Longreads Best of 2015: Under-Recognized Books

We asked our book editors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2015. Here they are.

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Anna Wiener
@annawiener

Rules for Werewolves (Kirk Lynn, Melville House)

I read this book in one fast gulp, anxious fingers poised to flip the page. In Kirk Lynn’s debut novel, a band of young runaways moves swiftly through the suburbs, squatting in foreclosed houses and in the homes of unwitting vacationers, wild eyes trained on the promise of a self-made utopia. The thrills and pleasures of this new society are the benign trappings of suburbia (well-stocked refrigerators, lavender soap, the privacy of closed doors) coupled with the first bright licks of freedom. As the pack grows tighter, defining the boundaries of its own morals and ideology, it also grows more feral. Unbridled idealism and independence begin to unravel into violent and irreparable ends.

Structurally, Rules for Werewolves seems to borrow from Lynn’s background as a playwright: the book is composed of alternating sections, some of which are monologues from shifting perspectives; the rest is raw dialogue, high velocity and high stakes, deftly capturing the insecurities, intoxication, and desperation of people determined to survive on their own terms. From the pack’s pastoral vision to Kirk’s unsettling depiction of the waning American suburbs—littered with empty houses, an echo of unrealized aspirations—the book reminds that utopia’s volatility comes always from within.

Tender Points (Amy Berkowitz, Timeless, Infinite Light)

I found this book on the Staff Picks shelf at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and, like all of the worst bookstore customers, read most of it right on the spot. Tender Points is short and tough, a personal but unsentimental chronicle of trauma and chronic pain, delivered in a series of blunt, intimate fragments. Berkowitz has fibromyalgia, the primary symptom of which is easy articulated: sweeping, persistent, full-body pain. But pain is of course internal, and this particular illness lacks any attendant external indicators, making it subject to skepticism and dismissal in the medical community. It’s also crucial to mention that fibromyalgia disproportionately affects women, many of whom have a history of sexual abuse; it quickly becomes clear that this is a nightmare illness to explain to colleagues and acquaintances, let alone a male doctor.

If this all sounds a little dark, that’s because it is; there’s no redemption at the end of this tunnel (happy holidays!). But what may scan as bleak is also, in this case, the most honest form of storytelling: the best possible version of chronic illness is successful management, not a cure. Berkowitz pulls in a wide range of references (noise music, Ice Cube, Anne Carson), and the darkness is buoyed by her deadpan sense of humor: “As I read more about the history of invisible illness,” she writes, “I’m surprised and amused to diagnose myself with hysteria.”


A.N. Devers
@andevers

The Door (Magda Szabo, NYRB Classics)

Called a masterpiece by Claire Messud in the New York Times Book Review, Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo’s award-winning 1987 novel, The Door, untangles the tangles of female friendship with intensity and insight. Only now released in America, The Door should signal an alarm that we are overlooking a substantial writer.

Rare Books Uncovered (Rebecca Rego Barry, Voyageur Press)

In Rare Books Uncovered, Fine Books magazine editor Rebecca Rego Barry deftly tells the stories of 50 bibliophiles who made discoveries of great, rare, or unusual works of literature. Although each story is brief, Barry manages to weave the history and terminology of book collecting into the background while offering an enlivening and adventurous look at the curious lives of book hunters and the dusty tomes they treasure.


Dustin Kurtz
@theunread

Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad and Robert Dewhurst, Wave Books)

I’m embarrassed to say that this was my introduction to the work of Wieners. I don’t know that the book was ignored this year—certainly not among poetry readers—but he deserves to be a household name. As this collection spanning his career makes plain, he was not only a throbbing heart of postwar American poetry, he was a clear and lasting influence on more recent generations of poets. Wieners was a member of the last class of Black Mountain College—his early work toys with Creeley—but consensus seems to be that it was his 1958 The Hotel Wentley Poems that made him famous. They are masterful, twisting up Whitman and Williams and Crane and Llorca to stitch out his own confession in the tight queer seams of the American language.

I have my favorites in the book: the Wentley poems, a facsimile of a brilliant 1975 chapbook Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike, the towering “Here for the Night”, but the real joy of this book is reading it as just that; a book. Wieners played with questions of confession and control his entire career, but seeing that borne out over decades in a wild variety of styles, with greater or less force, with a growing deftness that was then eroded by a quietude, a relaxation—there’s a wonder and sorrow in reading a man’s life.

