TNBBC Review Contributor Series: Top Reads of 2016
Melanie Page - Blogger at Grab The Lapels
Melanie's Picks for the Best Books of 2016:
Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West (Hachette Books, 2016)
West, who has been writing essays and involved in comedy for a long time now, takes on discrimination against fat people, rape jokes, abortion, and internet trolls in this funny, smart, concise book of essays. While I criticized Bad Feminist for wandering all over the place and losing the thread, West uses her observations and applies them to Americans who can then rethink their opinions after considering hers.
Syllabus: Notes From An Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014)
An award-winning cartoonist, novelist, and teacher, Barry collects her thoughts on what it's like to teach, and what is an image, really? Her notes from her first three years teaching are in this unique book and give readers insight on creativity and teaching.
Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (Sun & Moon Press, 1999)
A novel that starts off-kilter thanks to unreliable narrator Ursula "Bogeywoman" Koderer soon leads readers through an exploration of what it means to be a closeted lesbian in the 70s. The Bogeywoman lands herself in a "bug house" (mental institution) where she and the "Bug Motels" (a band made up of mental patients) make trouble and do their best to wake up each day and be. Funny, tragic, characterized by innovative language and unforgettable characters, Gordon's underground novel is a huge success.
Lindsey Lewis Smithson - Blogger at Straight Forward Poetry
Lindsey's Top 10 of 2016:
I’ve been reading a little bit of everything this year, big presses and small, poetry to political. Here are my top 10 from 2016 in no particular order.
Bad Baby by Abigail Welhouse
Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide by Emily Alta Hockaday
Liar by Rob Roberge
Hard Choices By Hillary Clinton
Grace by Natashia Deon
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
One Today by Richard Blanco and Dav Pilkey
Peg+Cat; The Penguin Problem by Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson (my daughter loves Peg)
Thug Kitchen: Party Grub (make the twice baked potatoes, you can thank me later)
It’s All Easy by Gwyneth Paltrow (sure it’s kind of, um, fancy, but the food is tasty).
Lavinia Ludlow - Author
Lavinia's Top 3 of 2016
Kinda Sorta American Dream
By Steve Karas
Review at TNBBC
Summary: It’s easy to approach a collection titled Kinda Sorta American Dream with the assumption that every piece will be about Smalltown, USA middle-aged white guys complaining about their wives, jobs, and blue balls, and thinking about cheating on their wives, quitting their jobs, and sitting in front of the TV self-medicating with Doritos and a bottle of gas station whiskey. Quite the contrary, this collection contains an eclectic mix of protagonists and points of view that represent a diverse America, from the first generation Indian girl wishing she could communicate openly with her mother the way she believes all American girls talk with their mothers (HA! that was a laugh out loud moment) to the lonely thirty-something career woman trying to find happiness in online dating to the twelve-year-old girl who wants to see her Syrian pen pal freed from an environment of war and violence. The contrasting perspectives bring a broad spectrum of color to the collection, and paint a realistic picture of a real American society.
By Jane Liddle
Review at Small Press Reviews
Summary: Murder is a collection of succinct and dynamite flash fiction that stylishly focuses on the topic of, well, murder. The fast-paced stories range from 40-500 words, and collectively feel like a meal of amuse-bouches. Jane Liddle breathes life into a story in less than a single page, and often, a single sentence, creating an unparalleled literary density. Liddle presents the overarching theme of murder through an eclectic mix of scenarios. Many murderous acts are driven by a combination of insecurity and self-hatred within the minds and hearts of cold-blooded killers. We are exposed to mass shootings, sociopaths swinging baseball bats or burning victims alive, to other incidents ranging from assisted suicide, negligent parenting, or freak accidents such as being trampled by a Black Friday-like herd.
By Tracy O'Neill
Review at The Rumpus
Summary: Tracy O’Neill’s debut novel, The Hopeful, is a literary deep-dive into the ravaging effects of a teen’s pursuit of perfection as a competitive figure skater. Even the cover bodes a metaphor that illustrates just how much the elite bend over backwards in the pursuit of excellence—a silhouette of a figure skater in a catch-foot spin, contorted backwards but still upright while ferociously balancing on a quarter-inch blade. Hopeful delves into the psychology and the irreversible effects competitive figure skating has on personal identity. An exposé that reads like an extended chapter from Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Tracy O’Neill has an interesting debut novel on her hands written with an original literary grace all her own.
