, told in a masterful web of events connected to Chicago's Haymarket Riots of May 4, 1886. No detail is spared in covering the expected powderkeg of labor exploitation leading up to the riot, and the unfortunate aftermath of the city's attempts at scapegoating the Haymarket's victims. There's a certain sadness in seeing how fresh the wounds of 125 years ago can be and still are in today's work-a-day world, but this is a great read for anyone interested in Chicago history and/or the labor movement as a whole.
The novel that cemented 28 Barbary Lane as one of the most famous addresses in fiction. Set in late-1970s San Francisco, Tales of the City follows Mary Ann Singleton as she navigates the curious world of roller discos and grocery store pickups, collecting a masterful cast of characters along the way. Definitely a book worth its weight in entertainment gold, but more than that, Maupin's novel remains a classic because of its amber-like preservation of pre-AIDS San Francisco.
A campus novel? A family chronicle? A postmodern dystopian thriller? White Noise is somehow all of these things, wrapped up into one tidy book. DeLillo has long been one of my favorite authors, but this one is, for me, his best novel. It's a twist on the enitre dystopian trope - in that our (anti?)hero needs to be convinced that he's living in a dystopia, rather than the other way around. Just a beautifully done book, and one that's sure to have a nugget of joy for every kind of reader out there.
Originally published in 1969, The Revolt of the Black Athlete is a rare book that navigates the intersections of sports and social justice, coalescing with the famous Black Power salutes by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The real treasure of this book is its dive into the lesser-known revolt of Black college athletes that spurred the famous Olympic protest into motion. In today's fraught sports world of Colin Kaepernick and coporatized solidarity, this book remains incredibly relevant, and its message still rings every bit as true.
Dock Ellis is, of course, The Pitcher Who Threw A No-Hitter on LSD. A strange and glorious feat, no doubt, but in a way it's sad that's all he seems to be remembered for now, because Dock Ellis was so much more than that. He was a social justice crusader. He was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of 1970s baseball. He was an all-around gift of a human being - and it's all detailed in this excellent book, easily one of the most enjoyable baseball collections I've ever read. Written in collaboration with celebrated poet Donald Hall, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball is an overlooked treasure of baseball's bookish history.
Memoirs of a Beatnik offers us a rare glimpse of the Beat Generation through a woman's eyes. Though better known as a poet, Diane di Prima's foray into prose remains an unsung literary cornerstone. Part-memoir, part-fiction, part-existential-romance, this book is a slim compendium of di Prima's life, and a chronicle of the roads that led her to the bright "city lights" of San Francisco. You'll find all of the signature Beat tropes here - the loneliness, the debauchery, the whirlwind writing - but di Prima's prose in Memoirs of a Beatnik stands alone, flying off the page, mimicking the wild cries into the night that, as a reader, keep me coming back to the Beats.
The more James Baldwin I read, the more I'm convinced that he's the best pure WRITER of his generation (maybe ever?) - and to me Another Country shows him working at the pinnacle of his talents. Every sentence on the page is poetic, every word carefully chosen, every character so perfectly crafted, all tied together with knots that struggle and (sometimes) break on the themes of race, gender, and fame in 1960s America. Meet Rufus, a troubled blues drummer. Meet Ida, Rufus's hardscrabble sister on the brink of maturity. Meet Vivaldo, Rufus's confidant who falls hopelessly in love with Ida. Meet Richard, whose tiny bit of literary success casts a wide net of jealousy and pain. Meet all these people, and you'll feel at home in the shimmering world Baldwin has created for us in this book.
I don't know about you, but I went way too long without knowing who Fred Hampton was. No one ever taught us about him in school, let alone his brutal murder at the hands of the Chicago police, LET ALONE the Black Panthers. His name never popped up in any textbooks that spent endless chapters discussing Andrew Jackson and other white "heroes" of American history. Hampton's legacy was pretty much whitewashed from my cozy, suburban existence. As I look back, I realize how horrible & glaring these omissions were, because Fred Hampton remains an icon of our revolutionary past, a social crusader whose life was taken far too soon. This book offers an accessible introduction to not only Hampton's assassination, but the subsequent trial that sought justice for him and all the lives he touched.
