My “Top Ten” of 2009
This list is book-heavy because, well, because this is (primarily?) a lit blog, and books are (primarily) the world in which I live. I tried to limit it to stuff that came out/happened in 2009, which discluded many of the books that I read, and TV shows I watched on DVD, that were older. One last caveat: for the most part, this list is in no order and these are (mostly) the first ten things that came to mind, so I’m sure I’m forgetting all kinds of good stuff.
1. A Jello Horse, by Matthew Simmons:
I still find it hard to believe that I am in any way affiliated with, well, anything, so I find it baffling that possibly my favorite book of the year was written by a friend, instead of some elderly recluse or something, but there it is. I’ve read this short book a few times and, each time, it’s surprised me in a different way. Jim Ruland wrote a brilliant “review” of the book for The Believer and I’m not sure I can say it better than he already did so, if you need more convincing, go read that.
2. The Dollar Store Summer Tour of Awesomeness:
This was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I always wanted to go on a punk rock tour, and this was it: 7 writers in a van, 11 cities, 14 days, over 5,000 miles, and a TON of drinking. I’ve got more good/funny/embarassing stories from this tour than one might believe. Also, despite my involvement and the fun I had, I think a van of touring indie writers and presses is just in general a good thing that should be encouraged and applauded.
3. Generosity, by Richard Powers:
Powers taught my MFA Craft class last semester and so my enjoyment of this book was at least in part influenced by that: reading about anecdotes that were similar to those told in class, the teacher in the book encouraging writing rules that we had laughed at in class, etc. Also, the book is funny! I certainly didn’t expect to get references to Facebook and NaNoWriMo and JT LeRoy in a Powers book, but I loved them all.
4. Big Machine, by Victor LaValle:
Full disclosure: I’m about 2/3 of the way through this and so not yet done. Fuller disclosure: I didn’t love it from the get go. I hadn’t read LaValle before recently, but he’s been interviewed on the Hobart website twice now, so I figured I should dig in. I flew through his collection of stories, Slapboxing with Jesus, and loved it. Then, when I dove into Big Machine, I missed that Slapboxing voice and I felt held at arm’s distance from the story, then I hit somewhere around page 100 and everything got a little weirder, a little more “genre-y,” and a lot more “religious” and I’m a huge sucker for any story with religious undertones or overtones or any-kind-of-tones, and I’m having trouble making myself work on my final paper for the semester right now because all I want to do is keep reading.
Maybe my favorite journal of the year. I “discovered” it at this year’s AWP and… wow. Confession: it’s basically what I wish Hobart was, if I had more/better design skills, more time, and money for full color issues. Every issue is printed in full color with images — photos, artwork, etc. — accompanying every story, but their integration is the smoothest I’ve ever seen. Unlike some overly-/well-designed journals, it’s easy to read, and the artwork never overwhelms the story. The website is also super pretty, the writing is freaking great and holds up to the promise of the awesome design, and they even started making “trailers” for short stories from the new issue, which are amazing. Go watch “Barber vs. Heart Disesase” and “Line of Scrimmage” right now. Seriously.
6. Matt Bell:
No offense to Matt, but I don’t feel like he should be this good. 1) Because, like Matthew Simmons, he’s a friend and, again, I find it weird when my buddies start to get this successful. 2) He’s kinda goofy and, frankly, too good-natured to be a writer. 3) He’s too fucking busy. He started the year as one of Hobart’s web editors; he is now the editor of Dzanc’s online journal, The Collagist; he’s also the series editor of the Best of the Web, he had two chapbooks come out, both of which were basically brilliant; he keeps a blog which, despite all other business, he continues to update regularly; he’s in school; he writes book reviews; he reads more than almost anyone I know; there are probably half a dozen other things I’m not thinking of at the moment; and he’s got stories out recently or upcoming really soon in Conjunctions (web and print), Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Short Fiction, Redivider, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Unsaid, Monkeybicycle, and basically everywhere else, and I’ve probably only read about half of those right now but, seriously, every single one of them that I’ve read was among one of my fave stories I’ve read recently. Also, I recently got to hang with him in Bowling Green and hear his extended, director’s cut version of his amazing Elizabeth Kostova story, and then, only a couple of weeks later, here in Champaign, in what was one of the more fun nights since I’ve been here in the ‘paign.
7. The National live at Krannert:
This was the only concert I saw this year, because I’m getting old. I bought Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers in Seattle, which means I must have gotten it when it came out, and I know I bought Boxer the week it came out, in 2007, but this was the year I really started listening to them. A lot. And they were so badass live. Worthy of being my only concert of the year, for sure.
8. The New Yorker fiction podcasts:
These started in 2007, and I listened to them a lot last year, but I didn’t do any kind of “best of” lists either of those years, so I’m including them here. Also, 2009 gave us Joshua Ferris reading the hell out of George Saunders’ “Adams.” Go to iTunes, track this down, and listen to it. As great as the story itself is, Ferris reading it is… just, wow. Badass is all there is to it.
9. Tunneling to the Center of the Universe, by Kevin Wilson:
What can I say? So, so good. I’ve described Kevin’s writing to a number of people as possibly the first who has been able to take the amazing Saunders and Bender and Link et al stories that so many people seem so inspired by (myself included, certainly) and both show them as influences while really having his own voice. He’s the real deal, and I can’t wait to read more.
Seriously. Tacos are the best. I think I’ve eaten more this year than any year previous, maybe more than all previous years combined. On the previously mentioned Dollar Store tour, there was one 24 hour period in Austin where I’m pretty sure all I ate all day were tacos, at least an even 10, when all was said and done. Amelia Gray made us some awesome homemade shrimp tacos, we had some drunken, late-night tacos somewhere, and recovered the next morning with wonderful, hangover-curing breakfast tacos. I rocked some homemade tacos in L.A. over the summer, Mexican family style, and I’ve been going to either the newly opened Cactus Grill for tacos for lunch and/or the taqueria down the road from me for chorizo and tortillas for breakfast tacos, at least once a week. Tacos. Yes.
Patrick Somerville’s The Cradle, anything by Keyhole, most everything by PANK included one of the best lit journal blogs around, going to Paris for the first time, all things Dalkey Archive Press, Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us which I haven’t read yet but I’ve LOVED the handful of stories I’ve read in journals, the Fantastic Mr. Fox, my west coast summer road trip/reading tour with Mary Miller, HTMLGIANT about 20% of the time, Brian Evenson’s Last Days which, frankly, should probably have been up there in the top 10, and lots of other stuff that I’ll think about right after I hit send on this email…
Aaron Burch has stories out recently in New York Tyrant, Barrelhouse, Pank, and Another Chicago Magazine. His chapbook, How to Predict the Weather, should be out soon, and he edits Hobart.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.