A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
There is something about reading a short story that really gives you a feel for someone's ability as a writer.
I think it has to do with the space, or the lack thereof. In a novel, there's room to hide inadequacies, to write in a roundabout fashion if necessary. But in short fiction, space is paramount. Like living in New York City, I imagine, or one of those 240 square-foot Ikea apartments.
In the seven stories in this collection, Hale crafts seven very different little worlds, full of characters with their own backgrounds, longings, worries, and lives. He is able to put all of this together with the greatest ease, precise characterization, and compact usage of language. All in such a way that draws the reader into the story, wanting to learn more about these people.
And, in the way of truly great writers, Hale is able to tell you more about the character than you are aware you are learning—that whole show-don't-tell thing your teacher is always harping on about. Flawless. You won't even notice it's happening.
I was lucky enough to get to go to a reading of Hale's (he grew up in Boulder, CO, where I'm from—funnily enough, his mom taught my high school IB World History class!) and I'm so glad I went. He is as eloquent as his stories and I will have to pick up his novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Hale is one of those people who can offhandedly quote writers in a completely non-pedantic way. It's inspiring. I'd love to have taken class with him when I was in school! He is a great reader as well—which not all writers are. He read from the last story, "The Minus World," and completely captured the voice of the narrator, Peter.
The stories follow characters on the fringes. Peter, a recovering drug addict, is getting one last chance when his brother hooks him up with a strange new job hauling squid for MIT scientists at the crack of dawn. He's probably destined for failure. But you're rooting for him anyway.
Weirdly, all of these stories live in our world; even at their oddest moments Hale has us on the hook. One of those stranger-than-fiction things, I guess. He doesn't overuse or over-tell. There is just enough information to let the reader fill in the blanks of the world with their own experience.
The opening story, "Don't Worry Baby," is quiet but memorable: three fugitives are on a plane, one a mother with a small infant. She accidentally ingests LSD that the other two are enjoying and the baby gets high through her breast milk. Suffice to say he doesn't have an enjoyable trip, but that isn't even the crux of the story.
Where Hale really succeeds, for me at least, is in the finish. He has a knack for the surprise ending—for setting up every detail so perfectly and then pulling out that one Jenga stick that topples the whole tower. And he leaves you to pick up the pieces, to imagine what comes next. I really had to take some time after each story to think about what the endings meant, and they really stuck with me! His carefully wrought worlds mattered to me when they all came tumbling down for the characters.
The crowning jewel of the collection is definitely the title story. Tristan is a performance and experimental artist who delights in the grotesque and absurd. He pushes the envelope, too far, but the critics seem to love it. His newest piece of art is himself: eating whatever viewers bring him, eating constantly in a glass box, trying to become the fattest person in the world while he slowly kills himself. It brings to mind what people are willing to do for art and what art really means. How art consumes and us, how we consume it, how it sweeps around like fads: huge one moment and completely obscure the next.
A great collection with writing that rivals Adam Johnson's National Book Award winning collection from last year, Fortune Smiles. Definitely worth picking up if you love short stories. If you tend to turn up your nose, think again. They are the mark of a truly great writer and you don't want to pass this one up.
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Mark Haddon (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time fame) comes at us with this brilliantly diverse and surprisingly dark collection of stories ranging from mythological to contemporary and realistic to sci-fi to adventure and more.
I was honestly surprised by every story and found myself drawn into each one in a different way. The title story is the first one and reads like something plucked from Stephen King's head: a pier with hundreds of people on it collapses and descends into the water, dragging many to their deaths. It's hard to look away from the page, but at the same time, it's written with this over-arching perspective, like a doctor performing an autopsy with no emotional affect. Chilling and beautifully done.
An underlying thread throughout the stories were themes of loneliness and unhappiness and how people deal with that—people who live on the fringes of society like a morbidly obese man, a man who has nothing left in his life but his two dogs, and a dysfunctional family at Christmastime to name a few.
There were also elements of mythology woven throughout, sometimes more overtly, such as in "The Island," which was an Angela Carter-esque retelling of the Greek myth of the Minotaur. In other stories, it was more hidden, and in some it was just a smattering of the supernatural in an otherwise familiar world, like "Wodwo," the aforementioned Christmas family tale
There is so much to talk about here! So much to explore and so, so much to appreciate. There's a lot to be learned from a well-crafted short story and I think these tales easily flirt with the greats. The style of this collection reminded me a lot of Adam Johnson's National Book Award winning collection from last year, Fortune Smiles. Haddon is not one to over-tell a story. If anything, he underplays his hand until the last second, and then throws down that ace-high straight flush with a devastating flourish.
