Ask a Bookseller: ‘Martyr!’

Ask a Bookseller Podcast

On The Thread’s Ask a Bookseller series, we talk to independent booksellers all over the country to find out what books they’re most excited about right now.

It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Many participating indie bookstores across the country are offering author readings, coupons, prize drawings and other events. Check out your local bookstore — or several, if you can.

One participating bookstore is Content Bookstore in downtown Northfield. Pro tip: It’s generally pronounced “CON-tent” like the noun, but if bookstores make you think of the adjective “con-TENT” they’re fine with that, too.

Owner Jessica Peterson White says she knew the novel “Martyr!” by Kaveh Akbar would be the title to beat for her favorite book of the year. Since she read it in January, it has yet to be dethroned.

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A yellow book cover
“Martyr!” by Kaveh Akbar.
Courtesy image

Jessica says: It’s a big, fat, juicy story. It’s a fiction debut of an acclaimed poet, and you can just really feel the poetry in his writing. And by that I mean that the novel is really sharply observant. It’s beautiful.

And it also has one of the qualities that I most admire in a novel, which is economy, which is I think, a skill that poets have. The story is complex, but it’s not sprawling, and the characters are incredibly compelling, they’re not like overwrought. So it’s a big book, but it’s just what it needs to be.

Our hero, Cyrus Shams, was brought to the U.S. from Iran by his father as a baby after his mother was killed in an accidental U.S. airstrike on a commercial flight that she was on to Dubai. And ever since then, growing up in Indiana, Cyrus has struggled with addiction and loneliness, and he has some complicated friendships.

Even as he begins to kind of recover from suicidal ideation and his addictions, he’s still kind of fixated on dying. And he’s especially fascinated with the idea of martyrdom. He and his best friend decide to travel to New York City to meet an Iranian performance artist dying of cancer who’s decided to live out her final days in the Brooklyn Museum. Meeting her turns out to kind of challenge Cyrus in some transformative ways and sort of threatens to upend all of his narratives.

The novel is really approachable and incredibly entertaining. And it has some really wise and nuanced things to say about recovery, about empire and racism and grief and friendship.

— Jessica Peterson White

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.