Each week as part of SunLit — The Sun’s literature section — we feature staff recommendations from book stores across Colorado. This week, the staff from Explore Booksellers in Aspen recommends a historical novel, poetry on violence and a philosophical examination of the universe.
By William T. Vollmann
From the publisher: In this magnificent work of fiction, acclaimed author William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye on the authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century to render a mesmerizing perspective on human experience during wartime. Through interwoven narratives that paint a composite portrait of these two battling leviathans and the monstrous age they defined, “Europe Central” captures a chorus of voices both real and fictional — a young German who joins the SS to fight its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults upon his work and life.
From Jason Jefferies, General Manager: This National Book Award-winning novel by future Nobel-laureate William T. Vollmann is one of the best books I have ever read. It is centered on the battles between Germany and the USSR during World War II, but it is not militaristic in the strict sense that many of us think about war novels. It is a novel about the artists that lived in Germany and Russia during this period — Dmitri Shostakovich, Anna Akhmatova, Roman Karmen, Kathe Kollwitz, and many more — who had to decide to follow Hitler or Stalin, and who had to decide between living for their ideals or compromising their artistic visions for survival. The novel follows a symphonic structure, and if you have the patience for it, will reward you for the rest of your reading life.
By Jade Lascelles
From the publisher: “Violence Beside” responds to the overwhelming presence of violence Jade Lascelles felt creeping closer into her life. After a series of threats, assaults, and murders against multiple women in various proximity to her, these poems were first begun as a coping mechanism, a way to look for some sense of grounding around how to exist within a world of violence without being consumed by it or absorbed by the fear of it. How to persist despite violence without ignoring it.
From Emma Murray, Bookseller: Violence is a noun, but it is no person, place or thing. It is a happening, an action done to or received by a person, or thing, in some place in time. It’s also the sticky and affecting subject of Colorado poet Jade Lascelles’ latest collection of verse: “Violence Beside.” Throughout her varied and clever poems, Lascelles wrestles with and describes conditions of life in proximity to violence — which can also be phrased as life on planet Earth, a place where violence, particularly for women, is currently inevitable or at least inescapable.
Lascelles works hard to avoid further traumatizing or adding violence to the readers’ experience. As such, her poems serve as a light for all who navigate the darker corners of humanity.They also reflect the rewarding and necessary work of joy under such conditions. It’s cathartic and somewhat healing to feel you’re not alone in your suffering, which is the magic, not just of poetry, but of the work Jade Lascelles has now given to the world.
The Rigor of Angels
By William Eggington
From the publisher: A poet, a physicist, and a philosopher explored the greatest enigmas in the universe — the nature of free will, the strange fabric of the cosmos, the true limits of the mind — and each in their own way uncovered a revelatory truth about our place in the world.
From Tony Alcantara, Inventory Manager: “The Rigor of Angels” is equal parts biography, philosophy, and science. The book weaves together fascinating ideas about the nature of reality from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the physicist Werner Heisenberg, and the writer Jorge Luis Borges. Although they were working in different fields, each arrived at the same conclusion: there are inherent and inescapable limitations in the ability of humans to uncover the workings of the universe.
For Kant, these limitations surfaced as antinomies: situations where two ideas that each had to be true separately could not both be true together. For Heisenberg, the limitations arose with regard to the measurement of physical properties, where an increase in the reliability of one measurement could only come at the expense of the reliability of another. And for Borges, these limitations took the form of stories whose structures played out as paradoxes.
Is space and time continuous or discrete? Does free will exist? Is the universe finite or infinite? What would it mean to have perfect memory, perfect knowledge? These are the kinds of questions with which Kant, Heisenberg, and Borges struggled, and for which Egginton does a masterful job of not only elucidating their respective answers but also showing us the lived contexts through which they reached their conclusions. In the end, “The Rigor of Angels” is a celebration of imperfection. For it’s only by incompleteness that we’re capable of any understanding at all.