What We’re Reading: June 2020

We editors love reading at HFR—and talking books, writing, and publishing around the clock—so we decided to catalog our selections every month as the new feature “What We’re Reading.” Following are our recommendations for the month.



The Embalmer
By Anne-Renée Caillê (Translated by Rhonda Mullins)

“He tells her about cases he remembers. The two young women found in the forest, the drowned boy whose organs were eaten by eels, the casket that caught on fire at the funeral. He reveals the secrets of his profession. The powder that comes in a ketchup-sized packet and is injected into the cheeks for that blushing look, the candle wax used to reconstruct parts of the skull, the perfectly weighted stones in a repatriated soldier’s casket.

These are the notes of a life spent facing death, of a daughter trying to make sense of her father. Quietly poetic, The Embalmer glimpses at something most would rather look away from.”


Man Standing Behind
By Pablo D’Stair

“Leaving work on a nondescript evening, Roger is held up at gunpoint when he stops at a cash machine. He attempts to hand everything in his bank account, but robbery isn’t on the gunman’s mind.

Roger is told simply to walk.

The gunman takes him on a macabre odyssey―from city pubs to suburban neighborhoods to isolated homes in the country―and as the night presses on, a seemingly not-so-random body count grows around him.

A moment-by-moment exploration of moral paralysis, Man Standing Behind charts the psyche of a random man caught in the roils of a mortal circumstance nothing to do with his own life. Is he a witness, a victim…or something altogether worse?”


The Big Red Herring
By Andrew Farkas

The Crying of Lot 49, but funny. A Confederacy of Dunces, but sharp.

The Big Sleep, but on acid. In this latest work by Andrew Farkas, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, not enemies. The moon landing was a hoax filmed by Stanley Kubrick. The Space Race and the Cold War were diversions enacted to cover up the biggest secret ever kept. But Wallace Heath Orcuson (Wall to his friends) has more immediate problems to deal with. He’s just woken up in an apartment he’s never seen before. There’s a dead body under his couch. It’s his girlfriend’s husband, a man named ‘Senator’ Kipper Maris.

Meanwhile, at a donut shop, a radio narrator, who’s been forced to adopt the name Edward R. Murrow, reads Wall’s story. He hates it. He wants to change it. The problem: Murrow is a narrator, not a writer, and the penalty for altering a manuscript is death. Luckily for Murrow, his boss, ‘Senator’ Kipper Maris, was recently murdered. So maybe no one will notice. Or maybe there’s a reason for the rule. But you can’t find out what’s in Pandora’s box until it’s opened, right?

Who wants to see what’s inside?”


Arafat Mountain
By Mike Kleine

“We open Google Maps. We search for life on other planets. We search for Arafat Mountain. Then we search for palm trees and things like that.”


The PornME Trinity
By David Leo Rice

“Like the rest of us, Gribby is willing to accept life in the surveillance state if, at the very least, it means there is the constant comfort and consolation of porn. He just didn’t realize that clicking ‘yes’ on the 12.99 a month plan would result in some hyper-real images of himself engaging in all manner of sexual scenarios—violent or otherwise—with his co-workers (for most people, that’s not exactly an eroticizing thought—enticing one even less to come into the office). At first, Gribby’s response is very positive indeed (which the folks at PornME have the dopamine levels to prove), but as the situations start to become increasingly lurid—in addition to being a Groundhog Day string of experiences that are indecipherable from the next—he wonders if this distraction is really worth the dull pain. Especially when it gets intergalactic.”


Franny and Zooey
By J. D. Salinger

“‘Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much only in a different way.’

A novel in two halves, Franny and Zooey brilliantly captures the emotional strains and traumas of entering adulthood. It is a gleaming example of the wit, precision, and poignancy that have made J. D. Salinger one of America’s most beloved writers.”


Short Stories

Pilot Season
By James Brubaker

Pilot Season opens with a television executive attempting to save his floundering network’s fall roster. As his own anxieties, disappointments, and alienation from his family play out through a steady stream of absurd television pilots, we are treated to sardonic parodies of our contemporary reality show—obsessed media culture. While critiquing the cruelty and exploitation of the medium, Pilot Season also manages to laud the human spirit’s ability to trump our flaws.”


Sorry Please Thank You
By Charles Yu

“A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date . . . A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly computer-generated landscape, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? . . . A company outsources grief for profit, its slogan: ‘Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.’ Drawing from both pop culture and science, Charles Yu is a brilliant observer of contemporary society, and in Sorry Please Thank You he fills his stories with equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and piercing insight into the human condition. He has already garnered comparisons to such masters as Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, and in this new collection we have resounding proof that he has arrived (via a wormhole in space-time) as a major new voice in American fiction.”



