★ A Gambler’s Anatomy
by Jonathan Lethem
Selected by guest judge Anthony Bourdain
Rolling the Dice When Things Fall Apart
By Judge Anthony Bourdain
I’ve travelled through most parts of the world, eaten in some of its greatest restaurants and cooked in some decidedly terrible ones, with many, many stops in between. I’ve worked with geniuses, scoundrels and scumbags, and have said it before, but it bears repeating: I’ve seen some shit.
Though success is always nice to witness, and even nicer to achieve, I’m also fascinated and gratified by stories of big falls into gloriously wrenching failure and defeat. Such is the story of Bruno Alexander, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s A Gambler’s Anatomy.
When we first encounter Bruno Alexander, he’s a handsome, vain, highly-intelligent hustler at the top of his game, which is backgammon. He’s won vast sums of cash by beating some of the world’s richest men, in casinos and gentlemen’s clubs and private drawing rooms where drinks are served by silent women in fetish gear. Bruno also happens to have telepathic powers, a stroke of literary magical thinking that Lethem uses to subtle, ultimately brilliant effect.
But then, as Yeats and Achebe and countless others have observed, things fall apart. Bruno loses in Singapore; he loses in Berlin. He discovers a tumor behind his eyes. Broke and broken, he returns to Berkeley, California, his now-unrecognizable hometown, to undergo experimental neurosurgery requiring the removal and destruction of his attractive face in order to save his life. Footing the bill is Bruno’s boyhood friend Keith, a sniveling and jealous embodiment of schadenfreude who is only too happy to use his wealth in insidious ways. Having started his journey as a teenaged waiter at Chez Panisse, Bruno finds himself, many decades and thousands of miles later, flipping burgers back home and trying to rebuild his life.
What becomes of a middle-aged man who appears to have lost it all? In Lethem’s hands, Bruno’s trajectory is wrenching, hilarious, and oddly familiar, a wholly entertaining tragicomedy by a master of his craft.
— Anthony Bourdain
★ Swing Time
by Zadie Smith
The Dancer from the Dance
By Judge Kevin Nguyen
Zadie Smith means different things to different people. Some arrive at her novels first, like the ambitious family saga White Teeth, finding a self-assured voice that marked her as an immediate fiction talent. Others discovered Zadie Smith the versatile cultural critic who could write a loving review for the 50 Cent movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Smith is an ambidextrous writer—perhaps just a natural talent at everything—who remains a venerable and beloved literary figure.
Swing Time will surprise no one—and I mean that with the highest praise. The book feels like the culmination of all her talents: a novel with a gift for character and dialogue, a story rooted in a deep cultural and racial awareness. At its core, Swing Time is about two black girls raised in the same public housing complex in London. Tracey is a dancer; the other (never named) wishes she could dance, but is raised by intellectuals who instead push her to understand her black consciousness. “All that matters in this world is what’s written down,” her mother explains. Then, gesturing at her body: “that will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people.”
The book is long, but it moves quickly. Smith has composed her novel out of short scenes, little moments of funny dialogue and seemingly benign interactions that add up to a sophisticated portrait of friendship. As Tracey and the narrator grow up, they grow apart. The narrator ends up working for a pop star named Aimee, a job that takes her all over the world, and eventually to a village in West Africa, where she oversees her boss’s well-intentioned but ill-conceived philanthropy work. While it starts with a narrow view of the two friends, the novel broadens in scope and ultimately has a perspective on epic proportions of wealth and also devastating poverty. But through it all, her falling out with Tracey always lingers in her mind.
★ The Trespasser
by Tana French
By Judge Gaby Dunn
Tana French’s novels about the Dublin Murder Squad are among the most unique and beloved of contemporary crime fiction series. Rather than feature the same hero over and over again, in each book a new detective takes center stage. This allows the tone and perspective to change, even though the fast-pacing and intricate plotting remain consistent.
The Trespasser, the sixth novel in the series, comes with a fresh edge: not only is protagonist Antoinette Crowley a woman (the only one on Murder Squad), she’s a mixed race woman. Working on the Squad is Crowley’s dream and she’s damn good at it, but she has to be “four times as good” (as the writer Roxane Gay would put it) as her white male co-workers. So while her colleagues waste their time pissing in her locker, stealing her witness reports or otherwise trying to intimidate her, she can’t afford to be shaken—she must handle her cases with the utmost, jaw-clenching seriousness.
Antoinette’s case is a seemingly routine domestic murder that, as they tend to do in great thrillers, becomes way more complex than it originally seems. And the victim, or what we learn of her in life, is a fascinating, twisted woman in her own right. Antoinette puts on a brave face, but might be flawed narrator as well – is she being paranoid, or are her co-workers actually trying to impede her investigation? Come for the cool women and their complicated stories, stay for the hilarious descriptions of entitled men.
