Take That, Death of the Book: My Best of the Best Picks for 2012

And-the-winner-is...Buried under all the usual chatter about the death of the book is this not-so-little secret: 2012 was an amazing year for literature. And no, I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of bla bla bla. I’m talking about living, breathing, squirming, shouting, bleeding, spasming, lacy and lovely and lovelorn and fleshy and true and great literature. The real deal. In the small press world, in the big press world, it was a great year for it. Good writers got great books published, awards were given to some of the right people for once, good presses got recognized, and Random House even took the jillions of dollars they made from Fifty Shades and gave their employees some very nice holiday bonuses. Yay for reading!

It was difficult, with such a glut of the good, to pick just a few. But I feel sort of obligated, you know, to pass on the recommendations of a year’s heavy reading. And this year I feel it especially necessary to do so, for karmic reasons alone. You see, I had a book published this year, and it’s been a modest success so far, and I think that would not have been possible without the vouching and word-of-mouthing and reviewing and recommending of it by people who really enjoyed it and felt it their duty to pass said enjoyment on to others. So in the spirit of glad gratefulness and sharing (appropriate given the holidays now upon us) just like I do every year here in this space, I present my (imperfect) list of the literary best of 2012:

Best Novels: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter; The Listeners by Leni Zumas; Threats by Amelia Gray, Big Ray by Michael Kimball; The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss; Nine Months by Paula Bomer; Shadow Man by Gabriel Blackwell; Last Call in the City of Bridges by Salvatore Pane; Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith by Joanna Ruocco

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All That Distance Between Us: A Review of Michael Kimball’s Big Ray

In Michael Kimball‘s books, writing is an act of quiet devastation. By treating emotionally charged subjects in a matter-of-fact, direct manner, Kimball lays bare the wounds on the body and in the mind, drawing us a picture of the blood and guts and yes, piss – without the excess of pathos that other writers might deliver up with it. This plain-spoken approach to the cruelest cuts is a brutal and truth-driven process; it forces the reader to look, really look, at the hurts that we inflict upon one another. Image

In his latest book, Big Ray, these hurts are, if anything, even more painful, because they are largely those of Kimball himself. In what he says is mostly an autobiographical novel, the narrator contrasts his father’s life story with his death story, using the familiar story-in-pictures frame in a way that feels appropriate and right for the book. The narrator has always felt distant from his father, and so seeing his father’s unfamiliar life unfold in photographs works well here, and enhances not only the distance between Ray and his son, but the idea that none of us can ever really have the whole person in our parents (or our children, for that matter.) Only a little part of our parents’ lives belong to us, and all of us are really strangers to each other in so many ways. There is so much distance between even and maybe especially families. Kimball writes:

I have a cracked photograph of my father as a newborn that is a kind of family portrait. My father’s parents are standing outside in front of their rented farmhouse surrounded by weeds. My father’s mother is holding him against her left hip, but she’s leaning her upper body away from him and looking at the camera in a challenging way. My father’s father is standing next to them, but he is leaning away…None of the people can get away from each other, but they have created as much distance between each other as they can. Continue reading

So Many Small Plants in the Sun: A Review of Tim Horvath’s UNDERSTORIES

I read a lot of books. Some – mostImage – I read for pleasure, and some for reviewing. Often the books I’m supposed to be reviewing will cross over into that pleasure category, but it’s not often that a book I’m reading for pleasure gets me so excited about literature and writing and the writer who made it that I’m motivated to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and tell the world what’s so wonderful about it.

Tim Horvath’s first short story collection, Understories, is a that kind of wonderful. It is a cat’s cradle of people and places and a mad scientist’s bubbling test tubes and levers, woven together and delivered by a writer possessed of an intense intellectual curiosity and playfulness. Here we have stories that perform not only as virtuoso pieces of writing, but as mirrors held up to humanity, filigreed with warmth and compassion for the poor souls mired in the chaos of this modern world. Here we have stories of Gauguin in the land of the the midnight sun, of Heidegger roaming the Black Forest, of single dads and burned-out mothers, broken-hearted projectionists and misunderstood umbrologists–all built within in a framework almost like an updated, tongue-in-cheek Invisible Cities. Continue reading

Let’s Buy Great Books and Save Mud Luscious Press!

ImageYou guys all know how amazing Mud Luscious Press is. I mean, holy jesus, their list of author they’ve published includes Matt Bell, Gregory Sherl, Matthias Svalina, Robert Kloss, Norman Lock, Michael Stewart, Ben Brooks, Molly Gaudry, Sasha Fletcher, Andrew Borgstrom, Darby Larson–just to name some names.