DMZ Colony
By Don Mee Choi

“Woven from poems, prose, photographs, and drawings, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony is a tour de force of personal and political reckoning set over eight acts. Evincing the power of translation as a poetic device to navigate historical and linguistic borders, it explores Edward Said’s notion of ‘the intertwined and overlapping histories’ in regards to South Korea and the United States through innovative deployments of voice, story, and poetics. Like its sister book, Hardly War, it holds history accountable, its very presence a resistance to empire and a hope in humankind.”


Yellow Stars and Ice
By Susan Stewart

“From a sequence, ‘The Countries Surrounding the Garden of Eden’:

Gihon, that compasseth the whole land

At the first frost we found our sheep with strangled hearts, lying on their backs in the frozen clover, their eyes wide open as if they were surprised by a constellation of drought or endless winter. The wolves walked into the snow, like men who have given up living without love; cows would no longer let go of their calves, hiding them deep in the birch groves. Everywhere the roads gave off their wild animal cries, running toward the edge of what we had thought was the world. And the names of things as we knew them would no longer bring them to us.”



Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life
By Philippe Aries

“The theme of this extraordinary book is the evolution of the modern conception of family life and the modern image; of the nature of children. Aries traces the evolution of the concept of childhood from the end of the Middle Ages, when the child was regarded as a small adult, to the present child-centered society, by means of diaries, paintings, games, and school curricula.

Ironically, he finds that individualism, far from triumphing in our time, has been held in check by the family, and that the increasing power of the tightly-knit family circle has flourished at the expense of the rich-textured communal society of earlier times.”


Marcel Broodthaers: Works and Collected Writings
By Marcel Broodthaers

“‘I, too, asked myself if I could not sell something and succeed in life… Finally the idea of inventing something insincere came to me and I got to work immediately.’ With this statement, penned for his first solo show in April, 1964, Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) announced his death as a poet and birth as an artist. In fact, he was to transform the category of artist completely, purging the vocation of its medium-specific implications to pursue a unified conceptualism across media such as artist’s books, prints, film, installation, sculpture and writings—’where the world of plastic arts and the world of poetry might possibly, I wouldn’t say meet, but at the very frontier where they part.’ Broodthaers’ Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department (1968-1972) inaugurated the practice now known as institutional critique, and the linguistic foundations of his art—as well as his emphasis on printed multiples—also proved prescient for subsequent strains of Conceptual art. Edited by Gloria Moure in collaboration with the artist’s estate, this momentous publication eclipses in its scope all previous Broodthaers writings collections. It gathers his early poetry, statements, critical essays both published and unpublished, open letters, interviews, preparatory notes and scripts, plus a wealth of illustrations. Marcel Broodthaers was born in Belgium in 1924. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s he worked primarily as a poet, and was a member of the Belgian Groupe Surréaliste-revolutionnaire, which included André Blavier, Achille Chavée and René Magritte. After almost two decades of poverty, Broodthaers performed a symbolic burial of his life as a poet by embedding 50 copies of his poetry collection Pense-Bête in plaster. However, his art continued to be characterized by its emphasis on written text. Broodthaers died in 1976, on his fifty-second birthday, and is buried in Brussels beneath a tomb of his own design that features images from his allegorical repertoire, including a pipe, a wine bottle and a parrot.”


Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
By Yuval Noah Harari

“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. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

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 twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.”


The Man from the Train: Discovering America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer
By Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James

“Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Some of these cases—like the infamous Villisca, Iowa, murders—received national attention. But most incidents went almost unnoticed outside the communities in which they occurred. Few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station. When celebrated true crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery: they learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal and uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America.

‘A suspenseful historical account’ (Publishers Weekly, starred review), The Man from the Train paints a vivid, psychologically perceptive portrait of America at the dawn of the twentieth century, when crime was regarded as a local problem, and opportunistic private detectives exploited a dysfunctional judicial system. James shows how these cultural factors enabled such an unspeakable series of crimes to occur, and his groundbreaking approach to true crime will convince skeptics, amaze aficionados, and change the way we view criminal history. ‘A beautifully written and extraordinarily researched narrative… This is no pure whodunit, but rather a how-many-did-he-do’ (Buffalo News).”




Image: wired.co.uk

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