December 17, 2014

Holiday Staff Picks


LogoSantaHat-137x175People always ask us for holiday recommendations from our list. Tough one! The beauty of working at an indie is that you don’t have to work on books you don’t get excited about. But we asked the staff to describe one title they had a particular fondness for. See the wildly varied results below. All are available now, by the way, and for a discount.


I Could Tell You mockup


by Trevor Paglen
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Anyone who saw Laura Poitras’s extraordinary Citizenfour is familiar with the work of Treovr Paglen. Without Paglen’s shots of NSA data centers and the like, Citizenfour would have been a powerful chamber piece, but his spooky footage gave the film a grand, geopolitical heft: here were the places we were not supposed to see—the visual analogue to Edward Snowden’s revelations. Paglen has been doing this important and uncategorizable (journalistic- photographic-polemical-cartographic-archaeological?) work for years.

In 2006, Melville House published Torture Taxi, his riveting collaboration with the journalist A.C. Thompson, but for my staff pick, I’ve chosen Paglen’s second book, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The book is a collection of military patches that represent clandestine government projects. Paglen reproduces the patches in full color and annotates them, so you learn that five white stars and one purple star refer to Area 51, or that a zipper means that a project cannot be discussed. Unlike the images of immense buildings and endless, fortified landscapes Paglen deployed in Citizenfour, the patches are all about detail—the texture and density of secrecy. I Could Tell You is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 2007, which is deeply depressing. But what’s not depressing is that in Paglen we have a brilliant witness to our times. In his many projects, he’s making sense of the post-9/11 world, and I’ll see and read anything he does. I Could Tell You is the perfect place to start. ––Mark Krotov, senior editor 


by Philip Hoare
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You have a family member who is never happier than when he’s on a hike or a swim: buy him this. It’s also for the person who really liked the Planet Earth series, or who you bought an Audubon guide for one year, who told you about The Wallcreeper, who last took you to a jellyfish exhibit, or who lost somebody they loved this year. It’s history and travel, but it’s also a deeply personal story. If you’re asking, what do I give? This book gives, and gives, and gives.

The natural world takes a new dimension in Hoare’s hands: you’ll have a new fact or story in the palm of your hand after reading only two or three pages. A glimpse of a sparrow will bring on poems about migrations: in the sixteenth century, birds were believed to hibernate in the ocean or fly to the moon. A tattoo of a swallow with a dagger in it signifies that the owner has lost someone he loved. Ravens conjure saints painted by Velazquez and kings from the Dark Ages. As these anecdotes work together, illustrated with elegant line drawings, I felt that some sense of continuity could be restored between the natural world and our own. But the author’s also just great company. How can you not love a guy who rescues birds in his backpack and swims with dolphins? —Kirsten Reach, editor

The Senate Intelligence Committe Report on Torture whiteTHE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT ON TORTURE

by The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
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Asking me to pick favorites from our list is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. But the fact of the matter is that some children are better than others, and last week, in about six days, we made ourselves a special child at Melville House.

On Tuesday the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s uses of what the agency calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” and everyone else calls torture. By midday we realized that despite a rich history of such historic reports being issued as books (think Warren Commission, 9/11 report, Starr Report, etc.) for once the government hadn’t given some privileged publisher an inside deal on publishing this report … So, we decided to do it, before the faint and splotchy pdf the government had issued faded into the ether.

And thus began an intense, six-day collaborative effort that involved everyone in the company, and quite a few publishing friends, pulling all-nighters to turn the government’s low-rez Xerox of documents into a proper, laid out, and searchable—hell, readable— book. The result is a riveting and terrifying document that constitutes transparency in action —  a chance to study how our government comported itself, and to consider why it didn’t want us to know how it comported itself. It’s an ugly story, but it’s the book, and the team effort, I may be the most proud of. —Dennis Johnson, co-publisher


by Sinead Murphy
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Many writers have tried and failed to update Jane Austen. How can anything beat Austen’s intelligence and her perfect sentences? Sinead Murphy doesn’t even try in The Jane Austen Rules. Instead, she does something far more impressive and gives us close readings of Austen’s novels that illustrate why Murphy loves Austen’s novels so much, and why, for her, she’s the perfect author. Austen fills her novels with women who talk, joke around, take control, and do things on their own terms. You might not like dating guides and you might not be the sort to seek advice, but you can’t challenge Austen, and you certainly won’t be able to argue with the witty, articulate, wholly persuasive force that is Sinead Murphy. —Zeljka Marosevic, managing director, Melville House UK 



by James Agee
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In 1936, Fortune sent James Agee and Walker Evans on an assignment to Alabama. The magazine never used the report, and the time they spent living with three cotton tenants farming families became the basis of Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When Melville House published that original report as Cotton Tenants last year, Fortune acknowledged that it is “a masterpiece of the magazine reporter’s art.” Agee fans on your holiday list will love to see his writing in this new light alongside the classic photos by Walker Evans. For more insight into Agee’s evolution as a writer, I also recommend Letters of James Agee to Father Flye in our Neversink Library series. —Claire Kelley, library and academic marketing director

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary FailureTHE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF LITERARY FAILURE

by C.D. Rose
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C.D. Rose’s compendium of well-meaning writers, who unfortunately missed out on success for various bizarre reasons, confronts what happens when a love of literature can’t save you from being doomed to obscurity. As you’re drawn deeper into this collection of weirdos and reprobates the book turns into a fascinating ensemble novel, and ends on one of the most inspirational notes I’ve ever witnessed. Plus it’s a sporty little hardcover at a low price point – a perfect gift for a well-read loved one. —Liam O’Brien, sales and marketing manager 

