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ARC Review: Willy Vlautin’s ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’

Hey folks!

First, a big thanks to our suppliers APD Singapore, MPH Distributors, Pansing and Times Distribution for the advance reading copies they’ve kindly given to us. They really help us make our buying decisions, and keep us in the know of what’s going on out there. This week’s ARC of Willy Vlautin’s Don’t Skip Out On Me comes to us courtesy of Times Distribution. Thanks guys.

Generously blurbed by Donna Tartt, the late Ursula K. Le Guin and Colm Tòibìn, and featuring a sketch of a horse on the front cover, I was expecting a gritty western with tobacco chewing, hard-as-nail cowboys and swaggering chaps. Perhaps a bit of a romance, some fights, and characters with quick tempers and penchants for vengeance. ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ is and isn’t that kind of novel.

The story revolves around Horace Hopper, a half-Irish, half-Indian ranch hand with dreams of becoming a champion professional boxer. Strangely, he believes that he has to pretend he is a Mexican in order for this dream to come true because ‘Mexican boxers are the toughest… They go toe-to-toe. They’re true warriors who never quit, who never back down, who are never scared’. This despite being unable to learn the most rudimentary Spanish and a latent inability to stomach Mexican food.

This naïve outlook on his route to success is bolstered by the teachings of a third-rate self-help guru — “To be a champion you have to create your own future… You have to build your boat little by little and brick by brick until it’s unbreakable and unbeatable” —, an almost unbearable fear of failure and, arguably, an overly coddling adoptive father/employer. But perhaps this is preferable to the alternative of viewing one’s self an unwanted half-breed, good for nothing except as a drain for a bottle of cheap grain whiskey.

The caricature of the half-Indian may seem harsh but it is nevertheless not an untrue one. In the two years that I spent in Indian country as a news reporter in Fort Smith, Canada, I bore witness to the systemic abuse faced by many native Americans — abuse that came from both within and without. I’d met a few native Americans, who like Hopper, had internalised the worst of these. Unlike Horace, the majority of them fell into a spiral of self-debasement leading to substance abuse and generational cycles of recrimination.

From this perspective, Horace’s optimism for himself — even if he has to reject his identity to don the trappings of Hector Hidalgo, an el boxeador — is heartening. But, as with all adopted identities, it is a fragile shell and one that is easily cracked. To his disgust and immediate regret, he lies to protect his identity as Hector Hidalgo with the most preposterous of claims:

“Horace Hopper is the name I was given later on, it’s what’s on my ID, but my real name is Hector Hidalgo. That’s the name my dad has — that’s the name he gave me before he got murdered… He got murdered in front of me when I was 12. In the driveway of our house. he stood up against a drug cartel and they killed him for it. After that, my mother was so worried she changed our name to Hopper.”

Meanwhile, he ploughs onward in life the same way as he does in boxing: He gets hit a lot, but hits back harder. It didn’t matter how many punches he had to take to get his hard, solid punches in so long as he was the only one left standing in the ring. The strategy works for a while and he enjoys some early success with his boxing career. But success earned under a false name and identity always rings hollow, and leads to difficult questions about the suppressed self.

Who: Willy Vlautin is an American author and was the lead singer and songwriter of the Portland, Oregon band Richmond Fontaine and is currently a member of The Delines. His previous novel Lean on Pete was adapted into a major motion picture and screened at the 74th International Venice Film Festival.

Verdict: I finished Don’t Skip Out On Me in two sittings. It’s not a boxing book and it’s not really a Western, but Horace is a sympathetic protagonist. The setting of the novel may seem a bit alien to local readers, and the Latino flavour of the book may not be up everyone’s alley but it’s a book that sits well with perseverance. (7.5/10)

In-store Availability: Trade paperback, RM86.95

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Reading literary fiction enhances our capacity for empathy

Empathy: if there’s one thing the world needs more of right now, it would be that. Not a week goes by that the news headlines fail to blare some horrible crime or act of hatred and prejudice against a specific individual or group — Muslims, the LGBT community, women, you name it. The lack of empathy, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, seems to very much be at the root of these wanton and sometimes senseless acts of violence where perpetrators seem to be unable or unwilling to put themselves in their victims’ shoes.

Fortunately, the lack of empathy is a problem we can fix. Recent scientific research has shown that by immersing ourselves in literary fiction, our propensity and ability to empathise with others increase in tandem. Cognitive psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University in Ontario, Canada have spent the last 10 years gathering data which shows that reading fiction results in a better understanding of actual human emotions.

“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world… and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat — it’s not a magic bullet — it’s an opportunity for change and growth,” said Mar in a speech at the 2014 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention.

