This post features lists by four fine writers: Jane Ciabattari, Jen Michalski, David Peak, and Lia Purpura. And when you get a chance, check out part one and part two of “Best of 2010.”
My idiosyncratic favorites of 2010:
1. My first reading of 2010 (other than assignments for NPR.org, The Daily Beast, Oprah, the LA Times, and other publications I write for): a stack of 30 books, finalists for National Book Critics Circle awards in six categories–autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The finalists were announced in late January; the awards were announced in March, 2010. In between all 24 of us on the NBCC board read all the finalists before voting for the winners; and board members wrote reviews. Read all of them here, in the NBCC’s annual series, “30 Books in 30 Days:
FYI the 2010 finalists will be announced January 22, 2011; the winners will be announced March 10, 2011 at The New School.
2. I’m working on a second short story collection, so I spent a lot of time reading and in some cases reviewing short stories in 2010. This spring I loved, in no particular order, collections from Jabari Asim, Robin Black, Dawn Raffel, Marisa Silver, and Typhanie Yanique. I reviewed all five for The Daily Beast.
I also admired Yiyun Li’s new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and its cross-generational dialogue with William Trevor. Here’s my NPR.org review.
3. Flash fiction. I’ve been inspired by watching Rick Moody play artfully with Twitter, and Electric Fiction’s various apps. Meg Pokrass, BLIP editor at large/Fictionaut interviewer/animator/writer, got me to try my hand at flash fiction and appreciate its artfulness. Meg’s forthcoming book, Damn Sure Right, has some smashing stories. I’m reading it now. More on that here.
4. PEN World Voices Festival is a must for me each spring. Some of this year’s surprises:
* Patti Smith can write; she previewed her memoir Just Kids in a conversation wtih Jonathan Lethem; the book went on to win the National Book Award in nonfiction. I blogged about it here.
*When Toni Morrison raves, I listen. She introduced PEN World Voices to Agaat, a second novel translated from the Afrikaans by Marlene van Niekirk (Tin House Books). Details in my blog post here.
*The Black Minutes by Martin Solares (Mexico) and Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Finland/Estonia). Some of the best fiction in translation I read this year. National Book Critics Circle board member Rigoberto Gonzalez offers insights into Solares’ work in an NBCC PEN World Voices panel, video here.
5. The year’s most daring, original, ambitious novel was, for me, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s a tightrope walk, and she nails it. I met her briefly in May, during the BEA, on the rooftop of the Aroma Espresso Bar on the Upper West Side, to do this interview for the Daily Beast.
6. Books to read while driving across Wyoming. My husband and I drove round trip from the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate this summer. In Iowa City, Jan Weissmuller of Prairie Lights, knowing I like to read aloud while Mark drives, urged upon me a copy of James Galvin’s The Meadow. It was the perfect book to read while driving across the high mountain prairie green from spring snowmelt. It covers a century of ranch life along the Wyoming-Colorado border, with a meadow as a focal point. (It doesn’t hurt that my husband’s immigrant grandparents from Finland homesteaded in Montana around the same time and we have lived in their cabin and experienced the glorious summers and harrowing winters of the Rockies at 7200 feet.)
7. Driving back across the country in August, still distressed from the effects of the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf, my read-aloud choice was Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming, which includes a staggeringly good story called “Oil and Gas.” I contributed to a Short Story Month conversation on Dan Wickett’s Emerging Writers Network about another terrific story in that collection, “Brief Lives of the Trainmen.”
8. I had the honor of reading with Dorothy Allison in July while teaching at Taos Summer Writers Festival.
I’m a longtime fan of Dorothy’s fiction. At the Moby Dickens book table after the reading, I discovered her exquisite memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. I described it, here, on PW’s blog, PWxyz.
Through a happy twist of fate, Dorothy is on a panel I’m moderating at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans in late March.
9. Kanye. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped while I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It perfectly suited a character I was writing about. I played it continuously.
10. Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge was my late December favorite. It warmed me during the blizzard and aftermath.
I find it a small miracle that a woman raised in the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico has been able to live in the Sonora desert for 30 years, closely observant, maintaining a Native perspective, into the 21st century, among plants, animals, stones and artifacts, some of which date back to Nahuatl ancients. And that she is there to guide us through a series of cultural perceptions almost dead to this world as she describes the the desert pathway she walks regularly. She shares her knowledge and understanding of the snakes, the lizards, the birds, the coyotes, the roadrunners, the parades of clouds from the gulf or the north, the heat and coolness.