Ada's AlgorithmADA’S ALGORITHM 

by James Essinger
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Ada Lovelace led a fascinating life, and James Essinger’s biography of her makes a perfect gift for almost anyone on your list. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Ada was a pioneer in computer science; she worked closely with Charles Babbage on the earliest mechanical computers, and was strikingly prescient about their potential to change the world. If only her contributions had been appreciated in the 19th century, the digital age might have kicked off much sooner than it did.
Technology enthusiasts, history buffs, literary nerds, and anyone who appreciates tales of strong women will enjoy this in-depth account of Lovelace’s brief but eventful life. ––Nick Davies, publicist

Red or DeadRED OR DEAD

by David Peace
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I’d love to give everyone on my list the gift of Peace on Earth, but since that’s unlikely, I’ll still be thrilled to give the gift of (David) Peace. There’s nothing better than introducing a reader to their new favorite writer, and you don’t have to be an Anglophile or a soccer fanatic to be won over by Peace. Between The Damned UTDRed or Dead, and our newest release, GB84, I can keep my friends in Peace for a good while. And for those people you really want to impress, our signed special edition of Red or Dead is a showstopper. Your friends will thank you for opening their eyes to this masterpiece set in 1960’s Liverpool, just be prepared to indulge their Bill Shankly impressions. ––Julia Fleishaker, publicity director

Viva la Pizza


by Scott Weiner 
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As a native New Yorker, Italian-American, and designer, this book proved an illuminating exploration of the grease-stained yet graphically-striking pizza boxes of my childhood. It also introduced me to the exotic and strange world of “pizza art” that exists outside this island. A personal favorite slice of “pizza art”: a box found in Amsterdam that features a re-imagining of Homer Simpson as a pizza maker (with a receding hair-line and ponytail, of course) and Bart Simpson as a goateed skateboarding delivery boy..—Adly Elewa, art director 


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This is the year of James Baldwin in New York City, according to the schedule set up by the consortium of New York Live Arts, Harlem Stage, Columbia University, the New School, New York University, and others. No argument from me. And this December we’re publishing four of his incisive interviews, including his last one done in 1987 with Quincy Troupe, in which he talks about meeting a kindred spirit in Miles Davis:

“I told him I liked his music very much and he said something like, “Are you sure?” He kind of smiled. Then he talked with me. Then we sort of knew each other . . . I could see that there was something in Miles and me which was very much alike . . . And yet, I don’t know what it is, can’t explain it, but I think it has something to do with extreme vulnerability . . . [w]ith what we look like, being black, which means that in special ways we’ve been maltreated. See, we evolve a kind of mask, a kind of persona, you know, to protect us from, ah, all these people who are carnivorous and they think you’re helpless. Miles does it one way, I do it another.” ––Wah-Ming Chang, managing editor 


by Peter Weiss
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Leavetaking deserves a place in the pantheon of modernism. Upon its initial release there was little fanfare: a conservative New York Times critic dismissed it as a playwright’s failed attempt at the novel; that was its only major review. At a time when literary culture was being merrily upended by the likes of Roth and Pynchon, Weiss’s cerebral, quiet-yet-shocking monograph on coming of age in the increasingly violent and alienating culture of pre-WWII Germany must have felt utterly out of place. It wasn’t quite ahead of its time—Weiss had stylistic contemporaries in Beckett and Sebald—but it certainly feels like a book that would have to be discovered years later, after more genteel writers had seasoned readers to its many taboo themes.

With the unrelenting pace of Krasznahorkai and the unsettling beauty of Bernhard, Leavetaking is an honest, brutal, yet utterly gorgeous journey through childhood memory. There are obvious parallels with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, especially in Weiss’s frank passages on sexuality, but Leavetaking is less a story of maturation and more a series of vivid and beautiful images, and strange as many of them may strike you, you’ll also unexpectedly find yourself among them. ––Amy Conchie, assistant to the publisher

Half the Kingdom PB


by Lore Segal
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Selected as a New York Times Notable Book for 2013, Half the Kingdom by New Yorker writer Lore Segal, is now out in paperback. And I know publisher’s aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I confess I’m partial to Lore Segal’s first novel in over 30 years.

With effortless mastery, Segal manages to be funny, tragic and completely clear-eyed about how we live, and die, today. Reading it, I really didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mostly I yelped, in helpless recognition of how accurately she captured the beauty and pathos of being alive. —Valerie Merians, co-publisher



by Lars Iyer

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Recently longlisted for The Folio Prize, Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr. is the author’s funniest, sharpest, and most stirring work yet. Following a young and very dour genius professor, nicknamed “Wittgenstein Jr.” by his 12 devoted students—a group of apostles who fuck up and repeatedly get fucked up, in some of the novel’s best scenes—the novel begins as a kind of academic farce but ends, after much of Iyer’s trademark repetition, as something much deeper. Wittgenstein Jr. is first rate academic satire, but it’s also a deeply moving rumination on vanishing ideals—Continental Europe, philosophy, education. Still, WORD Bookstore’s Chad Felix probably summed up the novel best: This is John Williams’ Stoner on horse tranquilizers. —Alex Shephard, director of digital marketing 




Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.