Cody M. Staff Picks
Cody is from a small town in California, outside of Yosemite National Park in the Sierras. He's worked in bookselling for 14 years and came on as a manager for Book Culture in August of 2013.
Follow him @thecodystuart
Vidal's Lincoln is very much a prestige television treatment on history. Backchannel intrigue, questionable interpretations of constitutional authority, and a massive host of characters. Succession could never.
Often cited as a foundational text in the Gay Canon™, The City and the Pillar is a dark exploration into post-WWII gay life in America. Jim is handsome, quite, and ultimately a proto-Dahmer (and in the original version of the book, a murder!). I don't know if I really recommend this book, but Vidal is a delightful writer and I'll probably read everything he wrote.
This work asks how we tell a story, and how we know it's true. Margery Wolf's A Thrice-Told Tale is a powerful work of ethnographic methodology and criticism, with practical application for any writer that takes on the responsibility of telling someone else's story. It's one of the few books I reread every couple of years.
Vidal is funny. He tells a great story and crafts a good punchline, and I loved this collection of anecdotes, obituary, and remembrances. Biographers and rivals will say he made most of it up, but I think he's only guilty of stretching the truth to serve the narrative. I particularly loved the parts he wrote about his run-ins with Tennessee "the Old Bird" Williams, and dining at the tables of royalty and celebrity.
Octavia Butler got it all right. Fires in the west, pandemic across the globe, megalomaniac campaigning with "Make America Great Again". Prophetic, beautiful, and wildly captivating.
I love this book. I didn't know I needed to read a memoir that was equal parts ghost story and love story, or maybe, a story where love and want of love haunts as much as it comforts, but I did need it. Seán Hewitt has achieved dazzling brilliance with All Down Darkness Wide. And if you haven't read his book of poetry, Tongues of Fire, you simply must.
This book beautifully captures the interplay of grief and love we all experience. Sang Young Park's narrator tries to celebrate love and success when it comes, though often set against the loss of family, of friendship, or of a kind of future. And for what it's worth, Love in the Big City it will forever recontextualize Kylie Minogue for me.
This play is funny, beautiful, intimate, and worth reading and re-reading. Newly republished with a foreward from Hasan Minhaj, I know you will want to read it in one sitting!
Easily one of the best books I've ever read. A master of the short story and delightful internet presence, Taylor's debut novel is perfect for lovers or campus novels, books with pivotal dinner party scenes, and friends (and/or enemies?) to lovers narrative.
A captivating and tragic read. Definitely worth taking your time as your move through the eras of his life. John Lahr connects the life and love of Tennessee Williams with his work, and how the artist and art are deeply linked.
I also took breaks to read and watch many of the discussed works and highly recommend you do the same!
Stark, sexy, and destabilizing in the best way. As Rakesh Satyal said on Twitter, "No one else is writing like this because no one else CAN write like this."
Colby perfectly captures the way the mind wanders on a long drive. Follow her through meandering meditations on art, death, literary history, motherhood, and Ben Lerner...
Set over the course of a weekend powered by ayahuasca, Sam Lansky's novel offers an exciting journey though time and space and love and addiction and regret and also maybe hope.
A haunting read, this collection of vignettes shows pieces of the same story from many different perspectives over the course of many years. Like light refracted through a prism, Nicola Maye Goldberg creates a dazzling rainbow for you to take in.
In this debut collection, Sara Borjas sing and laughs and cries through an avalanche of memories and emotion.
"We Are Too Big For This House" made be sob on the train.
THE POET CONSIDERS THE PHRASE SMILE NOW CRY LATER
I will die in Fresno
on a hot day that opens like a white door.
On a Tuesday, I will die like an abrupt breeze
because my mother was born like an abrupt
breeze and a lonley candle lit in a patio
needs someone to solve its flame.
Horse Crazy follows an unnamed narrator. He is the most anxious voice in your head come to life. At one point, he spends like an hour walking between two intersections worried he's told Gregory (his younger, mysterious, heroin-addicted lover) the wrong meeting place. As he gets more and more wrapped up in Gregory's chaotic life, you really feel his desperation. By the end, he's nearly drowning in his (unreciprocated) love for Gregory and exhausting every lifeline his friends try to throw him. And then, Gregory is gone. This is an excruciating read.
If you like this, you should read Arcade next.
Written somewhat as a letter from son to mother, Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is desolately beautiful. Each carefully crafted sentence builds upon the last, a momentum that carries you through a hundred pages before you remember to take a breath. Bleak, brilliant, it is the book other books will be compared to for years.