In a particularly interesting study done in 2006, Oatley and Mar tasked 94 participants with determining a person’s emotional state by looking only at a photograph of their eyes. They found that “the more fiction people [had] read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues”.

But why literary fiction? One possible answer is that compared to other genres, literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. So though they may be imagined, the stories nevertheless come from a very real place, namely the writer’s own experiences and understanding of the human condition and their accompanying complexities. Literary fiction, from this perspective, communicates a truth about life and people that goes beyond the mere descriptions in the prose.

By reading novels with an emotional import, we immerse ourselves intimately in the psyches of the characters and their unique worlds of experience. We have a unique point of view of their experiences, which in turn generate feelings as though they were someone we knew. The spill-over effect is that these experiences help us to better interpret and respond to those who are different from us. The emphasis literary fiction places on psychological realism helps reinforce respect of ‘Otherness’ and encourages readers to get beyond the insularity of their own worlds.

So pick up some lit fic today. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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Huzzah! The first book arrivals of 2018!

I’ve been staring nervously at our depleted stacks these last few weeks, wondering if anyone else had noticed that our stacks were growing barer by the day. Some creative shelving helped mask the growing number of brown spots, as did some emergency runs down to one of our distributors’ warehouse. But deliverance was at hand — the first of what I hope to be many shipments of our January stock came by way of our favourite delivery guy Ayau yesterday. Definitely some interesting stuff in the package yesterday, with two books from the frontlist. Here’s a quick run-down:

Front List

  • What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong: The latest book by David Wong of John Dies at the End infamy, What the Hell Did I Just Read promises a good time. Check this:

    While investigating a fairly straightforward case of a shape-shifting inter-dimensional child predator, Dave, John and Amy realised there might actually be something weird going on. Together, they navigate a diabolically convoluted maze of illusions, lies, and their own incompetence in an attempt to uncover a terrible truth they — like you — would be better off not knowing.

  • The Vagina Monologues (20th Anniversary Edition) by Eve Ensler: Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the publication of the original Vagina Monologues. The monologues, which delve into a wide range of female experience, has become a cultural marker of the 20th century, and continues to remain relevant in the 21st. Not uncontroversial, this edition of the book includes six previously unpublished monologues and a new foreword.

Mid and Backlist

  • How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster: The English novelist’s final work before her death in 2016, How to Measure a Cow is the story of a former convict who is seeking a new beginning in a northern English town. She fosters an unexpected relationship with the curmudgeonly widow, Nancy, across the street who–and I am guessing here–teaches her how to measure a cow. Quite looking forward to this one.
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns: A classic, overlooked tragicomedy where a flood in a small English village brings more than wet shoes and socks to a cast of poor village sops. Subsequent to the flood, they are afflicted by a madness causing each of them to summarily commit suicide in, from what I gather, not uninteresting manners. An introduction and summary to this edition is available here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-9844693-1-4
  • The Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman: I first stumbled onto this book after Googling ‘Diogenese Club’ after listening to Stephen Fry’s excellent 60-hour performance of the Sherlock Holmes’ novels. I was somewhat familiar with Newman’s Anno Dracula series, and thought this could really work given the impressive summary provided by the publisher:

    The debonair psychic investigator Richard Jeperson is the Most Valued Member of the Diogenes Club, the least-known and most essential branch of British Intelligence. While foiling the plot of many a maniacal mastermind, he is chased by sentient snowmen and Nazi zombies, investigates an unearthly murderer stalking the sex shops of 1970s Soho, and battles a poltergeist to prevent it triggering nuclear Armageddon. But as a new century dawns, can he save the ailing Diogenes Club itself from a force more diabolical still?

  • Deep Red by Hisashi Nozawa: We picked this up because of the cover, if we are going to be absolutely honest. But it helps that it’s also a prize winner that has been well reviewed. From what we gather, it’s a Japanese thriller where lots of people have been killed, and a protagonist who has to make sense of it all and survive. Why not?
  • 50 Greatest Stories: Ah, the short story compilation, edited by an unknown editor, published by a company that bills itself as the House of Bestsellers, this is a book of enigmatic provenance but nevertheless contains a good selection of classic short stories including The Gift of the Magi, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and features an author list including Chekov, Dickens, Fitzgerald and Conrad. Makes for a nice gift for a young reader embarking into the world of classics.

We’re looking forward to more books coming in this week and we will be reviewing some of these in the near term so look out for them. Signing out for now with a modicum of relief.

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The first 14 days…

Hi folks, Min Hun here. Every now and then, I will be writing a bit about what’s been happening at our store, and what I’ve been reading. This would be an example of such a thing. 