A few of the stories have such unexpected twists at the end that they really got me thinking—more like searching—the characters' minds, looking for what made them tick, where their decisions came from. They were such human characters and those shocking moments that left me puzzling and rethinking the entire story made me realize that the characters were more than was written on the page: they had internal lives and intentions and breath beyond their short dialogue.
Just because we get the chance to peek in through the window that the story provides doesn't mean that's the whole story, and that is what's so magical in the worlds that Haddon has created here.
It's short story month, so whether you are a writer, reader, or whatever, jump on this collection. I don't get people who say they don't like to read short stories—besides being so much fun, they are an amazing way to learn about writing! I think short stories are such a telling format; they highlight weaknesses like wine stains on a white carpet. It's easier to hide in a novel since there's so many pages, but in a short format, every word counts.
All the greats write short fiction, so there's got to be something to it. Interesting, diverse story collections like this one are worth picking up—trust me. Have I ever led you astray before?
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It has been a crazy month, so I apologize about the lack of posting. Good excuses all around: a new job, an unexpected freelancing review opportunity that will be ongoing, planning a trip to NYC, and in more mysterious news, I've been working on some new and different things for the blog, so look for that upcoming right here!
Of course, I've been reading all along, and I've got some good books to review in the pipeline, so I hope you'll stay tuned.
Not to be outdone by The New York Times, who printed their review of Oyeyemi's collection in the Sunday paper today (I've yet to read it, but they said nothing but good things about her previous books), here's my thoughts on this lovely and strange first short story collection.
"Before assuming ownership of a key, you should look at it closely. Not only because you may need to identify it later but because to look at a key is to get an impression of the lock it was made for, and by extension, the entire establishment surrounding the lock" (298).
While this statement—from the last story in the collection, "Freddy Barrandov Checks... In?"—refers to an actual key for a hotel room, it really struck me as a line that summed up one of the major themes of the entire book. Keys string their way through all the stories, whether they are actual keys, like key cards to hotel rooms, or something more metaphorical. Sometimes the keys are almost incidental to the stories, just an everyday object that happens to be around, but they are always there, consistently reminding the reader of the the secrecy and history that they contain. Entire worlds can be revealed by a key, as shown in the first story, "Books and Roses," where two women uncover secrets about their past with the help of two keys—but as this story shows, a key is useless unless you know which door it unlocks.
Many of the stories blend fairytale elements—a puppet come to life with shades of Pinocchio, a Red Riding Hood cape and wolf, and one of the stories even begins with that age-old phrase: "Once upon a time..." Oyeyemi's previous novel, Boy, Snow, Bird was a fairytale fusion as well, and that's not the first time she's ventured into this territory. In this book, I was especially reminded of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which rewrites certain fairytales in a darker, more tactile, and definitely more sensual and bloody way, but I think that Oyeyemi has gone even further, stripping the fairytales down to only the barest of their recognizable parts. The stories in the collection as a whole seem separated by worlds—one discussing a vengeful tyrant drowning anyone who defies him in murky pits, while another has a sub-plot with an almost socio-political look at how social media might handle a famous singer beating up a hooker. Somehow, there's really no disconnect in that; the prose stays so even throughout.
What I thought was really interesting was how Oyeyemi really messed with the structure of these stories (buh-bye Freytag's pyramid,) pulling the climax to the last paragraph of the story, dumping a big reveal on the reader and then pushing you out of the story. Or, the climax would come early, so most of the story would end up being falling action. This was really a disruption of the perfect fairytale structure even though many of the stories held onto their fairytale-esque nature. And, I think the structuring is very deliberate. Oyeyemi holds all the keys, like a prison warden, and we are all under her control while we read. We get the information parceled out to us as needed, doors being unlocked only when she wants us to go through them.
It's obvious reading (and re-reading) these stories that this isn't the first time that Oyeyemi has thought about keys and their multitudes. I think that keys are hidden in all of her works, though this is the first time she has written about them so overtly. In White is for Witching, the moments narrated by the house especially are the key (pun intended) to uncovering the truth about the main characters. And then in Boy, Snow, Bird, she makes you use what you know about the fairytales of Snow White, the Pied Piper, and so on to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of the story. Keys are not always tangible, but that doesn't mean we are left grasping at straws.
Characters also flit between stories; one character might be on the peripheries of one story but then will be the main voice of the next. It is interesting to see their stories develop, especially since not all of the stories have an entirely rounded ending. I left the collection feeling a bit overwhelmed, but also very fulfilled and even intoxicated—Oyeyemi can do that to you.
Reading Oyeyemi at times can be a bit like swimming in rough water: if you struggle too much you're bound to panic and keep getting seawater in your lungs and risk drowning. Sometimes it's better to just relax and float along on the prose, just taking it all in. You won't regret the experience.
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.