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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

KlostermanIf you had asked Aristotle why a rock thrown into a pond sinks to the bottom, he would have said it’s because the rock wants to get back to its rightful place below the water. This notion was the prevailing wisdom for some 2,000 years until Isaac Newton came along with his theory of gravity and proved that it wasn’t the case. Is it possible that in another 2,000 years our understanding of gravity will be similarly upended? In his latest book, Chuck Klosterman asserts that it’s not only possible, but probable. Unless of course, it isn’t. Confused yet?

Klosterman tries to imagine what future generations will think of paragons of modern life. What will people 20, 100, or 1,000 years from now think (or know) about rock music, football, the Constitution, or the very fabric of the universe? It’s almost impossible to even make such predictions. The paradigm shifts that change our perception are so monumental our present-day brains can’t even comprehend them. (This view is nothing new, it should be noted.) But that doesn’t keep Klosterman from trying to predict the future. He probes these questions in an irreverent, funny, and thought-provoking manner. Interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Byrne, Junot Díaz, Richard Linklater, and many, many more round out the text.

Klosterman began the notable part of his writing career as a music critic. His earlier books focused on highbrow examinations of lowbrow culture, but his following works took a more philosophical turn. But What If We’re Wrong? is his most brain-bending book to date. I predict it will keep creative, open minds from turning into mush over the summer. 

book

Philosophy  Jake's Picks  History

06/20/16
 

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

RussoRusso is a master at depicting small-town America--in particular, the economically depleted town of North Bath in upstate New York. Once a thriving mill town, its factory has long been shut down.  Its denizens subsist on odd jobs and assorted blue collar employment.

We were first introduced to this fictional place in Nobody’s Fool, published in 1993. That book focused on Sully—one of the great anti-heroes in contemporary American fiction.  The character was modelled on Russo’s ne’er-do -well father. Both a womanizer and a gambler, Sully is a WWII vet who returns from the war forever changed. His story continues in Everybody’s Fool, published in May of this year. The sequel resumes ten years after Nobody’s Fool ends. Sully is now in his 70s and ignoring a correctable heart condition. His son Peter is divorced and the young grandson we met in the previous book is starting college.  Rub Squeers, the mentally challenged man who dotes on Sully, now has a namesake—a dog Sully has rescued and renamed “Rub” to cause confusion. We again meet Ruth, Sully’s married lover, her obese husband who collects junk for a living, and her daughter, who waits tables at her mother’s diner and pulls extra shifts at the bar. Her ex-husband, Roy Purdy, has just gotten out of prison after serving time for assault and is bent on revenge.

Yet Sully, who loomed larger than life in the first novel, is not the focus of attention in the sequel. That role is left to police chief, Doug Raymer—an insecure and depressed man who obsesses over his wife’s infidelity and untimely death. It is through him that the book drives its title; Raymer believes everyone in town knew of the affair—everyone but him.

Everybody’s Fool is more than a continuation of the richly drawn characters introduced in Nobody’s Fool. The latest novel gives the reader a deeper look into their hardscrabble lives and sympathetically paints the bad luck and poor choices of the protagonists.  Moreover, it explores the nature of evil in a way that the first book did not.  Once again, Richard Russo has proven himself to be a masterful writer who depicts the price of human foibles with sensitivity, compassion, and above all, humor.

Sara's Picks  New York  Modern Literature  Humor  Contemporary  American Literature

06/08/16
 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

GyasiHomegoing is an absolutely fascinating and wonderfully written first novel by a 26-year-old woman who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. It is a fictional look, from a different point of view, at a history and people often written about. Homegoing traces two families through several generations, beginning with half-sisters Effia and Esi, born of the same mother, who never know each other.

The novel begins in 1763 in a small village in Ghana. The first chapters are written about each sister; then chapters alternate about the lives of their descendants, through several generations, to the present.

One family remains in Ghana, and one family is transported to the Americas as slaves. While the stories set in the Americas are more familiar to us as readers (slavery in the South, emancipation, and life in Harlem), the African lives have been written about less often. One of the focuses of the novel is the slave trade on the Gold Coast in Ghana and what the Africans contributed to it, tribes fighting and selling each other to the white slavers.

While the stories of the generations contain details of the difficult and abusive situations of racism, hatred, and loss, the individual characters are very human and each generation lives with new hope. Gyasi writes with knowledge and understanding of a difficult history and of the real people whose lives are a part of it. In the Black Church tradition, a homegoing is a celebration of someone’s life, as opposed to a burial service. In Gyasi’s well written novel, each chapter is a small homegoing for each individual in a long chain of family and events. 

Historical Fiction  Historical  Gail's Picks  Family  Coming of Age  African American

06/06/16
 

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life By Steve Hyden

HydenBeatles or Stones?

It’s an age-old question, and a bit of a cliché at that.  However, it absolutely reveals quite a bit about one’s personality, according to music critic Steven Hyden.  Indeed, noted musical rivalries and feuds—be they real, perceived, or unrequited—help us understand human nature.  The desire to create intersects with the desire to compete, and thus the feuds of rock and roll legend are born.  They’re never really about the music, and one has to examine the root causes of these quarrels (young vs. old, commercial success vs. critical appeal, party animals vs. wallflowers).  The way these competitions play out explains a great deal about the artists, their fans, and society at large. 

The 16 essays in this book cover a wide range of musical eras and genres and artists (from Clapton vs. Hendrix, to Biggie vs. Tupac, to Kanye vs. Taylor), so there’s likely to be something for everyone.  Readers will also gain insight into Hyden’s thoughts on sports, movies, relationships, and the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.  These ingredients work together to create an enjoyable and wholly readable account of pop culture philosophy.        

This is the first print book from Hyden, who wrote for the now-defunct sports and culture blog Grantland (may it rest in peace).  He does have the tendency to insert his own opinions and experiences into the essays, which might make some readers feel like they’re getting drinks with an old friend who only wants to talk about himself.  If that doesn’t faze prospective readers, I absolutely recommend it to fans of Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield, or anyone who has argued about music late into the night in bars, dorm rooms, or on long road trips.

Jake's Picks

06/03/16
 

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