We asked our contributors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2016. Here they are.
* * *
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.
These are stories that don’t compromise—that stand their ground and say come here, because I won’t come to you. And that’s the most valuable thing to read—to go somewhere other than where you are. The characters are dark and twisty; she’s an Arab American Roald Dahl—the world they inhabit likewise whimsical yet treacherous. Her lively staccato use of language is the perfect foil to this darkness, keeping the reader suspended and engaged throughout. It never plods. Never holds your hand to the fire for longer than a few seconds at a time. The title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” is one of the strongest in the collection, interweaving ancestry and tradition with contemporary conflict. There’s not a minaret in sight. Not even on the cover.
The story, “A Sailor,” dissects a marriage. A husband refuses to become angry with his wife for having had an affair. The following excerpt shows you what Jarrar’s writing is like. If you don’t like curse words, this isn’t for you. I like curse words done well. Jarrar does them well:
“She fucks a Sailor, a Turkish sailor, the summer she spends in Istanbul. When she comes home to Wisconsin, it takes her three days to come clean about it to her husband.
“He says this doesn’t bother him, and she tells him that it bothers her that it doesn’t bother him. He asks if she prefers him to be the kind of man who is bothered by fleeting moments, and she tells him that yes, she prefers that he be that kind of man. He tells her he thinks she married him because he is precisely the kind of man who doesn’t dwell on fleeting moments, because he is the kind of man who does not hold a grudge. She tells him that holding a grudge and working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor is not the same thing. He agrees that holding a grudge isn’t the same as working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor, but he adds, one’s wife, specifically his own, would never leave him for a sailor, and not a Turkish sailor. In fact, he says, she did not leave him for the Turkish sailor. She is here. So why should he be angry?”
Poetry is often under-recognized—and while Ocean Vuong’s has been recognized by Whiting, poetry needs every opportunity to be read. So I’m laying it down here. This is the one to read. Every poem beats with exigency and passion, and his work is complicated—spanning history and time and blood and heartbreak and hope. And yet there is meaningful silence in the words, too—gaps and pauses in the line breaks and spaces filled with guesses and anticipation and questioning. Vuong is a fan of Li-Young Lee and like Lee, Vuong investigates fathers, mothers, country, and historical pain. But it very well could be that he will make a mark bigger than Lee’s.
From Daily Bread:
“He’ll imagine the softness of bread
as he peels back the wool blanket, raises
her phantom limb to his lips as each kiss
dissolves down her air-light ankles.
& he will never see the pleasure
this brings to her face. Never
her face. Because in my hurry
to make her real, make her
here, I will forget to write
a bit of light into the room.
Because my hands were always brief
& dim as my father’s.
& it will start to rain. I won’t
even think to put a roof over the house—
her prosthetic leg on the nightstand,
the clack clack as it fills to the brim. Listen,
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining. Crescent
wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have
enough ink to give you the sea
but not the ships, but it’s my book
& I’ll say anything just to stay inside
this skin. Sassafras. Douglas fir.
Sextant & compass…”
If Marshall McLuhan rewrote “Cinderella,” the result might come out looking something like this novel, Stagg’s first. Colleen, an aimless 23 year old who works administering marketing surveys in an anodyne Arizona mall, lives a bleak and listless life, online when she’s not drinking or avoiding the advances of the peeping Tom in her shabby apartment complex. Then she meets Jim, a minor celebrity, “online, it doesn’t matter how…Describing it would be pointless and anyway, you can look it up.” Colleen and Jim fall in love and quickly, as a unit, become rich and very famous. The specifics aren’t clear, and they never need to be: Stagg lays out the truths and the falsehoods of the attention economy brilliantly without them. At the height of her fame, Colleen becomes obsessed with Lucinda, Jim’s ex, her obsession growing more desperate as Colleen’s notoriety inevitably wanes. “I curled around my computer, searching for all the things I’d seen a million times. The views were not growing as steadily, but they were growing, and would always grow, never diminish… I grabbed my phone and muscle memory led me to look up Lucinda’s Twitter. It looked as if all of it had been deleted. How stupid is she? I thought. You can’t really delete any of it.” Stagg’s dark wit, her accurate-to-the-millimeter rendering of the physical and psychological experience of consuming and being consumed by social media, and the emergence of Lucinda as someone whose power comes from her ability to be completely sustained by her own inner life — or at least, appear that way — makes Surveys really special.