Sister Outsider is one of those books I wish I'd discovered ten years ago, which is fitting because it's a collection that's seemingly decades ahead of its time. Lorde writes brilliantly on everything from race to gender, from academia to activism. But what I enjoy most about these essays (mostly written during the 1970s) is that they reflect on such vital topics from the view of an "outsider" who is constantly excluded from the social movements that purport to help her. Her essays poke holes in white feminism and other areas of progressive lip-service that so often become whitewashed under the silencing waves of the well-meaning, while offering arguments and solutions as to what "outsiders" like herself really want from society, and need for their ultimate survival.
it was so hot / our dreams laid out on the sidewalk / and said 'never mind, we good'
Here's a genre you don't often hear about - Historical Poetry. It's a genre that deserves to be spearheaded by this very book. Ewing takes the ugly events of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot and weaves them into a series of poems that, despite the grim subject matter, are often beautiful and resonate loudly in today's fraught world of social & racial unrest. 1919 is a gem of a poetry collection, and a cornerstone of Chicago Art that will remain standing for a long, long time.
Do me a favor: don't wait as long as I did to read The Grapes of Wrath. I had it buried on a bookshelf, unloved, collecting piles and piles of dust. Do me a favor and make this your next "classic" read, because it deserves every bit of the praise you've probably heard by now. Steinbeck weaves the westward travels of the Joad family with a series of mystical vignettes that serve as a kind of moonlight shining down on the troubled terrain of 1930s America. The characters here are masterfully crafted, and I have yet to find an author who writes about the environment as painfully and beautifully as Steinbeck. Combine everything here - the plot, the characters, the landscape - and you have a book that has rightfully stood the test of time (and doesn't deserve to collect dust on anyone's bookshelf!).
One of 2021's better developments was the long-overdue return of Diane di Prima's Revolutionary Letters into print. Originally published in 1971, these poems remain every bit as revelatory as they were upon their first appearance fifty years ago. It's a timeless call to arms for the '70s militant or the present-day anarchist, a series of beautiful poetic streams that can be shouted through a megaphone or whispered to a friend. Equal parts shattering, instructional, and compassionate, di Prima's voice shines through in this masterful collection, and we should all thank the publishing gods that Revolutionary Letters is back in print for us to enjoy, learn from, and ultimately treasure.
Listen, by now you've probably already heard 893 different reasons why people like or don't like Catcher in the Rye. I won't get into that. Let's take a look at Salinger's short stories instead - because to me this is just a better book than Catcher in the Rye. Every corner of Nine Stories has its own heroes and villains, its own failures and victories, its own bits of beauty. Plus this is the book that really highlights what I love most about Salinger's writing - his ability to throw children into the hearts of his stories, and make them characters with incredible depth, at that. It's a rare feat in fiction. No matter how you feel about Holden Caulfield, I highly recommend you give this collection a chance, because if you're anything like me you'll see how great of a pure *writer* J.D. Salinger was, something I'm guessing that high-school English teacher all those years ago never told you.
There has been no greater injustice in my life of watching sports than Colin Kaepernick's blackballing from the NFL for the seemingly simple (yet incredibly complex) act of taking a knee during the national anthem. Though Kaepernick's story has been well-documented, The Kaepernick Effect sheds a light on the scores of high school, college, and other professional athletes who followed Kaepernick's lead and battled emotional, physical, and (not unimportantly) financial harm for the "crime" of being outspoken against the ills of America's racial divide. Dave Zirin is a rare blend of sportswriter and activist, but the shining moments in this book are the voices of those who dared to take a stand (or a knee) for justice within the ultra-conservative sports universe, risking their athletic dreams for a voice in a world that has remained deaf to their cries.
