Ben's February 2023 pick
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Physically pick up Ducks, Newburyport. Dense, right? And even thicker than it looked on the shelf. Crack it open and you’ll find that this book is a thousand pages long and contains a single sentence.
Upon learning this, most people will (rightfully) think “ABSOLUTELY NOT,” shelve it and never think of it again. That is perfectly acceptable! No book is the right book for every reader and this one is decidedly not for everyone.
However!! If you, dear Gibson’s customer, hear the phrase “a thousand-page single sentence” and your ears perk up, then I have good news for you. You’re holding a work of genius.
Ducks consists solely of the uncurated thoughts of a pie-making housewife and mother of four in suburban Ohio. It is a ceaseless, discursive, jet-stream-of-consciousness with almost no discernable plot for the first 400 pages. However, as the book progresses, the themes and anxieties that Ellmann weaves into her protagonist’s mind begin to find each others’ resonant notes. Buried within the cacophony of brand names, maternal concerns, and daily distractions, you will find poignant reflections on our particular American strain of misogyny, violence, and parenthood. At first, it feels like our protagonist is frustratingly incapable of serious thought, yet the deeper you read, the more profound of a philosophical text the book becomes. Who exactly gets deemed a “serious thinker,” who has a chance at happiness, who gets to live freely in this country?
You’re holding a strange and brilliant left-handed masterpiece; you just have to read a marathon to get at it. Game to try?
Ben's January 2023 pick
The book before you is a gift, a respite from a dark and difficult world. The story in Foster itself is short and simple: a young girl in a small Irish town is left by her father at the house of two strangers. No one has told her what is happening or why, only that she is to stay with this couple indefinitely. Fear and uncertainty soon dissipate as the girl learns how different life can be just a few miles away from one’s home.
The couple are caring and patient. The girl is accustomed to hard work and hard words but finds encouragement and even praise when she helps around the farm. The summer days fill with stories and quiet laughter. Warmth suffuses, even as a secret sadness worms its way out of the past.
Keegan’s novella is a balm for the soul. One gets a sense from every page that contentment cannot be taken for granted. Each moment of joy must be savored, for tomorrow-
Hopeful and deeply affecting, reading Foster is an experience to be treasured.
Ben's October 2022 pick (1 of 2)
Saunders remains the master of his singular craft.
Built on the foundation of his inimitable voice, Liberation Day is a stellar addition to his catalog. In stories like the titular "Liberation Day," "Elliot Spencer," and "Ghoul" Saunders weaves lightly speculative worlds that will feel familiar to fans of Civilwarland and Reign of Phil. In "A Thing at Work" he plays with point-of-view, jumping perspectives and bringing life and startling empathy to a tangle of minor workplace skirmishes.
Saunders' alchemical balance of pathos and humor is evident throughout, but what captured my imagination the most was his opprobrium for, well, people like me. "Love Letter" is a brilliant and biting epistolary story from grandfather to son that slowly reveals two things: first, a realistically-rendered fascist America and second, the mealy-mouthed liberal "resistance" that allowed it. Instead of empathic, the protagonist is simply pathetic, and with every watery excuse about how older generations let it get so bad, I found myself reflecting on my own actions and inactions in the face of our reality's dystopian bend. Liberation Day is a book I won't stop thinking about for a long time.
Ben's October 2022 pick (2 of 2)
The moment I finished this book, I already looked forward to rereading it.
In his 2017 debut, In the Distance, Hernan Diaz examined the lore of the American west through the life of Håkan, an immigrant who accidentally becomes a legend of the frontier. The discrepancy between reality of his actions - small acts of survival, not heroism - and the tall tales they become creates a thoughtful tension and invites the reader to question our inherited history. What was the truth behind the stories that made our westward expansion seem so manifestly destined?
In Trust, Diaz again crafts a novel rich in discordant tensions, but sets it against the backdrop of another central American myth: the rags-to-riches, self-made man. Diaz presents multiple versions of the same story across the turn of the twentieth century, exploring the social and fiscal worlds of the gilded age, roaring twenties, and great depression. Through different genres and perspectives, he weaves fragments and partial truths of a titan of industry, his brilliant wife, and his secretary-turned-biographer. Whose story is true, and the possibility of a “true” accounting of a human life is ultimately up to the reader.
Simply put, Trust is a towering achievement. Diaz has created an incisive modern Rashomon, ambitious in scope and moving in the depths of its humanity.
Ben's September 2022 pick (1 of 3)
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, even if it means blowing up the universe. Scratch that. Especially if it means blowing up the universe.