Honestly, I would have been fine if it had been the last book I ever read.
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The Arrangements is Colby's investigation in to the space between opposing forces and the result is simply dazzling. I felt myself physically shaking as I read each of these poems. You, too, will marvel at her ability to cover liminal expanse in so few words. I hope you enjoy it!
If you get a chance, check out her book I Mean.
Codex 1962 is like if Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude while listening to Bjork on shuffle, but also like if John Irving started to write The Odyssey instead of Homer, but backwards, gave up part way, and Anne Carson finished it, but made it about a Jewish mystic fleeing the holocaust to Iceland to try and bring his clay son to life.
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You know how it is when the neighborhood busybody stops you on the street to fill you in on what is going on with so-and-so down the block? Each of the stories in Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime is kind of like that, told in a very frank monologue. Sometimes the whole story is told from the sidelines, sometimes by someone mixed up in the drama. And most of the time, the problem the women at the center of these stories is a man (or the lack of a good one). So come and sit a spell and listen to these tales of love and hardship.
This collection has a lot more Ariana Grande in it than you might expect. Also, why isn't more poetry written to honor Ariana Grande?
One of the best books I've ever read. Seriously.
These essays take you across time and lovers and gardens and will find a way to live in your heart for years after you read them.
1 Bookseller group chat messages about this devistating book of experiemental essays. Especially after hearing this memeber of Food4Thot read!
Life is not a stroll down 5th avenue for Angel, Venus, Daniel, and Juanito as they try to survive sex-work, violence, poverty, AIDs, and addiction in 1980s New York. In spite of this, the House of Xtravaganza (the very same one from Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning) tries to find solace in the ballroom scene and make new family to replace the ones they were cast out of. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but is wholly a work of art.
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Some Hell is a terrifying treat - bleak and sad and beautiful all at the same time. Reading it is like sitting the cold and finding yourself trapped between numbness and burning. Colin's disgust with his body, his attraction to men, and his willingness to submit is especially heartbreaking. It's like Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family, but instead of a story of grief after the death of a loved one, it's about the shame, guilt, and regret that follow. An amazing debut from an amazing writer.
This is a brilliant collection by one of the coolest authors. Joan Didion dissects her own memories of California, in something that starts out seeming like a love letter and ends more like an intervention. The feeling you get about California history is it's mostly paving over trouble and controversy and putting in a nice grocery store. This is also the perfect gift for anyone who saw Lady Bird, since Joan Didion also hails from Sacramento.
A modern-day ghost story set within the history of Parchman Prison, Jesmyn Ward's magical realism novel is a beautiful story of a family trying to survive. With literary ties to Baldwin, García Márquez, and Faulkner, twice-National Book Award winning Ward pulls off an amazing feat with this book.
This book is gross. Wrestling is gross. Stephen Florida is gross.
Like The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida is the "sports novel" that is both literary and psychological.
And much how popping a pimple can be deeply engrossing, this debut from Gabe Habash is unsettlingly captivating.
A visceral autobigraphical novel from French wunderkind Edouard Louis. The punch of A Little Life set in the blue collar community of Picardy, The End of Eddy will break your heart and then drive you to buy his other books.
This trim novel covers serious ground. It tells the story of a young, queer man working as a hustler in 1918 Reykjavik. He walks the line of insider/outsider in this closed community as Iceland deals with the end of the Great War, a volcanic eruption, political separation from Denmark, and Spanish influenza. Máni spends most of his free time at the cinema, escaping the confines of both his body and time while the world crashes around him. Sjón, the Oscar nominated lyricist, masterfully blends the real and surreal in this newly translated work!
If you haven't read The Whispering Muse, his adaption of the the story of the Argonauts, I recommend that, too!
This book asks the question "What would happen if But I'm a Cheerleader was a budget horror movie?" and follows through with a twisted and devastating story. White is an amazing writer, and and I definitely recommend tracking down a copy of his story collection Sweet & Low.
A book that grows increasingly less speculative and more predictive, Margaret Atwood's quiet and bone-chilling novel is a perennial classic for a reason. And follow up with Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower for a really heartbreaking double feature.
Lisa See is one of my favorite authors, and this novel is one of her best! See brings an ethnographer's attention to history and detail and she tells the story of Li-yan's family across nations and decades, connected through the cultivation of tea. A perfect book for someone who loves stories that explore mother-daughter relationships.
Mohsin Hamid's beautiful story imagines a world where borders are porous and complicated. You escape through a doorway in Greece and find it opens into an alley in San Francisco. How would this change the way international immigration intersects with everyday life? You will love this book and immediately recommend it to someone else.