I am, admittedly, a bit of a sucker for "forgotten classics" (whatever that term may bring to mind), and Zamyatin's We definitely belongs to that fold if for no other reason than it not only foreshadowed the rise of fascism, but also predated the success of other dystopian novels that received far more acclaim than this book ever did. Originally published in the 1920s, We features the dystopian anonymity & loneliness of Huxley's Brave New World, the "Big Brother" destruction of Orwell's 1984, and hits the one true joy/horror of a good dystopian novel right on the head - predicting a world that looks eerily similar to the unfettered madness we live in now, almost 100 years in the future.
In Quicksand, we follow light-skinned Helga Crane as she navigates the world of academia, city life, and rural America, doing her best to "pass" as white in the elite (see: racist) society circles of the 1920s. But as she jumps from place to place (and continent to continent), we watch as Helga begins to feel the horror of her (non-)role within the society she tries so hard to adapt to, accumulating pains and rejections like small cuts across her soul. In the end, the reader can't help but wonder what Helga is chasing, and after we turn that last page, we're left with the question: what does it mean to belong? The complexity of this (unanswerable?) question is what makes Quicksand a true gem of the Harlem Renaissance.
It's weird: I have no desire to travel to California in this lifetime, but a lot of my favorite books have come out of that crazy state. For my money, Slow Days, Fast Company remains a quintessential piece of '60s West Coast literature and a lock for any California reading list. Written in the same ilk as Joan Didion, Nathanael West, and other classic Hollywood storytellers, these essays(?)/short stories(?) blur the line between fact and fiction and allow us to be a fly on the wall for 162 pages of fun. Writing about everything from a date at Dodger Stadium to the serenity of Los Angeles rain, Eve Babitz captures the glory and grime of '60s L.A. better than pretty much any writer I've come across. It's enough to make me want to see California for myself...almost.
In the preface of Working, Studs Terkel tells us that "this book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence." This is 100 percent true. Violence enters into the most menial of jobs. But there is also a strange beauty in the pages of this book, a beauty that exists in the knowledge of how sparsely the concept of "work" has been (and still is) treated on the written page. There is victory in the community breadmaker who takes pride in the act of baking, and tragedy in the constant belittling of the downtown parking attendant. One of the many, many reasons I love this book is because Studs Terkel presents the words of workers exactly how they are spoken, with no authorial liberty or gloss. The words of the workers are all there are, and all there needs to be. And as you comb through the stories in Working, you'll find a chronicle of a hundred little bits of revolution.
Being an enraged artist is like
entering a room and not knowing what to get high off of
My favorite poets are the ones who most successfully mimic the gears of the mind. They place a magnifying glass under the magnifying glass that already exists above all of us. They convert the often nonsensical rogue quotes & strange mantras that run through our heads into art. In Blood on the Fog, Tongo Eisen-Martin does all of this with a lucidity that will leave you awestruck. I enjoyed this book for many reasons, but first and foremost because of how well it capturess the strength of the mind trying to stay placid in the midst of our world's unrelenting madness.
Nelson Algren's masterpiece The Man with the Golden Arm follows the mythical Frankie Machine as he walks the streets of Chicago in the disillusioned aftermath of WWII, buried deep beneath the rubble of the "booming" society plastered across the front pages of newspapers and storefront windows. For Frankie Machine, there is no utopia - he's always on the hunt for the next fix, easily understanding (and almost embracing) the knowledge that one of these fixes (whether cards, drugs, or women) is sure to be his last. This is simply a wonderful book, and if you're like me, it'll make you want to pick up everything else Algren has ever written. I've yet to find someone who writes about Chicago better than he does in this book, and the true victory here is his ability to find beauty in the gutters of the city, the cast-offs of society. And let's face it, what's more "Chicago" than that?
Despite what many essay collections would have you believe, '60s America wasn't an unfettered utopia, and I've yet to read a book that better sums up the equal-parts delights & horrors of the decade's counterculture than Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As only she can do, Joan Didion takes on topics ranging from the Haight-Ashbury district, Joan Baez, and the joys of keeping a notebook. The one line that runs clear across these essays is Didion herself - her voice has a clarity and strength that remains every bit as powerful now as it was 50 years ago. As someone who is borderline obsessed with '60s culture, this book is an absolute treasure.
