by March 19, 2013 at 11:00 am 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Well, it seemed for a few days that spring was here. And even if there are still a couple more weeks of wintery winds to tolerate, there’s no denying the fact that spring’s arrival is inevitable. Which, if you’re a book nerd, also means it’s the perfect time of year for reading outdoors.

What you need for a perfect late evening at the park (before the sun sets, naturally) or for a lazy weekend afternoon outdoors (on a bench, on a blanket, at an outdoor bar table) is a slim book: something that’s easy to carry, easy to read (while still being classy) and easy for a dedicated reader to finish in a single sitting.

Of course, you could always stick with a tried and true classic such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener. But if you’re in the need for some short reads (of the non-magazine variety) to make your spring adventures a little more literary, here are some maybe-not-so-familiar suggestions.


Flannery O’Connor.


Don DeLillo.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor: One of the 20th Century’s best short story collections, O’Connor’s tales — filled with gangsters, hucksters, preachers and other social grotesqueries — are compulsively readable and masterpieces of the Southern Gothic tradition. Think you can’t read an entire book of short stories in a day? Think again.

The Body Artist, Cosmopolis or Point Omega by Don DeLillo: For those of you eager to chew on something dense, rich and excessively postmodern, you can’t go wrong with this highly respected America author’s recent novels, all of which dabble in unrealistic dialogue, minimalist writing and grand concepts about human civilization. Are there hidden layers to these books or is it just a bunch of hogwash? You be the judge.


Martin Amis.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis: It’s the relatively simple story of a Nazi doctor at a concentration camp who flees to America to start a new life as a doctor. Except he’s living it entirely in reverse. Amis’s ingenious short novel not only offers a new way to think about the mundane aspects of life — it also lends an even more surreal gravity to one of the most horrible moments of the 20th Century.

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by February 5, 2013 at 10:00 am 1 Comment

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

More than four years after his suicide, David Foster Wallace remains one of the more dominant landmarks in the literary landscape of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And even if you still haven’t gotten around to reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest (or if your bookmark still remains sandwiched somewhere in the first 200 pages), you almost certainly know his name.

How did Wallace become such an icon for a generation of readers and writers? Some answers can be found in two recent books that, when read side by side, offer a clearer understanding of the author and his work.

One of the issues with Wallace’s fiction is its intensity of style. Manic, polysyllabic, dense, depressing, anxious – these are all sound words for what it’s like to immerse yourself in a Wallace short story or novel. These aren’t negatives, by the way; his work sees into the human experience in a way that’s remarkably insightful.

It’s like Virginia Woolf on acid. But it is all too easy to get lost in the maelstrom of the author’s mind; to start feeling a little manic and anxious yourself (take any story in his last collection, Oblivion, to see my point).

"books"His nonfiction, however, is much more accessible. The posthumous collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, is a perfect example of Wallace’s ability to engage readers and open their eyes to new ways of seeing how we all live. Of course, being a posthumous collection, one can’t help but feel the editors were picking at the bottom of the barrel in some instances (did we need blurbs on his favorite overlooked novels or lengthy notes on often misused vocabulary?).

Even still, there are some brilliant pieces here, complete with their trademark footnotes that you should never skip. Even if you pick and choose your way through this collection (the recommended approach), be sure to read the title essay (on the god-like abilities of Roger Federer), “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2” (about the then-dawning age of FX-heavy films), and “The Best of the Prose Poem” (a hilariously scathing takedown of a prose poem anthology).

"books"Of course, the life of the man behind the work makes for a heavier read. One of the first authorized Wallace biographies (and undoubtedly not the last), D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a penetrating look at Wallace’s life and career. Working in collaboration with Wallace’s family and friends, and tapping into a host of letters with editors and writers (including frequent correspondence with Wallace’s idol, Don DeLillo), Max has written a detailed and well-researched investigation.

It’s inspiring to learn how Wallace developed his style and career, but it’s also quite painful to read about his addictive personality, his struggle with depression (which he eventually lost), and the ways in which he continually doubted his abilities. Be sure: this is not an uplifting and inspirational story; it’s a deep sea dive into a writer’s mind and a cautionary tale about what’s its truly like to live — and be trapped — inside your own head.

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by November 20, 2012 at 11:00 am 1,742 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"rushdie"By now, the story has taken on the air of legend: On Feb. 14, 1989, a day when most of the Western world was professing its Hallmark love for one another, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie on the charges of blasphemy against Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses.

Of course, any cursory glance at the social pages and you’re likely to find mention (or pictures) of Rushdie at various parties and premieres, so we know that this story ultimately ends well. But what exactly happened during that decade-long period of hiding from fanatical assassins and living under the (surprisingly oppressive) shadow of government protection?

Finally, we have the story in Rushdie’s own words. Well, sort of. His long-awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (titled after the code name Rushdie lived under during the fatwa years) is actually told in the third person, so that Rushdie himself becomes a character enmeshed in a tale of political intrigue and espionage, back-room deliberations and secret meetings, and assassinations both thwarted and unfortunately successful.

This decision to avoid the first-person is an interesting one. It helps dodge the pitfall of self-importance that plagues (but is an essential part of) so many memoirs. Unfortunately, it raises the stakes on having to make the “character” of Salman Rushdie more engaging and believable. It’s a curious disconnect between what we expect of memoirs and what we expect of narrative fiction.

But to be asked to follow “Salman Rushdie” instead of Salman Rushdie for 600-plus pages is a bit of a chore–even when he takes care to reveal his own flaws and even given the importance of what’s at stake here (freedom of expression, the battle against religious extremism, the important role of literature in society).

