GMU's Fall For The Book festival starts tomorrow, and it's pretty dang studded with stars and those in the making--Sandra Cisneros, Robert Bausch, Jen Percy, Lauren Groff, James McPherson, Idra Novey, Elena Passarello, and plenty more. I'll be reading from the WIP--might even read the part about the whip--on Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Sandy Spring Bank Tent, where, and the sponsors don't know this yet, I will actually be camping for the entire week. Come for the stories, stay for the S'mores.
Many thanks to Damyanti Biswas at Daily (W)rite for a great set of things to think on.
Readings can be such a mixed bag. Sometimes the writers are off their game, or don't prep well, or make unfortunate choices about what to read. Sometimes the venue is too loud or echoey or uncomfortable. But when the reader is someone whose work you love more than breathing, and the work read is new and vital, and the setting is gorgeous and full and acoustically blessed, wow--you get something a lot like grace.
Washington College, where I'm currently the Writer-in-Residence, has been closed through Thanksgiving due to security concerns that are, more than anything, depressing as hell. As a means of addressing that depression, kind of, as well as the fact that my students and I lost a class period, I made a short video with a few thoughts on Maggie Nelson's amazing book Bluets, which we'd been scheduled to discuss. I'd apologize for its goofiness, but that's also part of the point.
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.
Many thanks to Pank editor Roxane Gay, books editor Randon Noble, and reviewer Thomas Michael Duncan for these kind words for Any Deadly Thing.
Many thanks to Michael B. Tager and the editors at Jmww Journal for their go at Any Deadly Thing: "(E)very one of the characters is someone the reader can latch on to. Their choices are terrible, but they make sense. It's not something you would do (you hope), but it's something you can't look away from, like the tastiest, pathos-iest train wreck you've ever seen.”
Psyched to see the first review of Any Deadly Thing come up roses. Many thanks to Steve Newman and the rest of the crew at TimeOut Chicago.
Boston beckons, and so okay! I'll be reading from Any Deadly Thing on Wednesday at 6 p.m. with Steve Almond, Mary Miller et al. as part of Monster Mags of the Midwest III, and I'll be doing a signing at the Dzanc table (Q6) on Thursday from 2-4 p.m. Hope to see you at one, the other, or both. Please see the Appearances page for more information.
And we're off! Huge thanks once again to my editor, Matt Bell, my designer, Steven Seighman, and my publishers, Dan Wickett and Steven Gillis. February 12th is unquestionably the best day in the entire year for releasing a book. Even leaving aside the whole Mardi Gras situation, what other day can say that it is Oglethorpe Day AND the anniversary of Julio Cortázar's death AND Paul Bunyan Day AND Abraham Lincoln's birthday AND Darwin Day AND the day Lady Jane Grey was beheaded for treason? No other day can say that, can they? Not a single one.