This book is a heartbreaking work of art. While the plot is fantastical (a girl wins a trip to the moon), the beauty is the descriptions of despair and disappointment. How do you find life after someone you love dies? What do you do if you achieve your dream and it leaves you empty? Who will be there if you fall?
This book is supposedly for young people. I recommend you read it with someone older, for perspective.
Queer history is inexorably linked to the AIDs epidemic in America. As someone who came of age in the aughts, I wasn't witness to the outright suffering the gay community faced and the heroic efforts of queer men and women to make our country care and react. Thank you to David France for making this breadth of knowledge available to us, so we do not forget how much work it takes to gain even the most basic levels of humanity in some eyes.
In our current political upheaval, this beautifully told narrative history offers equal parts inspiration and forewarning. There is evil and injustice in our world and there are people doing more than there share to set things right. I hope it inspires other readers to do what they can, too, to help spread the burden of change around.
This book is an interesting mix of investigative journalism, urban studies, and personal memoir. In looking at these four cases (Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York City) as someone both on the ground and somewhat removed, Moskowitz offers an accessible entry point into the debates and misconceptions around neighborhood gentrification.
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I came to I MEAN a few years ago and I still find myself thinking about this book-length poem coupled with essays. For me the project is a presentation of thought. the poetry of I MEAN is the free association of internal dialogue and The essays representative of formalized ideas. I think it's fair to say she means to embody their conglomerate qualities.
The narrative is like the poetry of Saeed Jones or Andrew McMillan, as the focus is interior. Conley's perspective comes from his body, how it interacts with what's outside it, and how it can be controlled. You will feel each act of nausea, guilt trigger, violence, and relief (when it was permitted) in your bones. I also connected to his teenage reliance on books and videogames, and how fantasy can be comforting when you feel heartbreakingly isolated.
I don't have his Missionary Baptist background, nor have I ever been in ex-gay therapy, but that isn't a prerequisite to connecting with his journey through faith, sexuality, and surviving rape. Conley has invited us in to feel a body's reaction to them.
So read it.
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Deep rage is the guiding force in John's life as he tries to work out a place for himself in 1930s Harlem. Easily one of the best books you'll ever read. James Baldwin is a master storyteller, and this novel is so heartbreakingly beautiful.
China Dolls follows the interwoven lives of three Asian American women living in mid-century San Francisco. Lisa See takes on historical fiction with the acumen of a historian and an anthropologist, with the attention and care for prose like the best storytellers. This is my favorite of all of her amazing books!
One of my favorite short story collections, Happiness, Like Water chronicles Nigerian diaspora across continents, lovers, and generations. After you finish this, you'll have to pick up Under the Udala Trees!
Tommy Pico is easily one of the most captivating poets of this generation. And I greatly recommend you track down recordings of him reading on Youtube.
This book-length poem is delightfully exciting. Stream of consciousness rants turn to musings on past and current lovers, followed by snippets of songs and monologues on voice lessons and situating Native American heritage with environmental conservation.
Here is a little snippet:
...So I turn my phone
back on, text Michael
He's at work I say come
after he says going out
in Chinatown and who f*****g
goes out in Chinatown
after midnight on a Thursday?
All I know are boys, boys, boys
and I hate all of them Stop
f*****g posting about how
you want soup...
This book is simply breathtaking. Set in stark, post-soviet Sofia, Bulgaria, What Belongs to You tells the story of an unnamed American teacher and Mitko, the hustler who becomes the object of his affection, attention, and obsession. Especially in the latter two sections, the book digs deeply into the body of the narrator as he grapples with intimacy, illness, shame, language, scorn, divorce, and sex. It may seem like a lot to cover in this slim novel, but Greenwell has carefully chosen each word with a poet’s eye to tell this story.
This book is deeply unsettling in the best way. When not stalking his ex or working at the hotel front desk, Sam is in the back of the sex shop, spending tokens on private gay porn viewing rooms. Arcade follows him as he gets deeper and deeper into his obsession with these back rooms as he leaves the world outside them behind. A modern day Dorian Gray without gentility, this story is raw, gritty, and definitely worth reading.
Also, Drew Nellins Smith has a great Twitter handle.
This really is a beautiful read.
At first, it was a little slow. The first 80 pages are mostly gratuitous set up: who slept with who, what drugs everyone was taking, and celebrating gay liberation for a young man in San Francisco. Then the narrative switches to a history of political engagement in California. Clever travels all over and works with so many important figures in California and national politics on the fight for equality and worker protections. It's hopeful and very personal.