Her memoir (she calls it a “self-portrait”) is a wondrous book. It slowed me down after a hectic year. As I read, I thought of it as the literary equivalent of Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” –portraits of clouds that are considered pioneering works of abstraction in photography, combining technical expertise and aesthetic brilliance. (Later in the book, Silko refers to “Equivalents,” so I figure was on the right track.) She also uses Emily Dickinson to great effect at several points. But mainly I was taken by Silko’s perceptions as she lists the discoveries of each day, sometimes repeating phrases in an incantatory manner. The turquoise stones she finds routinely, always with attention to each detail, lead her to realize that her house is built upon and within a series of turquoise ledge, hence the title. She also describes the various rattlesnakes who live under and around her house, and tracks their daily behavior.
One of my favorite moments in the book is her description of how a small rattler reacts to a stretch of 100-plus degree days:
“For the past two mornings a small rattler was coiled by the potted fig tree. Yesterday the little snake was on the shady side of the fig tree, but today it faced East. Not long after I came indoors I heard angry loud rattling that made the dogs bark. I went to see and there was nothing there to harass the snake, nothing to account for the little snake’s furious rattling except the Sun –the snake was rattling angrily at the Sun’s heat that only got hotter and hotter as it rattled, until finally the snake fled into the drainpipe that goes underground..”
President of the National Book Critics Circle, Jane Ciabattari is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection, Stealing the Fire.
A list of stories published in 2010 that are worth a second look:
“All the People in These Pictures Are Dead Now,” by Frank Hinton
“The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Figures,” by Amber Sparks
“What Passes for Normal,” by Michelle Reale
“The Hamburger Story,” by Lauren Becker
“Boys in Drag,” by Roxane Gay
“The Woman,” by Donna Vitucci
“Wherever You’re Going,” by Susan Gibb
“Witness,” by Curtis Smith
“Whatever a Man Soweth (Bloody Mary),” by Barry Graham
“The Hamster,” by Tara Laskowski
Jen Michalski is the editor of jmww. She was written some stuff, too, which you can find out about here:
My favorite texts:
1) Cinema/Television/Passion by M. Kitchell (Solar Luxuriance)
I wrote a few lines about this on my blog and I’ll repeat them here: It’s like an undiscovered euro-trash film, all washed out and reformatted for paper. Think Andrzej Zulawski meets a xerox machine but better. Download it Here.
2) You Hear Ambulance Sounds and Think They Are For You by Sam Pink (Cow Heavy Books)
Equal parts meditation, prayer, panic. Sam Pink is the gross DNA beneath the fingernails of a murder victim.
3) Witz by Joshua Cohen (Dalkey Archive)
I haven’t finished this yet. I’m almost halfway, sort of.
Uh, I don’t know how to talk about music, really. So I’ll just list my favorite albums this year and link to my favorite video.
These were the essentials: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, Swans. Does it Look Like I’m Here? by Emeralds. Returnal by Oneohtrix Point Never.
And here’s part of “Genetic” by Emeralds.
What else happened? Seasons 1-7 of the X-Files. Playing through Super Metroid in a dark room over the course of several days. Lutz, Marcus, Schutt and Haskell. Learning to love John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness for what it is. Finishing my complete readthrough of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Finishing my thesis.
David Peak is the author of Surface Tension (BlazeVOX Books). He lives in New York City and frequently deletes his blog at davidpeak.blogspot.com.
I have two offerings for 2010.
2. Kate Breakey’s collection of photographs, Painted Light, — stunning, hand-colored photos that show a love of classical European painting and a very personal connection to the natural world. I’ve been moved by her work for a few years now, since I first discovered it, but this collection brings together a huge range of her work. So many artists approach forms of melancholia and keep it at an aestheti distance; Breakey’s portraits of animals and flowers no-longer-alive are tender and moving and communicate sadness on a very different scale — a truly human scale that also engages beauty and shape in ways that make new forms of grief and tenderness available to viewers.her work is both stunning and shattering in quiet ways that stay with me long after looking.
Lia Purpura‘s new collection of essays, Rough Likeness, will be forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2012.
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.