September Staff Picks & Pick-Me-Ups
Need a book to get you through the autumn, or squirrel away for winter reading? Burley Fisher staff submit their book reports fresh for the first week of term. What did we read during the summer? From republished classics to cutting-edge speculative fiction, the stories of a city and of singular subjectivities, we've got you covered. Plus: 10% off all these titles, throughout September!
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
This winter, you’re going to need a laugh. A belly shaker that makes you snort on public transport. Elif Batuman can provide this for you. The Idiot, and the recent sequel, Either/Or follow Selin, a young Turkish American, as she struggles through her first two years in Harvard. They chart Selin’s reaching for, and failing to find, the certainties that we think will shape adulthood, but which never materialise. She documents the tragedy of adolescent earnestness like no one else. Trust me, it’s fucking hilarious.
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
Maud Martha is the only novel by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and it’s just been re-isseud in a handsome volume by Faber. It’s an absolute gem, a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous main character, from her childhood to life in an apartment building on the South Side of Chicago. It’s basically a high literary version of the meme: expectation vs reality. It’s a real pleasure to read (the rhythms of the prose really let you know that you’re in the hands of a poet), while also being structurally slyly subversive. It stays with you!
The Book of Birmingham: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Kavita Bhanot
'Birmingham is a true city of the future: endlessly becoming, never arriving.'
Birmingham, like any city, is a changing landscape. But, unlike a lot of places, it never seems to reach the point of definition. Its celebration as the site of the Commonwealth Games feels overdue but also entirely insincere. Its importance as a key part in Britain’s industrial history has fallen away as factories have closed to be replaced by shopping malls and car parks. Birmingham is geographically segregated (or ‘separated’, as Bhanot puts it) by race and class through anti-pedestrian junctions and dual carriageways.
Through these ten short stories the reader captures glimpses of disparate pockets across the city, each dealing with its own task of transformation - immigration, political unrest, industrial decline. Featuring writing by Balvinder Banga, Alan Beard, Jendella Benson, Kit de Waal, Sharon Duggal, Joel Lane, Malachi McIntosh, Bobby Nayyar, C.D. Rose & Sibyl Ruth. Published by Comma Press.
Hashish by Oscar A. H. Schmitz, translated by W. C. Bamberger
'Life seemed to stand still in the moment of unfettered discharge. The brimming intoxication suddenly flew out of their souls. Empty - fragile - the disillusioned ones stood there and in their suddenly frozen minds scarcely knew how to pull back the reins of the flown phantom that had presently seemed like life.’
Oscar A. H. Shmitz’s ‘Hashish’, first published in German in 1902, toys with narrative structure as much as it plays with the imagination. The reader is transported to a shadowy, hallucinogenic, slightly queasy and gruesomely thrilling realm of demonic union (naughty!), bored aristocrats (dangerous!), cannibalistic orgy (sexy!) and waking dreams (???) as the unnamed narrator chronicles a drug-addled night in Paris. Stories within stories accompany the narrator’s increasingly bizarre observations, pulling the reader further into the book’s parodically decadent depths.
Pearls from Their Mouth by Pear Nuallak
You want dreamily yearning speculative fiction and incisively immediate critical essays? Look no further than the incendiary talent of Pear Nuallak, as they traverse multiple routes and roots of being in words. Their first collection is exactly that: a true collecting of thoughts, ideas, dreams, desires, insights, insistences, urgencies and pluralities that will leave you feeling gathered along with ‘all the strange, gorgeous sensate forms that experience the world’. From a haircut that changes everything (or nothing) to meetings in dreams to freeing all the waters of London, this is a book you will want to carry around with you, reading bits to your friends as voice notes at 2 am, and finding companionship in rage and hope.
Nettleblack by Nat Reeve
Nettleblack arrives breathlessly, wholly itself, yet also winding down the strange and brilliant bent lanes previously ridden by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Robert Aickman. It’s a gorgeous bicycle basket of a novel wherein there are many things that delight my big gay heart, including bicycles and the divided skirts in which to ride them; ferrets and novelty rat pyjamas; surprising cravats and haircuts; full tilt journalling for justice (and love); scandalous novels; self-naming; swooning; sisters, and running away from – and towards – them; and a cornucopia of true love, of every kind and queerness. A heart tonic in a dark time, Nettleblack will sweep you up unawares and carry you along in its headlong plots and desires, just as the Dallyangle Division does to Henry – and like Henry, you may find that it changes, and even saves, you; or at the very least, makes you ecstatic.
The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas
Don't start this book in public! The opening comprises of a wildy sexual and surreal poem about a couple meeting and discovering one another in a white hotel in the mountains, it is one of the most startling openings to any book and sets the tone of a novel that doesn't let up. The second part of the novel deconstructs this dream poem in Freudian psychology and relates it back to the experiences of the main character Lisa Erdman (under the patient symbolism Frau Anna G). The novel then shifts gear into a narrative of Lisa Erdman's life as an opera singer, and ends with the tragedy of her and her son's deportation to the horrors of Babi Yar. A blend of fantasy, historical fiction and psychoanalysis, this novel is plain weird but also a deeply memorable and startling read.
‘Remarkable and original… there is no novel to my knowledge which resembles this in technique or ideas. It stands alone’ Graham Greene 👀
Highly recommend if you want something to mix things up a bit!
After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg
Jonas Erika is one of the most exciting new voices in translated fiction. After the Sun is a collection of experimental and beautifully written short stories that touch on sci-fi, the darkness of tourism and yearning for escape from a metropolis existence. In the story ‘Bad Mexican Dog’ a group of beach boys slink between the tourists they serve in a psychedelic portrayal of abuse, bribery and male camaraderie. The writing in this story is exceptionally visual and cinematic, the portrayals of landscape completely unique. Not every story punches on this level, but all the stories attempt to push the boundaries of what the form can do, and for that alone After the Sun is one to grab and dip into!
Telluria by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton
One of the pleasures of the increasing availability of Vladimir Sorokin’s fiction in English is the slow and steady unveiling of his literary project. With the release of Telluria (2013), a typically schizoid depiction of a world Balkanized by postmodernity (think Calvino on Krokodil), Sorokin reveals a fictional world first built in his earlier books the Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik. This, then, is the project: a fantastic, neofascist, crack-addled sci-fi post-Sovietism; the “Vladimir Putin Cinematic Universe”. Its cast, from holy fools to neo-Tsarist boyars, are united by their slavering obsession for the drug Tellurium, which functions as a cipher for fiction itself. Essential reading.
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernard, translated by David McLintock
Thomas Bernhard’s most incisive novel. A skewering of Viennese bourgeois society, framed around a dinner to host a famous actor, Woodcutters deals with typically intense topics: suicide, failure, alcoholism, sexuality. Written as a roman-à-clef, Woodcutters caused outrage at the time of its publication. Not only did Bernhard turn upon his long-time patrons and supporters, the controversy reached the court rooms: Woodcutters is the only book in postwar Austria to be seized from the shelves of bookshops by armed police. Gruelling, hilarious and deeply moving, read this if you want to an exquisite rant about artistic pretensions.