I cried a lot and can't wait to see the new show on ABC this spring!
A classic that yields deeper insight and satisfaction with every re-reading.
Master writer Alexander Chee has created a fantastic story around Lilliet Berne, a 19th century soprano with a hidden past. Taking place in the years around the Second French Empire, The Queen of the Night offers romance, suspense, and political intrigue as Lilliet maneuvers around French Society. Chee employs an immense technical knowledge of voice and opera, bringing a wonderfully realistic dimension to the characters and to the stage. You WILL get caught up in the drama. You WILL NOT be able to put it down.
The Naked Eye is a captivating read from start to finish. It's told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese woman who is kidnapped while visiting East Germany for a communist party conference. In trying to escape, she ends up on a train headed to Paris instead of Moscow. Lost, adrift, she begins obsessively watching movies starring Catherine Deneuve and spends the next ten years doing everything she can to be able to go to the movies every night. The whole narrative is surreal and winding. The novel also functions as cinema criticism as Anh tries to understand the connections between Catherine, her many roles on film, and the role of the viewer.
Chauncey Gardiner only knows two things: television & gardening. Being There is about what happens when space is left open for people to fill and project with their own intentions and beliefs about the world. His earnest lack of understanding is misconstrued in such circumstances that he goes from homeless former gardener to national economic advisor, international public intellectual, and preternatural lover.
This book is funny, but also terrifyingly uncanny in its depiction of American public opinion and news media.
This. Is. Beautiful.
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this book primarily follows June, a woman who loses her boyfriend, her daughter, her daughter's fiancé, and her ex-husband in a fire. The reader probes her grief by hearing both June's story and through hearing about June from perspectives of characters she interacts with. With many of these other perspectives, Clegg includes their own experiences with loss, linking the web of characters through the universality of death. Disclaimer: You will cry, so be ready for that inevitability if you read it in public.
I first heard about this book in a Guardian Books podcast and found it fascinating that Physical is the first book of poetry ever to win the Guardian First Book Prize. I didn't know much about it when I ordered it, but I immediately fell in love. McMillan captures so much of what is uniquely human in his poems, centering on the body and how it reacts when outside forces press down on it.
I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall
"Manhattan crowds with their turbulent musical chorus-
with varied chorus and light of the sparkling eyes;
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me."
from 'Give me the splendid silent sun'
A beautiful updated/restored edition of Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps was released last April by NYRB. The poems about New York helped me reconnect to this city. Loving, tender, this makes for a stellar gift.
I really got lost in this story. Claire Vaye Watkins tells a very prescient story of drought in the American Southwest. Gold, Fame, Citrus is both speculative fiction style of Margaret Atwood and Mad Max: Fury Road.
It's got everything:
- Southern California Dystopian Glamour
- Hunky men
- Desert Power & Melange
- Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
- Drought (okay so it doesn't have water)
- many other great things
I definitely recommend it for people coming off of a Dune bender or who enjoyed Emma Cline's the Girls.
A Little Life is an heir to both Lolita and The Picture of Dorian Gray. It explores the bounds of male friendship, simultaneously depicting life after unthinkable abuse. As the book goes on, the readers starts to expect the worst for Jude, Willem, JB, and even Malcolm, while hoping for the best. Or if not the best, at least something better than the worst. I recommend spending time with friends and loved ones after you finish.
This is a must for anyone who has ever spent time in California's Central Valley. In the rich tradition that includes William Saroyan and John Steinbeck, Taylor uses incredibly familiar characters in the saga of one family-owned vineyard. While much writing of California focuses on glamour of Los Angeles, the tech world of Silicon Valley, or the natural beauty of the Sierras, she illustrates how the family farming is inexorably linked to California's economy and history. Pair with your favorite California wine.
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A collection of experimental essays, Walters maneuvers through her own identity formation by assessing her experience of race, womanhood, motherhood, history, the academy, and place. The two essays about Manhattanville are especially powerful and should really be required reading for all residents of this area (and she's a frequent shopper, so you may bump into her here at Book Culture).
Under the Udala Tress tells the story of a young girl who tries to navigate lesbian identity in Biafra-era Nigeria. She faces wretched treatment, little support from family, and at times the threat of death. But she also falls in love and builds a life for herself, and reclaims her faith. I enjoyed Okparanta's collection of short stories, Happiness, Like Water, more, but this book is a strong addition to the growing body of Nigerian Literature.
