From a celebration of Black performance in modern times, to a wonderfully inventive short story collection. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.
Stella is reading…
A Little Devil in America
I first came across Hanif Abdurraqib’s writing through his poetry in 2016, and it’s safe to say I’ve been a fan ever since. If you haven’t heard of him, I really suggest checking out his poems online, as well as his many pieces discussing music and pop culture.
He’s one of those writers who can immerse you so completely through their unmistakable love for writing. And that love is so apparent in his newest book A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance; love not only for the craft of writing, but for every subject he explores throughout.
A Little Devil in America is such a beautiful, sprawling exploration of Black performance, artistry and culture in the US, jumping through history and modern culture. Abdurraqib lingers on a few seconds of a song, a game of cards, a Beyoncé music video, delving into the systematic racism that is embedded in our lives on a societal level, as well as reflecting on his own identity and experiences. What I loved most about this book was that it felt like I was glimpsing into the brain of someone so knowledgeable and passionate about Black art and life, who so honestly represents the pain and joy of dancing in an unwelcoming world. Reading this book made me rummage around in my desk drawer hunting for Post-It Notes so I could mark sections I already knew I wanted to revisit, and if that’s not telling of Abdurraqib’s lyricism, I don’t know what is! This is also coming from someone who (shamefully) struggles with nonfiction a lot of the time. A Little Devil in America is part memoir, part essay, part lovesong; I loved it!
Kate is reading…
Tunnelling to the Centre of the Earth
‘Not for me,’ I would think, slithering an uppity, sloe-eyed glance over a short story collection. ‘I like books with a bit more meat to their bones, and a bit more bones to their frame. Who would hunger for a bite that was never intended to satiate at all? I want to build a relationship with characters, be possessed by plot. Not tumbled through an aphorism.’
Such was my flat-brained attitude towards this kind of literature for years. They are kind of the underdog, aren’t they. It’s very hard for publishers to get mainstream readers excited about short stories. I have to confess, too, painfully: in almost all instances that I’ve picked up such a book, it was because I didn’t read the blurb properly and thought it was a novel.
So slipped through the unsentried gates of my prejudice many works that I have come to fiercely cherish. I wrote about Why Visit America last year. A literary agent whom I sometimes cat-sit for recommended Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and this contemporary, transcendent work of subversive folklore and fable now sits, glowing its eerie fluorescent green, on the most prized section of my bookshelf. Then, earlier this year after hearing Bron sing its praises, I read Born Into This by Adam Thompson. My biases right now were almost entirely undone. If they hobbled on at all, it was only because of habit – like the ghost of a vestigial, useless, even toxic limb.
Now, after reading Tunnelling to the Centre of the Earth by Kevin Wilson, I’m finally an unabashed convert.
Wilson wrote the stories when he was just a uni student, but his voice is one you’d assume is fully formed. With dark humour, wild inventiveness and an affecting understanding of where, in the human heart, it hurts, he creates strange worlds that cast reflection on our own. A fixation with a baby with a full set of teeth. A for-hire grandma who excels at her job until a new client comes along. A group of graduate friends who decide to dig a hole and keep digging. Feuding brothers and the last paper crane fluttering between them.
I read a story a night, and it was very satisfying. Especially in these attention-straying, lockdown days.
Oh, but, I am also reading novels too. Strong recommends: Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch, a lyrical, visceral, sense-shattering lost-at-sea novel set in South America, and Nostalgia is Ruining My Life, a funny and dark quick read on the absurdities of modern living as a millennial, written by a young New Zealand author. I hope good books are keeping you fine company in your homes right now too.