Rushdie has been known to write massive epics (Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet), but those works have always carried themselves on a whirlwind of storytelling magic and linguistic acrobatics. All too often, though, Joseph Anton feels like nothing more than a laundry list of events; a police procedural in the worst sense. “First, this happened to me. Then, this happened to me. Then this. And this.” We get the skeleton of a complex story, but none of the organs, muscles and tissues to transform it into a living, breathing tale.

And then there’s the epic laundry list of famous faces Rushdie meets during his years drumming up support for his cause and, eventually, reclaiming his life: Susan Sontag, Bono, Warren Beatty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steve Martin, Madonna. These and other names drop into Joseph Anton with all the subtlety of a depth charge, forming a veritable who’s who of late 20th century pop culture.

To be fair, there are some moments in the tedium worth savoring: Rushdie’s early life and birth as a writer; the insights into how he prepared for and wrote his early masterpieces (including the controversial novel that destroyed his everyday life); the call to arms from writers from around the world to stand up for free speech; that final moment when Rushdie steps back into the real world as himself and hails a cab without the suffocating presence of armed security forces.

But as a lifelong fan of Salman Rushdie and a firm believer in the magic of his storytelling powers, I found Joseph Anton to be a disappointment. As a record of events from this period in Rushdie’s life (which he considers the first stirring of the larger geopolitical war between Islam and the West that truly announced its presence on 9/11), the memoir does an adequate job. But if you’re looking for an example of what makes Rushdie so brilliant in the first place, you’re better served going back to his earlier works.

That’s what I’m doing. And I’m rediscovering just how great a writer he can be–and just how lucky we all are that he’s still around to tell stories.

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by September 14, 2012 at 8:00 am 1,373 0

From Rachel Nania. Check out her blog, Sear, Simmer & Stir. Follow Nania on Twitter @rnania, email her at rachel[AT]

"Solas Nua books"

Solas Nua will distribute free books on September 17. (Borderstan)

On Monday, September 17, Solas Nua, a DC-based Irish arts organization, will be hitting the pavement and distributing free books to commuters at some of the District’s busiest Metro stops.

On the annual Book Day, the nonprofit group will hand out 10,000 books by Irish authors from 6 am until 6 pm (or until the books run out). The tradition of offering free books by Irish authors is part of Solas Nua’s mission to give voice to contemporary Irish artists and writers.

Solas Nua is partnering with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, GemmaMedia, the Adult Literacy Resource Center at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, and D.C. Library Renaissance for this year’s event.

If you are interested in helping with Book Day, Solas Nua is in need of volunteers to prepare the books (on Saturday, September 15) and then distribute the books on Monday at the various locations. For more information on how to become involved, visit the website.

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by August 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm 1,276 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Fall seems to be the Oscar season of literature: a season packed with books by big-name authors commonly associated with the best that modern writing has to offer. And 2012 is no different. There’s a lot to choose from, folks. And this is only a small sampling of what’ll be hitting bookshelves in September, October, and November.

Whatever you hope to read, plan accordingly, fellow bookworms. It’s going to be a busy season.


“NW” by Zadie Smith (September 4)
Smith’s first novel in years is another multifaceted and multicultural look at contemporary London – this time through the eyes of four residents of an urban corner of the city.

“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon (September 11)
Chabon foregoes comic book heroes for a more down-to-earth look at the struggles of a fictional used record story in the author’s stomping grounds of Berkeley and Oakland, CA.

“This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz (September 11)
The second short story collection by the author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” promises touching and haunting stories about the problems of love and romance.

“Joseph Anton: A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie (September 18)
This highly anticipated memoir covers the popular author’s years in hiding during the infamous Iranian fatwa on his life between 1989 and 1999 (the title comes from one of the author’s aliases). (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (September 27)
J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel focuses on one of the least magical subjects of all: political battles between the citizens of a small English town.


“The Twelve” by Justin Cronin (October 16)
The second in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by bloodsucking monsters, “The Twelve” finds a band of survivors tracking down twelve specific “virals” whose death could save humanity. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture” by Daniel Mendelsohn (October 16)
This latest collection of essays by classicist and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn features insightful commentary on Greek poetry, Broadway musicals, blockbuster films, and even “Mad Men.”

“The Fifty Year Sword” by Mark Z. Danielewski (October 16)
Expect postmodern wizardry, typographical experimentation, and head-scratching befuddlement from Danielewki’s horror story about a woman’s 50th birthday party.

“Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe (October 23)
Having eviscerated college culture in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” new journalist and social novelist Tom Wolfe is back with an equally expansive investigation of life at all levels of Miami society.


“Both Flesh and Not: Essays” by David Foster Wallace (November 6)
This posthumous collection brings us the novelist and essayist’s hyperanalytical thoughts on everything from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to tennis phenom Roger Federer.

“Dear Life” by Alice Munro (November 13)
A new collection of Alice Munro’s short stories – always quiet, meditative, and heartfelt, and restorative – may be just the thing to curl up to as the weather gets chillier.

“Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan (November 13)
McEwan’s latest novel is a Cold War thriller set in 1970s England that blends the holy trinity of an interesting read: sex, espionage–and literature. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“Woes of the True Policeman” by Roberto Bolaño (November 13)
The posthumous publications by the Chilean writer keep on coming; this one follows the wanderings of an academic from Bolaño’s grand epic, “2666” in a remote border town.

Still not sure which books are worth investing your hard-earned time and money? Look for reviews of many of them in the coming weeks. Any other books coming out in the next few months you think your fellow Borderstan neighbors should read? Let us know in the comments section below.

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