I’ve read over 120 books in 2009, and by the time the year is up I’ll have reviewed over fifty. At the risk of being redundant, I’ve put together a list of the books I thought were this year’s best. I’ve also included links to the ones I reviewed. But before that, I should mention some great books that weren’t published this year: Eugene Lim’s Fog & Car, Eugene Marten’s Waste, Mary Caponegro’s first three books, Ken Sparling’s Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, and Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away and Dear Everybody. And then there’s Shane Jones’s The Failure Six, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, all of which won’t be released until next year. By the way, while the so-called major presses churned out a whole lot of fluff I did enjoy John Haskell’s Out of My Skin and Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault. Oh, and I should mention The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino which is playful and inventive in that inimitably Calvino way. Each chapter is a combination of pseudo-science (as far as I can tell) and fantasy—a weird mishmash of fable and fact. They sound like entries from an encyclopedia sometimes, albeit a whimsical one. This was the best way to close out the year. So, besides beautifully-crafted language, eddying narratives, evocative imagery, and provocative characters—whose quirks, thoughts, and comings and goings remain with me—what the books on this list have in common is that they were published by independent presses.
1. All the Day’s Sad Stories, by Tina May Hall:
Every sentence is honed to perfection. And I find it inspiring how many of its sections easily function as standalone miniatures. I interviewed Hall HERE.
2. All Fall Down, by Mary Caponegro:
Caponegro’s versatility is in fine display in this new story collection. She gets to the heart of the heart of the matter in a desultory marriage; charts a man’s confused allegiances; navigates the debilitating effects of disease; revels in absurdities; and even enters the consciousness of a dusty fuddy-duddy. (Review forthcoming.)
3. AM/PM, by Amelia Gray:
These loosely linked microfictions will puzzle and pummel you with their emotional and psychological acuity.
4. Baby Leg, by Brian Evenson:
A striking picture of madness or misunderstanding, or both—a nightmare on infinite repeat. (Review forthcoming.)
5. The Bridge of the Golden Horn, by Emine Sevgi Özdamar:
A subversive coming-of-age tale set in Germany.
6. Changing, by Lily Hoang:
This short novel is as much inventively structured as it is intimately engaged with betrayal, uncertainty, and intimacy.
7. The Collectors, by Matt Bell:
Ably maps the obsessive compulsions of two eccentric brothers while also reflecting on desire and loss, memory and imagination.
8. The Complete Collection of People, Places & Things, by John Dermot Woods:
Woods inventively invests new meaning in pop culture’s disposables in a book that is both wacky and smart. (Review forthcoming in The Collagist.)
9. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright:
You can read this book both as an affirmation of the power of letter-writing and as a eulogy of same.
10. Easter Rabbit, by Joseph Young:
You give him twenty-two words, he’ll give you a world. (Review forthcoming.)
11. Everything Was Fine Until Whatever, by Chelsea Martin:
Martin’s shapeshifting voice makes for a turbulent read.
12. e.s.p., by Michael Leong:
These poems are fleshy machines and organic puzzles. (Review forthcoming in Open Letters Monthly.)
13. Five Spice Street, by Can Xue:
An enjoyable outing with a cacophonous cast of colorful characters.
14. Fugue State, by Brian Evenson:
These tales of psychological terror will unsettle you and disrupt any attempts at equanimity.
15. How Some People Like Their Eggs, by Sean Lovelace:
These tasty cuts come straight from one of flash fiction’s finest.
16. A Jello Horse, by Matthew Simmons:
A friend’s death casts a shadow on the “hero” of this wistful, whimsical, compassionate little book.
17. Kamby Bolongo Mean River, by Robert Lopez:
Beware lest the insistent voice of this book’s deeply disturbed and institutionalized narrator infests your brain. (Review forthcoming.)
18. Life Goes to the Movies, by Peter Selgin
A blazing road trip where the silver screen is a kind of portal toward vast possibility.
19. Light Boxes, by Shane Jones:
This book was so great I wrote music inspired by it. Find it HERE.
20. The Looking House, by Fred Marchant:
Marchant’s poems are keyholes, driftwood, the feeling you get when you find an animal in a cloud.
21. Midnight Picnic, by Nick Antosca:
This book will scare you while offering choice bits of descriptive imagery. It’s like getting the trick and the treat.
22. MLKNG SCKLS, by Justin Sirois:
When will somebody publish Sirois’s novel Falcons on the Floor?
23. The Mothering Coven, by Joanna Ruocco:
Ruocco goes for baroque. (Review forthcoming.)
24. On the Winding Stair, by Joanna Howard:
Howard’s collection of short stories is a treasure trove of lyrical gems. The words here are arranged into jeweled mosaics.
25. One of These Things Is Not Like the Others, by Stephanie Johnson:
Sharp characterization and stories filled with yearning, loss, and betrayal.
26. The Other City, by Michal Ajvaz:
This is a mind-bending trip through Prague’s gothic streets where talking animals and statues, and a whole crew of eccentrics, live in another parallel Prague that’s folded within the so-called real one.
27. Prose. Poem. A Novel., by Jamie Iredell:
Brawny and blustery characters given poetic voice.
28. Rose Alley, by Jeremy Davies:
This complexly composed novel will regale you with its bombardment of zany characters and situations. (Review forthcoming.)
29. Shadowplay, by Norman Lock:
A masterful tale of obsession and love. (Review forthcoming in Review of Contemporary Fiction.)
30. The Suburban Swindle, by Jackie Corley:
A book of fire and blood and holy breath.
31. The System of Vienna, by Gert Jonke:
Intricately composed stories of disillusionment, paranoia, and one bizarre encounter after another.
32. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, by Greg Gerke:
A commanding collection of over fifty flash fictions proving that life is a comic weathervane, a drifting raft, a chambered nautilus.
33. Where I Stay, by Andrew Zornoza:
A drifter’s melancholic mosaic of reflections summoning a unity among seemingly random observations. (Review forthcoming in Rain Taxi Review of Books.)
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.