The timing for this novel could not be more apropos, as our country is poised elect our first female president. Now, I’ve never investigated a murder (or run for president!), but the micro and macro aggressions that plague Antoinette at work feel more than relevant to my own life. I’m a woman working in entertainment and on the internet. When I post a video to my YouTube channel, I can guarantee comments about my weight, my hair, my tone of voice, my anything — I have to be as determined and single-minded as Antoinette to get my job done.
The Trespasser is a love letter to strong-willed women, and when I finished it I felt seen. Validated. Depicted. You should read it if you love intricately-plotted thrillers. You should read it if you love Tana French. And you should read it especially if you, like me, work in a sexist field and want to experience how thrilling it is when we not only succeed, but we take the fuck over.
★ Every Man a Menace
by Patrick Hoffman
The Ecstasy and the Agony
(MDMA Got You Feeling Like A Champion)
By Judge Sarah Weinman
Crime fiction is my first and best reading love. The genre is so expansive that it welcomes sleuths of all stripes (literally in the case of cat mysteries). What I most love about crime novels is how they introduce me to new worlds and shows the way into how we live now and how societies function (or more often, don’t). When chaos surrounds us in real life, even fictional chaos offers a much needed escape for the tired, despairing reader. And when you’re guided on a tour of dark doings and double dealings by the likes of Patrick Hoffman, the jolts are all the more electric and the windows into secret places resonate all the more.
Hoffman worked as a private investigator in San Francisco and now in Brooklyn. As a result, Every Man a Menace rings true, whether or not the action happens in the Bay Area, Miami, or Bangkok. The drug called Ecstasy in my youth – now known as “Molly” – unites all of the characters, whether they are snorting it, selling it, stealing it, or getting killed for it. For a drug that professes to give pleasure, the pain is major-league.
As for plot, imagine a younger, edgier Elmore Leonard, a pinch of Pulp Fiction and a dose of Traffic, and you get the idea. There are plenty of cautionary tales here, but Hoffman is no moralizer— the thrills and kills always come first. And Hoffman’s voice – knowing, wry, caustic, but not too cynical – always held my attention. Crime fiction thrives on fresh voices above all, and Hoffman is one of the freshest out there at the moment. I can’t wait to see what secret world he lets us in on next.
by Nell Zink
Squatters & Smokers Unite!
By Judge Nina Sankovitch
Like the drug from which the book gets its title, Nicotine is adrenalizing and addictive. I could not put it down. My heart was racing and my thoughts were percolating and enjoyment oozed from every pore as I sunk into Zink’s unadulterated good-time storytelling.
I couldn’t help but love Penny Baker, recent college grad of pure heart with zero prospects, a taste for cigarettes, and a preference for bone jewelry and drum circle dancing. She’s steeped in grief following the death of her father – an event that took weeks of hospice care (Zink skewers the promise of “a good death” with sharp insights and surprising humor) and Penny was bedside for the entire thing, while the other members of her family largely bailed out due to commitments like work and ambition and greed, concepts utterly foreign to our dear Penny.
Penny needs love and comfort but instead her eager-to-move-on family members throw her the bone of a long-abandoned family house in Jersey City. When Penny arrives to find the place already inhabited by a crew of cigarette-smoking, tobacco-chewing squatters, she realizes she has nothing to call her own except an urgent need to belong somewhere, somehow. Having caught sight of a cute guy and in need of a nicotine fix, Penny sticks around for a beer and a smoke.
What ensues is a joyful, unpredictable, and surprisingly-affecting coming of age story. Penny may already be in her twenties but there is just about everything she needs to learn about identity, community, and connection. Out of the wreckage of her broken family and with the help of an impotent lover, some adventurous housemates, a huge comfy couch, and her own freakish optimism, Penny comes into her own. Her patience (lack of resolve), determination (stubbornness), and flexibility (indecision) get her to the place where she wants to be, in the home where she was meant to be and with the people she needs.
A glorious and surprising ending after a twisting and satisfying ride: the act of reading a good book offers the rush of a good smoke at half the price of a carton of cigarettes, and with none of the associated health risks and no pariah status. Nell Zink and her fearless writing prove my point: Nicotine is a win/win addiction.
How Book Of The Month Club Works
NEW SELECTIONS EACH MONTH
On the 1st we announce the five best books of the month
CHOOSE YOUR BOOK
Choose your book by the 6th, or easily skip the month if you prefer.
BOXES SHIP – HURRAY!
Your books arrive in a beautiful box. Happy reading!