Here’s the thing. They’re in trouble. They might close their doors if we don’t pitch in and help. And it’s not like charity (though you can donate directly to them if you want to)–just be selfish, buy great lit, and help this wonderful press continue their groundbreaking, form-shattering work at the same time. Right? It’s a win-win for everyone. I mean, you probably wanted to pre-order Brandi Wells’s book anyway, right? So perfect time to do that now.

Folks are definitely pitching in and helping already, which is fantastic. From the mouth of MLP:

We recd. an enormous outpouring of support since yesterday, when we announced that Mud Luscious Press is in need of about $2K in order to publish the next two novel(la)s and next two Nephew titles for 2012. In fact, in the last 24 hrs. we made about 25% of that goal! Thanks so so much to everyone who ordered or donated, & if we can keep it up today and tomorrow, we stand a fantastic chance of making what we need! If you are game to support MLP, love what we do, and have a little cash to throw to the cause, consider pre-ordering Brandi Wells POISONHORSE (http://mudlusciouspress.com/nephew/), buying a bundle deal (http://mudlusciouspress.com/books/deals-and-bundles/), ordering a backlist title from SPD (http://www.spdbooks.org/Search/?publisherName=Mud+Luscious+Press), or even donating directly to us (via jatyler@mudlusciouspress.com). Again, thanks to everyone who has bought a book to keep us alive in the indie publishing scene – we are so grateful for the support!

Let’s do it! Let’s shake off our 5th of July hangovers and buy some books.

A Month of Revision with Matt Salesses at Necessary Fiction

Matt Salesses, a pretty terrific writer of smart, tight prose, is spending July at Necessary Fiction pulling back the curtain on that bewildering, complicated, sometimes joyful and sometimes hideously frustrating process: revision. With the help of some other writers (disclosure: I am one of them), he’ll be offering advice and help and discussion and tips and more on how to navigate the tricky, sometimes savage waters of the revision process. From Matt’s pen/keyboard (probably should have just cut that attempted cliche entirely):

I have decided to launch a war on first drafts and erect the memorial to edits. Revision is where we do our most important work as writers, or at least where we can. And yet, for as much as we love and hate it, for as much as we talk about it, we don’t really talk about it. (See: What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision, which I’ve revised right out of this introduction.) I want that to change. I want us to teach revision up front when we teach writing, to demystify it, to make it the first thought rather than all reaction. One downside of workshops—which I love, don’t get me wrong—is that we only address the issues that come up. I think we can offer tips and strategies and experience and frustration from the beginning. I think we can say, this is where we’re going, and this is how we can make sure we get there.

If the rest of the tips and advice are as sage and as specific as the first twenty Matt offers in this post, this is going to be a very good month for the writer’s craft indeed. Don’t miss them.

Are There Any Readers Left: “Les Goddesses” and Reading and Writing in Public Solitude

Moyra Davey’s “Darling”

There was an interesting piece on the New Yorker blog a few days ago about a new video performance piece by artist Moyra Davey, appearing in the Whitney Biennial. In the video, “Les Goddesses,”

she paces decisively around her home speaking into a microphone about subjects both scholastic and revealing—the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, her sister’s struggle with addiction—her tone even and remote.

I wish I could get to New York to see this before it’s gone. It sounds like a fascinating, if potentially flawed, meditation on reading and writing and influence, and the idea that we are all becoming memoirists with ever-shrinking audiences. This rings especially true for a writer, of course; it’s hard to shake the idea sometimes that we’re only reading to write. As the Jessica Weisberg, writes: Continue reading

While the World Was Sleeping: A Review of Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Nothing

I started reading Blake Butler’s first foray into non-fiction, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, when I couldn’t fall asleep one night. This is unsurprising. I have my own troubled history with sleep, and so I’d been keeping the book on my nightstand, waiting until one of the nights that I lay there and lay there and lay there, head buzzing and heavy on the pillow.

First impressions? This is a smart, painful, insightful book about insomnia, but also about the body, the family, technology, anxiety, art, and the clutter of the modern world. It’s a mirror into the deeply troubled mind of anyone who’s ever been abandoned by sleep. As anyone who suffers from insomnia knows, the brain does a dance that cycles through anxiousness, depression, guilt, and despair–and a black, cold sort of emptiness at the end of it all. Butler does an admirable job of describing this, in a way that makes an old problem nightmarish and newly familiar. Moreover, I was surprised, as i read, that more reviewers haven’t commented on how obviously this book informs and explains so much of Butler’s novel, There is No Year. But more on that later.

We spend the majority of Nothing in Butler’s head–a swamp of information, much of it useful, much of it the mire of modern technology, the “busy brain” that we suffer from in the noise and clutter of hive life today. The internet always at our fingertips and our information jets never turned off. Butler’s frequent cry throughout the book: How can you relax?, is not just a question for himself, but for every human who finds themselves in this carnival of the mind, filled with spinning, blinking lights and sounds that could be laughter or screams.

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