Randall Munroe is a former NASA scientist and cartoonist who has made nerds around the world chuckle weekly with his comic, XKCD. What If 2 is a delightful follow up to his 2014 book, which gave robust and funny answers to absurd scientific questions. Munroe makes everything from particle physics to inorganic chemistry accessible and hilarious as he leads the reader down the rabbithole of hypothetical scenarios. Some highlights include:
How many pigeons do I need to harness to fly atop a skyscraper?
What if Mercury and Pluto were suddenly made of Mercury and Plutonium?
What would happen if one were to send Niagra Falls through a straw?
The answer? “One would get in trouble... also, the earth would be destroyed.” This is a perfect book to make you laugh and realize later that you learned something too.
Ben's September 2022 pick (2 of 3)
As one of the world’s most prominent voices on disability justice, Alice Wong has already changed the world. Year of the Tiger will do it again. Wong takes her personal narratives and expands them into new dimensions and genres, making for a memoir unlike any I’ve ever read. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait that informs and moves the reader in turn. The book intertwines traditional memoir with fragments from a wide variety of other media in a way that both contextualizes Wong’s trailblazing work and brings her story to life.
Wong often calls herself a disabled oracle. Her particular understanding of humanity allows for insights into the future and her activism shows that our inequitable society does not have to be this way. Despite ostensibly looking back on her life, Year of the Tiger is oriented toward the future: one that is brighter with this book in it.
Ben's September 2022 pick (3 of 3)
It's hard to describe this novella without resorting to descriptors normally reserved for food.
Sweet and tart and satisfying.
DeWitt has written the immaculate snack: a perfectly-plotted, single bite story. In 60(!) pages, she uses her singular voice to construct a delicate atmosphere and remarkable surprise. A literary amuse-bouche worthy of any reader's shelf.
Ben's August 2022 pick (1 of 2)
What is whiteness worth to you? It’s a question that most white westerners can try to answer, but few have been forced to truly reckon with. In this short, brilliant novel, Mohsin Hamid deeply considers whiteness through a straightforward premise: what if whiteness disappeared?
The novel centers on Ander who wakes to find one morning that he is no longer white; his skin has turned “a deep and undeniable brown.” Thus, Hamid tears a tiny hole in our cultural fabric and simply pulls, forcing the characters and reader alike to grapple with the selfhoods and society left behind when (eventually) no one is white. Who mourns? Who moves on? Who clings to the unspoken promise of privilege that undergirds the English-speaking world?
In a remarkably-fast 160 pages, Hamid tells an engaging story with insights equal parts cutting and empathic. The novel inevitably recalls The Metamorphosis from its first pages and Hamid deftly takes inspiration and pays homage without ever going near initiation. His work here can be called Kakfaesque in the best way: the streak of absurdity that cuts through The Last White Man elucidates the cracks in our own social reality.
Ben's August 2022 pick (2 of 2)
This is not a novel for tidy endings, completed journeys, or lessons learned. Nevada is a book for the inexpressible longing you feel when you meet someone and know without knowing that your shared queerness makes you more kin than stranger. It is a book for the moment you take a step back from sandcastle of your life and feel nothing but the urge to knock it to the ground and build something unrecognizable. It’s for trans elders who are barely past 30, city bikers, aging punks, and bibliophile anarchists who still have to make rent at the end of the month.
Author Imogen Binnie changed the world when she published Nevada in 2013, breaking new paths for trans representation in fiction and effortlessly weaving questions of theory and philosophy into the lives of her characters. This well-deserved, wide release reissue includes an insightful afterward by Binnie. On top of all this, the novel is a pleasure to read. Binnie’s cast of fully-realized characters, tactile cityscapes, and short, punchy chapters are nothing short of addicting. I finished it in a day and expect many Gibson’s readers will too.
Ben's July 2022 pick
"Carry me through the dark if it helps. Here, take this story and watch it burn."
With rage and grace, Febos documents the ways that her youth was shaped through pressure, expectations, and violence into the gendered experience known as girlhood. Over the course of seven essays, she pulls the reader through memories ranging from her earliest playground encouters to a drug-addled malaise of young adulthood.
Every page is rich with an uncommon insight and hard-earned wisdom. Regardless of age, regardless of gender, I cannot imagine a reader who won't find new lights shed upon their own life in these essays.
Readers should be aware that Febos covers rape, sexual harassment, drug use, and sex work in the book. She does so tenderly, but very frankly.
Girlhood is an emotionally-challenging read at times, but its brilliance and beauty are worth it. Febos has written a ghost pepper: the pleasure of the experience is inextricable from the pain.