The BreakBeat Poets is special for many reasons, perhaps mostly because it's of the few books of poetry I'd wholeheartedly recommend to poets and non-poets alike. Drawing upon the voices of revolutionary poetry from the 1960s to the book's release in 2015, the voices in these poems create a universe of what it has meant/means to be Black in America - the pain, the power, and the pride. Whether this is your first poetry book or your 1,000th, I guarantee there's something in here for you. Just a wonderful collection of poems from a wonderful collection of writers.
I'm a big Kurt Vonnegut fan, and while I love his oft-quoted heavy hitters - Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, etc. - I have to say the lesser-known Bluebeard is my absolute favorite book of his. It tells the tale of the aging Rabo Karabekian (such a Vonnegutian name!), a reclusive artist hiding a secret in his potato barn that the world craves to uncover. And it's a secret he's content to take to his grave...at least until an alluring fan named Circe Berman arrives at his farm. As only Vonnegut can pull off, it's an "autobiography"-within-a-novel, telling of Rabo's rise to fame parallel with Circe's present-day push to reveal Rabo's big secret. Complete with a twist of an ending that'll make you love it all the more, Bluebeard represents everything l adore about Kurt Vonnegut rolled into a single, special book.
Every generation needs its own Emma Goldman. A person who rises forcefully against the status quo, a person who refuses to bow to social order, a person unsatisfied with "the way things are." These are the people who keep us awake and alive. There is rage and violence in the pages of this book, but there is also a very sensible questioning of what is truly best for the human race (surely not a society dominated by robber-barons and warlords). Goldman is a timeless and under-appreciated figurehead of American history, and although this book was published well over a century ago, her words remain powerful, and still bridge a large gap that we as a society have never quite been able to fill.
I was a bit of a latecomer to literature, and Invisible Man was (and still is) one of the books I point to in showing how hypnotizing a good book could be. The story takes us through the trials of an unnamed narrator as he travels through 1920s Harlem, encountering menial jobs, bigoted city-folk, and social revolutionaries along the way. The plot is a wonderful series of twists and turns, but Ralph Ellison's writing is what'll keep you reading through the night - he puts a magical spin on the language within what is, at its center, a harsh novel. Invisible Man remains a classic for good reason - no book I've read has showed me what it truly means to be Black in America better than this one.
Tucker Caliban, mythical outcast of a small Southern town, destroys his home and burns his prized field of crops - thus setting forward (and backward) a tale that spans centuries. A harrowing novel written during the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement, A Different Drummer is a beautifully-told tale of black struggle, and the desperation of trying to understand the unexplainable. Easily one of the most powerful books I've ever read, beautifully written with memorable moments on every page.
I *love* Fran Lebowitz. So much. She is the voice inside the heads of the somewhat misanthropic public that I identify with (for better or worse). This book collects what are (sadly) her only two essay collections - Metropolitan Life and Social Studies - into a single volume. While her hatred for the annoyances of society are many - everything from clothes to art galleries to fancy restaurants - there is an oddly endearing quality to her writing, one that makes these essays a real treasure. If you're anything like me, this book will make you want to have dinner with Fran Lebowitz - although honestly, after reading this, I don't think she'd want to have dinner with any of us.
Ernest Poole is probably best remembered as the answer to a trivia question - who won the first Pulitzer Prize? I admit, I had no idea who he was before I picked up a dusty copy of The Harbor buried in the bottom shelves of a bookstore years ago. What I discovered, once I finally dipped into this book, was arguably the finest Socialist novel I've ever come across. The plot follows the life of Billy, an aspiring college student seeking to make a name for himself in the arts. The Harbor shows the battle of opposing societal forces at the turn of the century - the fight between the Capitalist father-in-law who promises to make Billy's life a profitable one, and his Socialist friend who seeks to open Billy's eyes to the plight of the exploited. If you're like me and love a good "forgotten classic," pick this up this book. It's a classic piece of working-class fiction, and its author deserves to be remembered as more than the answer to an obscure piece of trivia.