I try not to shame people about what they read or don't read, but if you don't read this book, you will regret it. This open letter/memoir/polemic to his son about the reality of race in America is heartbreaking, poignant, and so beautifully written. Buy and read immediately.
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I loved Klee's Ivyland, and this flash fiction collection holds up to his style and punch. Part horror, part Saunders, you're definitely in for a wild ride.
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In this work I'd consider contemporary magical realism, Lawson places a paper man, Michael, at the center of a matrix of relationships in a city on the brink of dystopia. The story looks at how his father, his male and female lovers, his body, his art, and his definition of life mold and shape him. A must for those who like a queer fantasy narrative or like their fantasy with a little bit of mystical horror.
You have no excuse not to read this book. It is the strongest of Sjón's three recently translated novels (The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale), though all are worth reading. Sjón navigatse Greek and Icelandic myth to create a beautiful, poetic tale of epic heros after their quests have long since ended. Great if you like Neil Gaiman, Gabriel García Márquez, or Anne Carson.
This book is very useful reading for anyone who wanted a little more out of their elementary education on California's state history. Starr gives careful consideration to the geopolitical forces at work in the construction of California. I recommend it as a wonderful companion to Didion's Where I Was From. Not included is a warning to not refer to California as "Cali".
New York based poet Saeed Jones will leave you floored. You really, really nead to read this collection of poetry. It offers beauty as a reading of the black body, instead of pain and violence. Or rather, beauty despite pain and violence
Boy reads about the myth of Ganymede. One moment, Ganymede is just a beautiful boy standing on a hillside. The next, Zeus descends upon him in the form of an eagle and takes the boy to live among the gods. The book uses the word abducted.
Boy wonders who wouldn't want to be abducted.
This collection of essays works back through Darnton’s insights into the history of books. This work inspired my current studies in “Book Practices”, and I do not believe you will regret reading this defense and projection for books in and out of the academe.
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This novel offers a powerful account of refugee experience told from two somewhat opposed perspectives. 'The Colonel' is a former head of security for the dictator of a theocratic republic. Through coincidence (or providence?) he meets Vima, a translator and former prisoner of the state. Both are living in exile and find that their stories are woven together through love (though not for each other). It is at times harrowing and other times hopeful. I cannot recommend it enough.
This work of narrative poetry, and it’s sequel "Red Doc", are loose adaptations of the characters Geryon and Herakles from Greek Mythology. Set in in the modern era, the two young boys are lovers, Red with the body of a monster. Both their fantastic and mundane travels through the world cover familiar themes: trying to avoid attention, capricious lovers, and self-reliance. Herakles breaks his heart, and Geryon works to find peace.
Part fantasy, part mystery, this tale chronicles one man’s quest to rout anarchy and corruption from Europe. A great read from start to finish, with an ending that will surprise the reader.
Isherwood makes something breathtakingly beautiful in this account of a man's everyday life after loss. Reading George's sorrow is ultimately comforting, and utterly human.
This book comes from the noble tradition of people in advertising/marketing writing memoirs. That said, a memoir about a youngish man who does drag, lives with a male sex worker, and is trying to black out most nights of the week with alcohol offers a nice summer read. Set in NYC, this gay narrative also shows insight in the world of drag, clubs, and love pre-iPhone.
Gay penguins! This delightful book tells the true story of Roy and Silo, two penguins at the Central Park Zoo who fall in penguin love and are given an orphan egg to raise as their own.
In the more than a decade since it's publication, a lot can be said for progress for queer life in America. Courageous books like Tango are an important part of that change. This book is still widely contested, and I'm happy to highlight this book for Banned Books Week.
I truly love to get lost in the dramas of Williams. This story of a family gathering reveals the complex interactions between a man and wife, a son and his parents, and a man and death. A great work for establishing your entree into the writings of T. Williams. Also see: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Tales of Desire.
This story is one part psychoanalysis, one part survival/apocalyptic adventure, mixed in with fantastical elements reminiscent of Doyle’s “The Lost World” and the humidity of a New York summer. A beautiful example of Ballard's contribution to the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction.
Two of my favorite plays by Williams. “Orpheus” gives us a tragically sympathetic woman trying to carve out a life from the cracked wood of a life she has. “Suddenly” pits mother versus lover in a test of resolve and truth. Great southern settings and magical characters, as usual.
Often required reading for sociology, anthropology, and critical studies courses, The Practice of Everyday Life offers an accessible lens in reframing the mundane. In the chapter about walking around Manhattan, looking out from the top of the World Trade Center where one "leaves behind the mass that carries off and mies up in itself any identity of authors or spectators", is especially powerful.