The DMV is no longer issuing driver’s licenses and the names of the fish that have gone extinct are crossed out on the walls of sushi restaurants: this is how we know the apocalypse is coming to San Francisco in 1999. There’s the thick perma-smog and a vegetable shortage too, but it is the driver’s license issue that grabs our narrator Michelle’s attention in Black Wave, the latest book from Michelle Tea. She needs a driver’s license to drive her getaway van to Los Angeles and escape the codependent relationships, drugs, and squalor (captured in all their pre-gentrified post-nostalgized charm) of the Mission in the late 90s. When Michelle gets to Los Angeles Black Wave bifurcates: LA Michelle, now sober, is attempting to adapt her unruly, unpublished 500-pg memoir called Black Wave into a screenplay. She is struggling, with sobriety, with the ethics of writing about her life and her loved ones, haunted by her past and by people she has yet to meet (in memoir-land, at the computer where she works every day — yes, there’s an element of metafiction at work). But then the apocalypse comes to contemporary Los Angeles too, the actual irreversible accelerationist climate one we’ve all been in denial about since 1999, in a series of tsunamis that will take out the entire West Coast. The mass suicides begin in New York. Michelle’s brother calls in a panic, begging an incredulous Michelle to turn on the TV and see for herself: “Michelle knew once she turned on her television it would remain on for a very long time.”
While telling a literal apocalypse story, Tea also interrogates other life-ending moments with the warmth and humor she’s known for: sobriety, the loss of a love, the practice (metaphorical suicide, if not real relationship-cide) of narrating one’s life for an audience. But it is the ‘real’ apocalypse that allows ‘real’ Michelle to finally finish her memoir, on the last day of the world: “She could, after all, write only the stories she was meant to write. She could write nothing more than that, nothing more or less perfect. As it turned out, time could not be wasted.” Perhaps it’s too on-the-nose to recommend an apocalypse story right now, but not this one.
In addition to her budding career as a novelist, Erin Judge is an incredibly talented comedian, and her debut novel manages to be very funny without ever devolving into simply a string of humorous bits. That’s partly because her heroine, Natalie–an aspiring fashion designer who takes a vow of celibacy after a string of toxic relationships starting way back in adolescence–has so much heart. That Natalie is plus-sized and bisexual is an important part of the narrative, but it isn’t the whole story. Natalie is sex positive and body positive and she happens to be the star of a fun, smart, sexy romp of a novel in which she errs and learns and grows just like traditional protagonists do. I hate the idea that in this day and age Vow of Celibacy can still feel revolutionary in its treatment of both sexuality and size, but it’s true.
I never expected an experimental novel that makes extensive allusions to classical Roman poetry to feel so vital and immediate, but Nine Island proved me wrong again and again. It’s the story of J, a translator of Ovid, who lives in relative solitude in one of those big, sprawling condos on an island in Miami. She’s not young, but she’s not yet old enough to retire in “paradise”, as so many of her neighbors have. The best comedy and poetry in Nine Island is in J’s depiction of her life in the present–the trips to Publix and the sunbathing and the existential angst–as well as her remembrances of the past.
I read for a living, and am lucky enough to pick and choose only those books I enjoy. But three books this year grabbed me and wouldn’t let go; judging from the reactions of the dozens of people I’ve bought them for, they’ve grabbed others in the same way
Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel about how far one family will go to help their autistic daughter, is that rare book that lets you feel you’re smarter than the narrator, until they do exactly what you would have.
This is the story of a seemingly normal woman, until she picks up a drink. Hepola’s blackouts lead her to some very dark places, but with such humor and bravery that you’re too busy cheering to be embarrassed.
The Next: A Novel of Love, Revenge and a Ghost Who Can’t Let Go (Stephanie Gangi, St. Martin’s Press)
Ghost stories? Not a fan. Which is why I didn’t think I’d like Stephanie Gangi’s The Next: A Novel of Love, Revenge and a Ghost Who Can’t Let Go. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but Gangi makes us see how delicious it is served piping hot.