It’s been two weeks since Lit Books opened its doors to the public, and lessons have been learnt:

  • Malaysian readers  are an enthusiastic and sometimes zealous bunch;
  • It’s difficult to not hoard books for one’s self;
  • The logistics of the book business, especially for a small, independent bookshop, can be infuriating.

Two weeks is no doubt insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the level of enthusiasm greeting our presence has been humbling, to say the least. We are very grateful to visitors who dropped by after reading about us on social media (special thanks to TimeOut KL, Poskod.myTongue in Chic  and Says.com for the feature pieces) as well as to our friends and neighbours in the community. Your presence has helped alleviate some of the anxiety associated with all new enterprises, and we look forward to seeing you again.

In the meantime, we are playing around with some ideas of what we would like to do events-wise in the new year, and we will keep everyone posted via this blog as well as through social media. These include:

  • Author readings – which local author would you be interested in?
  • Book clubs – we’re hosting our first group in January, but perhaps an in-house book club?
  • A collaboration with a broadcast partner?
  • Group of book reviewers – if we can swing an agreement with our distributors and publishers, we’d like to form a group of book reviewers. We might be getting advance review copies and there’s no way Elaine and I can go through them all.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Stuff I’ve recently read (that just happens to be available in store)

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Who: Matt Haig dips his pen in myriad ink pots, writing in various genres. How to Stop Time is his first adult novel.

What: How to Stop Time is about the life of one Tom Hazard who suffers from anageria, a genetic disease that slows his ageing process to about a fifteenth of a regular person’s. There is both loss and suffering in the centuries he’s been alive and the story picks up in the here and now where Tom attempts a reconciliation of his existential grief and a normal life. Oh, there’s also a Secret Society in the mix.

Why: At its heart, How to Stop Time is a romantic fantasy. It feels like a confessional, similar to Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire sans the supernatural gothic horror. It probably wouldn’t give away too much to say that witch hunters are involved. And did I mention a secret society?

Readers expecting a lush adventure with the protagonist at the centre of key historical events in the past 500 years will be disappointed. However, there is a brief encounter with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the roaring 20s, as well as a run in with Beethoven and Shakespeare.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love… There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this, you will just about be okay.’

Verdict: It’s a straightforward book which tries hard to transport the reader away to Tom’s fantastical life. Unfortunately, the protagonist is a bit of a downer, which gets in the way of his, and our, having a good time. A good book to pick up in between heavier reads and for a quick one whilst lying down by the beach. 6/10

Trivia: English character actor Benedict Cumberbatch will produce and star in the film adaptation of the book – makes sense with the book’s cinematic romp across time.

Availability: Paperback, RM55.90. Mention the phrase: “Time is Money” at our cashier to get 10% off while stocks last.

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert (Published 1 Aug 2017)

Who: Author whose debut novel The Dark Room was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001, and whose subsequent work has been listed for various other prizes.

What: A Boy in Winter is set over three nights in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1941 following the retreat of the Soviets. Apprehensively greeted by the Ukrainians as liberators, the Nazi occupants quickly become instruments of terror and fear, shattering all trepidatious hope of a return to a bucolic, pre-Soviet countryside. The story is told mainly through the lens of three protagonists and their families – Yasia, a peasant girl who dreams of hearth and home; Pohl, a high-minded and moralistic German engineer grudgingly enlisted into the Nazi army; and Yankel, the boy in winter of the title.

Why: Seiffert is unsparing but sympathetic in the book. She accurately captures the terror of the Nazi invasion, and the fear and dread inspired by the Schutzstaffel’s (SS) assault squads – legions who defy all demands of morality, justice and rationality to comprehensively destroy hope in the mercy of conquerors; in the compassion of neighbours; in the basic tenets of human decency. The lives of the protagonists are intertwined in despair with little room for heroism. The novel’s inflection point is obvious–it plays off the illusions of the main characters, each of whom respectively thinks that pragmatism, heroism and morality will see them through. Then the SS officers round up the Jews.

The complacency builds to the point where one gets an almost irresistible urge to shake them by their collars and shout at them to wise the #$! up! But that doesn’t happen. It seems unimaginable even within the scope of poetic license that hundreds of men and women would allow themselves be led to slaughter; irrational, even. The complete surrender described is unthinkable save that history does bear out this sad point.

A Boy in Winter is not an unfamiliar story (think The Book Thief), but it is one that is nevertheless refreshing in Seiffert’s adroit hands.

Best/Worst Line: ‘He could have taken twenty, thirty, forty. He could have selected so many – men and women both: they wanted to be chosen. But he refused them. He did nothing. And Pohl could see nothing on the pages but his own pride and blindness; nothing but a rope to hang him with.’

