As is well known, it has been the tradition throughout the history of Western Civilization for me to hand in my “Best Books of The Year” list not quite in time for Christmas itself, but definitely in time for you to use it when you're maybe wondering which books to get when you head in to return the coffee table version of Pus: An Illustrated History that you got at the office White Elephant party thing. And once again this year: Mission Accomplished!
For me, 2014 was, among other things, the “Year of Reading all the Flannery O'Connor (Well, Almost All of It, Still Working on the Letters)” and also the “Year of Reading a Bit More Than Half of all the Anne Sexton,” which, I know, hardly fair to everyone else, but there you go. In honor of my really good intentions of a month ago, this list will consist of books I finished reading between 1 December 2013 and 30 November 2014. Forthwith, the winners, in terms of awesomeness as defined by how much pleasure they gave me, the edition listed being just the edition I happened to read:
O'Connor's Wise Blood (Library of America, 1988), by a solid few lengths. Third time I've read it, but the last time was at least a decade ago. So deeply strange, so altogether wonderful, so wholly round. Black humor and twisted thought, ever so precise. Delicious.
Best Published in 2014
Due to a disconcerting amalgam of personal flaws, I read far fewer books during their year of publication than I should, which means that your best bet for tracking down the Best of the Latest is places like here, here, and here. That said, here's the best of my latest:
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt (Little, Brown, 2014). The voice carries him well and far, through dozens of terrifically well-found details.
Praying Drunk, by Kyle Minor (Sarabande, 2014). Great formal variety in the stories, most of them told in a diction Minor has mastered that I'll call deadpan tragic.
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (New Directions, 2006). What a fascinating, confounding, splendid book. Magnificent characters bizarrely spaced through the lack-of-action. The text is mostly dialogue, which sounds deadly but is nowhere near, and in the end the story is given to... a dog. That we just met. Spectacular.
Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon (Simon & Schuster, 2013). A glowing, quiet book, with a couple of transcendent set pieces.
Las primas, by Aurora Venturini (Estruendomudo, 2013). I'll be having more to say about this short novel in coming months, but just know that it's very cool and weird and disturbing and good.
Best Short Story Collection
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor (Library of America, 1988). Magnificently creepy and bright and full, just like we all remember it to be.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley (FSG, 1985). So delightful. A good deal of range in the voicing and yet such tight dictional control. Beyond wonderful.
Tenth of December, by George Saunders (Random House, 2013). Rock-solid throughout, and three of the stories go on my all-time list. “Escape from Spiderhead” for its virtuoso spinning-out past the edge of those near-future-drug stories from before. “Home” for its rawness, something I haven't felt in quite this way since “Isabelle,” and loved, and missed. “Tenth of December” for being so amazingly full and structurally wise and for the line about the cardinal.
Truck Dance, by Jeff Landon (Matter Press, 2011). Really really great semi-short stories. At least one sentence I wish I'd written in every one.
Live or Die, by Anne Sexton (Mariner, 1999). This is the one that won the Pulitzer amidst great weirdness—it was low on the list of all three judges, and then they couldn't abide each other's top picks—but it deserved it on the merits. Superior control, high manic energy, high-wire language and sudden melancholy.
My Alexandria, by Mark Doty (University of Illinois Press, 1993). Such a lovely book. A sense of language that is abiding but not overwhelming; a sense of narrative that is structural but rarely central. Some amazing, daring turns. Overtones of Frost, nods to Rilke.
Patio de locos, by Andrés Neuman (Estruendomudo, 2012). A tiny book—33 poems—so good and clever and heartbreaking. Great use of narrative stance. Nice clogwork on the knife-edge of language. Bits of surreality that reminded me of Oquendo de Amat, but always in the interest of the overall sadness of insanity.
Notes from No Man's Land, by Eula Biss (Graywolf, 2009). Hard clear elegant thinking about race, and geography, and fate. And of course she has a new one out this year, which by all accounts is every bit as good, and I can't wait.
Llamada perdida, by Gabriela Wiener (Estruendomudo, 2014). A really engaging set of essays on looking at Peru, and the self, from the outside in. Really fearless in writing about sex, and some beautifully lyrical passages.
Best In Translation
The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen, trans. Julia Lovell (Columbia University Press, 2013). A really powerful collection of stories about people for whom things go sideways in one way or another. Good intentions that don't lead where you think they might. Splintered plots that nonetheless feel conclusive.
Running through Beijing, by Xu Zechen, trans. Eric Abrahamsen (Two Lines Press, 2014). A side of Beijing—a life in Beijing—that is rarely seen, even by people who live there, because it's hiding in plain sight: the sellers of fake IDs and pirated DVDs are presented here not as an urban phenomenon but as individuals with full lives and complicated backstories. A quiet, smart, fast book.
So that's them! And how I hope that if anything here wasn't on your radar before, it gets there now. They're amazing. I promise.
Thanks to Open Road for including my first book, Nothing in the World, in the Summer Steal thing they're doing, 150 ebooks on sale. They've also got some great juju from James Salter, Jane Ciabattari, Elizabeth Crane, Luis Jaramillo, Steve Erickson, Iris Murdoch, Madison Smartt Bell...
Some excellent news, just in time for holidays wherein people sometimes buy stuff for other people: the ebook versions of All Over and Nothing in the World are out live in the world. The Kindle versions and the Nook Versions are exactly where you'd expect them to be, or check out the Dzanc website for both of those versions and all possible others as well.
Great questions from Douglas Light at KGB, which also happens to be the location (well, the bar, not the blog) of my first-ever public fiction reading. That was way back in 2006, but I remember it better than yesterday: Peter Carey and Wesley Stace and I, we by god read like houses afire.
I recently had the pleasure of judging the Press 53 novella contest, and they've now posted the results. The editors there, Sheryl Monks and Kevin Watson, narrowed my pool down to ten finalists, which they then forwarded on to me. I read them blind, which added a useful frisson and a necessary ignorance to the exercise, but it's fun, now, to see the names of actual people attached to the manuscripts I read.
And I'm here to report that the wonderful thing happened as I worked through those manuscripts, the thing you always hope for but know not to count on: the group of finalists was very solid, with a clean sub-group of Honorable Mentions rising above, and one novella in particular that was absolutely transcendent--so good that I couldn't believe it wasn't already a book. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in the contest, and most especially to the winner, Joan Corwin of Evanston, Illinois, whose "Safe Shall Be My Going" is a beautiful novella, and whose name, I suspect, we will be seeing often in the future.
May 12, 2008, 10:13 a.m.Category: Novellas
A very fun radio interview to start things off here in Champaign-Urbana, with David Inge of Will Focus 580 AM. You know the cough button that mutes your mike for as long as you press it down? For reasons I would be hard-pressed to explain, I love that button.
A very fun interview just went up here, courtesy of Claire Zulkey. She let me talk about kids' books, Very Bad Poems, and dark chocolate. That's just win-win-win right there.
The new iteration of Nothing in the World is now available for pre-order at Dzanc. We're still tweaking the cover but it's well along already: more fantastic work by Steven Seighman. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that this book is getting a second chance at life.
July 20, 2007, 11:54 p.m.Category: Novellas
Terrific news: Dzanc Books, the publisher of my upcoming collection of short stories, has taken on the re-issue of Nothing in the World as well. I simply couldn't be more pleased. It's part of a deal through which Dzanc will do my next two books as well, a novel for 2009 and another collection for 2010. Exactly what I've been hoping for ever since Bullfight Media went under. Marvelous, marvelous.
June 11, 2007, 12:45 p.m.Category: Novellas