Literary critic and Vice President of Awards for the National Book Critics Circle
I knew I had to read Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel when Garth Greenwell took time out from his own book party to introduce me to the author. Whenever someone I admire is that enthusiastic about something, I pay attention. And I’m glad I did. The Story of a Brief Marriage is set over a single day in a Sri Lankan refugee camp toward the end of a civil war that spans decades. The story centers around Dinesh, a young man who has lost everything and everyone he cares about. This haunting, devastating book is an intricate look at a man becoming reacquainted with his own body after living through some horrific experiences. He marries a woman he barely knows, and every moment is magnified by the dangerous situation they live in. The Story of a Brief Marriage is a story of grace and humanity despite catastrophic circumstances.
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir Of Place, Solitude, and Friendship (Katherine Towler, Counterpoint)
Yes, I’m friends with the author. But I would choose this book even if I didn’t know Katherine. I’m a sucker for memoirs about writers and the writing life—and this is one of the best books I’ve ever read in that category. Years ago, Katherine Towler moved to Portsmouth, NH and met Robert Dunn—a fiercely stubborn, eccentric poet who was beloved in the literary community, but content with being a “minor poet.” She became a caretaker for him in the final years of his life, and recounts what she learned from her friendship with Robert. It’s easy to focus on validation when you’re a writer, but this beautifully written book is a reminder that none of that really matters in the end. What counts in being an artist is the work itself, and the solitude and friendships we count on to fuel our creativity.
Book buyer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
The closest thing to a major review Eliot Weinberger has received for his latest collection of essays, published in October by New Directions, came in an episode of the “Inside the NY Times Book Review” podcast, where the book was mentioned in passing. I don’t understand the critical silence surrounding his work, which ranges in The Ghosts of Birds from ancient China through medieval Ireland onto George W. Bush. Perhaps he is too much a modernist for our post-modern tastes, though one would think that his keen sense of irony, deadly effective use of pastiche, unrepentant liberalism, and broad sense of humanity would appeal to readers–especially in 2016–looking for an antidote to what is starting to feel like the closing act of an abbreviated global era.
The Ghosts of Birds continues the serial essay begun in Weinberger’s masterful An Elemental Thing, a project that does much to reinvent the essay and the essay collection. Thematically linked, these essays demonstrate the weirdness, wonder, and often the alarming short-sightedness of the human imagination, all with an apparent effortlessness that belies the work that must have gone into them. Each essay proves an education in itself, making the book a veritable Harvard Classics set–but more fun.
Before I read Frances Wilson’s extraordinary biography, I knew De Quincey only as the Opium Eater, a minor character skirting the fringes of the Romantic era. After finishing Guilty Thing, I have a newfound admiration for the man who essentially founded the true crime genre, the addiction memoir, pioneered literary autobiography, and influenced writers like Jorge Luis Borges.
Wilson’s portrait of De Quincey and his era is astonishingly fresh and free of the tedious, soul-sucking character analysis that bogs down much biography. De Quincey in these pages comes across as a perpetually hounded man who lived by and through his writing, constantly on the run from creditors (perhaps most remarkable among his talents was his ability to waste his fortune), and who even for a time feared for his life after writing for two competing journals. (The worry was not unfounded: the editor of the upstart London Magazine was shot and killed in a duel with the editor of Blackwood’s, just one sordid episode Wilson recounts with gusto.) It’s debatable whether Guilty Thing is a reclamation job, but it is certainly the most vibrant and energetic literary biography I’ve read in ages.
Balancing poignancy with subtle humor, Mira Ptacin weaves together the stories of her own tragic loss and her mother’s. When an accidental pregnancy progresses into an unviable one, Ptacin and her husband must decide whether to terminate it, or wait for it to terminate itself. Their grief echoes that of Ptacin’s immigrant mother’s, after her only son was killed by a drunk driver.
Zoe Zolbrod courageously, artfully, and compassionately examines herself–as a woman, mother, and sexual being–through the lens of her experience being molested as a child. The book is as intelligent and enlightening as it is beautifully written. I particularly admire how remarkably generous Zolbrod is toward the cousin who violated her.