Verdict: Spare prose reasserts the bleakness of the Ukrainian winter and the grey terror of the Nazi occupation. The book fails to delve deep enough into the psychology of the players so character motivations and responses are sometimes left to the reader’s own imagination, especially that of the titular boy in the winter. 7.5/10

Availability: Hard cover, RM122.00. Mention the phrase: “Winter is Coming” at our cashier to get it for RM99.90 while stocks last.

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Get your hands now on the best nonfiction of 2017

So many books, so little time – ‘tis the constant lament of bookworms the world over.

We feel you.

Here’s where the year-end best books lists tabled by the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, BBC News, and Goodreads come in handy – they are a good place to start with picking a quality read. The following titles are 2017’s highly acclaimed non-fiction titles available at our store now.

 


We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe
By Jorge Cham & Daniel Whiteson
PHD Comics creator Jorge Cham and particle physicist Daniel Whiteson teams up to explore everything we don’t know about the universe: the enormous holes in our knowledge of the cosmos. Armed with their popular infographics, cartoons, and highly entertaining and lucid explanations of science, they give us the best answers currently available for a lot of questions that are still perplexing scientists. Cham and Whiteson also make a compelling case that the questions we can’t answer are as interesting as the ones we can. With equal doses of humour and delight, Cham and Whiteson invite readers to see the universe as a possibly boundless expanse of uncharted territory that’s still ours to explore. (Hardcover, RM131.95)

 

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
By Sam Kean
It’s invisible. It’s ever-present. Without it, you would die in minutes. And it has an epic story to tell. In Caesar’s Last Breath, bestselling author Sam Kean takes us on a journey through the periodic table, around the globe, and across time to tell the story of the air we breathe, which, it turns out, is also the story of earth and our existence on it. With every breath, you literally inhale the history of the world. Tracing the origins and ingredients of our atmosphere, Kean reveals how the alchemy of air reshaped our continents, steered human progress, powered revolutions, and continues to influence everything we do. Along the way, we’ll swim with radioactive pigs, witness the most important chemical reactions humans have discovered, and join the crowd at the Moulin Rouge for some of the crudest performance art of all time. Lively, witty, and filled with the astounding science of ordinary life, Caesar’s Last Breath illuminates the science stories swirling around us every second. (Hardcover, RM144.90)

 

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything
By Kelly Weinersmith & Zach Weinersmith
From noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith and the celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith (creator of the hugely popular web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) comes a hilariously illustrated investigation into future technologies. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach’s trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate 10 different emerging fields, from programmable matter to augmented reality, from space elevators to robotic construction, to show why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way. (Hardcover, RM119.95)

 

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
“We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fuelled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president”.

But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period – and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation’s old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective – the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.

We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates’s iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case for Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates’s own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era. (Paperback, RM89.95)

 

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
By Neil De Grasse Tyson
What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and bestselling author Neil deGrasse Tyson. But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day. (Hardcover, RM85.90)

 

How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed Aids
By David France
This multi-award winning book by David France is the riveting, powerful and profoundly moving story of the AIDS epidemic and the grass-roots movement of activists, many of them facing their own life-or-death struggles, who grabbed the reins of scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Around the globe, the 15.8 million people taking anti-AIDS drugs today are alive thanks to their efforts. Not since the publication of Randy Shilts’ now classic And the Band Played On in 1987 has a book sought to measure the AIDS plague in such brutally human, intimate, and soaring terms. Weaving together the stories of dozens of individuals, this is an insider’s account of a pivotal moment in our history and one that changed the way that medical science is practised worldwide. (Paperback, RM82.90)

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay
Bestselling author Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and bodies, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined”, Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she casts an insightful and critical eye on her childhood, teens, and twenties-including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life-and brings readers into the present and the realities, pains, and joys of her daily life. With the bracing candour, vulnerability, and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time when the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and tells a story that hasn’t yet been told but needs to be. (Paperback, RM89.90)

 

The Undoing Project
By Michael Lewis
Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of breathtakingly original papers that invented the field of behavioral economics. One of the greatest partnerships in the history of science, Kahneman and Tversky’s extraordinary friendship incited a revolution in Big Data studies, advanced evidence-based medicine, led to a new approach to government regulation, and made much of Michael Lewis’s own work possible. In The Undoing Project, Lewis shows how their Nobel Prize-winning theory of the mind altered our perception of reality. (Paperback, RM51.90)

 

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
By Robert M. Sapolsky
From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behaviour, both good and bad, and an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do? Sapolsky’s storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: He starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behaviour occurs, and then hops back in time from there, in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its evolutionary legacy. Named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. (Hardcover, RM89.95)

 

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
By Yuval Noah Harari
Author of the critically-acclaimed Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods. Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style – thorough, yet riveting –famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century – from overcoming death to creating artificial life. (Hardcover, RM99.90)