Genoa (Paul Metcalf, Coffee House Press)

Here’s another deeply American book, reprinted this year on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Indeed, it may be the most American book I’ve seen in a long time, not counting that children’s series Rush Limbaugh writes where he travels through time to stabs redcoats. Genoa deals in seafaring, in ghosts, in mythmaking and violence. As with the Wieners collection, this was my introduction to the author, and I was glad for it. Metcalf writes through his corpse, so to speak, in the same style used and advocated by Davenport, Delany and Gass. In this novel that deep attention to the narrator’s body runs in a feedback loop with excerpts and discursions about and by Herman Melville and Christopher Columbus. The result feels shockingly au courant, as if Maggie Nelson, Eliot Weinberger or Valeria Luiselli had taken it upon themselves to gloss an Updike story.

Metcalf was the great grandson of Herman Melville, and Genoa was his reckoning with that legacy. The conceit, more or less explicit, is that the narrator and his brother bear out in their flesh and their lives attributes from the work of Melville. The result is odd, at times horrifying, and a marvelous novel that should be recognized as one of the great fever dreams of our nation.

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I’d also like to take a moment to celebrate some of the newer indie publishers who’ve been putting out some really incredible work in translation this past year, including And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Phoneme Media, Restless Books and Two Lines Press. The quality of books coming out of all of those houses has been remarkable and I hope you’ll seek them out and badger your local librarian or bookseller into stocking them.


Dana Snitzky
@danasnitzky

Katherine Carlyle (Rupert Thomson, Other Press)

This is a brilliant book, strangely overlooked. It’s UK author Rupert Thomson’s 10th novel, and in it he achieves a sublime nonchalance. He’s not striving. He’s just an ice floe, pulling incrementally ahead. His language works double-time, both dripping with metaphor and brutally direct. There are some masterful one-liners to be found in these pages—lines like “He… blows out a thin blade of smoke that blunts itself against the night.”

Our narrator, Katherine Carlyle, was fertilized in vitro, and spent eight years in a freezer before being implanted in her mother—no spoilers, you find this out on the first page. She decides to abandon her life and drift through Europe, as part of a carefully plotted but deeply opaque plan she has concocted in order to grapple with her inner iciness—the cold emptiness that she has always felt because of that early time spent in the freezer. She at least seems to have some sort of plan. It could all just be madness or schizophrenia—the reading of signs in all the wrong places. In any case the reader is left guessing what Katherine Carlyle will do next, which gives the book the feel of a thriller. Thomson imbues small talk with astonishing tension and the careful detail with which his narrator describes each new room she enters, each new person she meets, creates an ominous sense of hidden meaning and inevitable destiny.

Thomson’s cold attention to detail and the incisive metaphors out of which he builds his story are an impressive marriage of content and form. Katherine Carlyle’s icy detachment is made crystal clear by how often she tries to make sense of one thing by comparing it to another thing—she has no feel for the world. She is cold to its touch. I read it as a parable. You don’t have to spend eight years in a freezer to feel the cold at the bottom of everything, but it is a novel and clever way to talk about it.

Galileo’s Middle Finger (Alice Dreger, Penguin Press)

This overlooked piece of memoir-cum-true crime-cum science writing is wildly interesting, if a bit messily put together. And it’s truly fearless, given the kind of public shaming (to reference Jon Ronson’s topically related and more popularly received book also published this year) to which some of Dreger’s antagonists have resorted.

Her subject matter is that knotty point at which the purview of scientists and activists intersect (mainly around issues of gender and sexuality, it turns out) and the vicious and unfair battles that get fought there. Dreger tells two types of stories in the book (with first hand access, having become a sort of Sherlock Holmes or doctor on call for these situations). The first type of story is about a scientist who has been unfairly bashed by activists because his or her findings don’t support the activists’ politics. The second type of story is about activists unable to stop scientists or doctors who actually are engaging in unethical practices (and one story in which they manage to do so).

For instance, Dreger tells the horribly sad story of the destruction of the reputation of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon by activist anthropologists who felt that his depiction of native Amazonians as violent and misogynist was itself a violent and misogynist act against the Amazonians and (more far-fetched) believed that he was a mad scientist experimenting on his subjects. It turns out the curmudgeonly Chagnon was elaborately framed by obsessive haters. But then, on the other hand, Dreger reveals, to the reader’s horror, the chilling (and ongoing!) endangerment of fetuses being carried on by an OB/GYN in her quixotic (to say the least) quest to avoid the birth of hermaphroditic children. Activists have had no luck stopping this doctor.

The yin and yang of these stories is powerfully interesting—the good guys are sometimes the bad guys, and vice versa. Dreger lands firmly on the side not of scientists or activists, but of sound science, no matter what her political affiliation with the person practicing it. Would that we all did! And she gives fascinating insight into the American propensity for witch hunts, like the one against Chagnon, for giving into that “paranoid style” of American politics.

 

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.