Drew Broussard - Blogger at Raging Biblioholism
Drew's Top Picks of 2016, small press:
This year was a tremendous year for small-press, for me. Some years, you know, you only scratch the surface - but other years, you end up doing a deep dive. This was one of the latter years, so I want to just shout out some awesome imprints/discoveries in no particular order.
* anything by César Aira
After my BookClub read An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (on the recommendation of Patti Smith in M Train), I bought every single Aira I could get my hands on and I've read another five this year. New Directions puts them out in these gorgeous pocket-sized editions and they are all strange, wonderful, quick-reading, and amazing.
* Square Wave by Mark deSilva
(Two Dollar Radio)
I ended up talking to Mark for So Many Damn Books and it deepened my intrigue into this complex, flawed, but impressive debut novel. There's a Bret Easton Ellis-y nihilism at work but he's also interested in so many intellectual pursuits that you can't help but be intrigued. Weather modification, non-traditional musical scales, a surveillance state... all of this brushes up against dudes being terrible to women (including an absolutely revolting fetish-porn shoot) and digressions that go on for too long... but there was something darkly captivating about this one.
* Valeria Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth and Faces in the Crowd
(Coffee House Press)
The Story of My Teeth came out of nowhere for me via the Tournament of Books and I think it's what sent me down a rabbit hole of reading translated works this year. Valeria is an impossibly bright star and her work - both in its actual content and in its form - is joyful and intelligent and unapologetic. Although I didn't out-and-out love either book, I enjoyed them so much and have thought about them both more than nearly any others I've read this year.
* Animal Money by Michael Cisco
(Lazy Fascist Press)
What an impossibly weird book. I tried to describe it to people - rogue economists who all get injured at a conference and come up with an idea of living money and then go on the run; there are also aliens, freedom-fighter-terrorists, angels, gods, the total collapse of civilization, and maybe the author himself. It was an overpowering book, one that I don't know that anyone (the author included) could ever truly wrap themselves around... but the experience of trying was an utter delight. The weirdest of the weird, as it turns out, can be fun if you've got a writer who knows what they're doing!
Bronwyn Mauldin - Author
An indie press reading list for 2017
As I read my way through some terrific books from indie presses in 2016, I had no idea that four of them would turn out to be preparation for 2017. These four books – three fiction and one nonfiction – have much to tell us about a world we are about to enter.
Originally published in 1931, The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (translated from the Russian by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson) tells of a madcap adventure led by Ostap Bender to scam a corrupt government clerk out of the millions he has methodically embezzled over several years. As satire, it mercilessly takes on both the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and the widespread corruption it engendered. The book begins by reminding the reader who built the world they live in.
“It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, the motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets – laid out by pedestrians – were taken over by the motorists. The roads became twice as wide, while the sidewalks shrunk up the size of a postage stamp. The frightened pedestrians were pushed up against the walls of buildings.
In a big city, pedestrians live like martyrs.”
This is metaphor, of course, but it’s also key to the story where an automobile plays a major role. Of the four books reviewed here this is the most laugh-out-loud funny, in part because much of what Ilf and Petrov were satirizing is now widely known. The Golden Calf was popular in its day and remains so today. Russian films based on the book were made in 1968, 1993, and 2006. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn mentions the book in passing in The Gulag Archipelago. This newly translated edition was published in 2009 by Open Letter.
Oleg Kashin takes on corruption and state-sponsored violence in modern Russia in Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin (translated from the Russian by Will Evans). This book continues in the great Russian tradition of absurdist sci-fi political satire. A scientist named Karpov invents a growth serum and embarks on a scheme to get rich quick. When an oligarch and some government officials discover what he’s doing, Karpov is doomed. Fardwor, Russia! may be somewhat opaque to American readers due to our limited knowledge of modern Russia and its discontents. The title of the book, for example, pokes fun at a 2009 article by then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Perhaps we’ll understand of the more obscure references in the coming year.
Kashin is a prominent journalist who has written widely about abuses of power in the former Soviet Union. He was beaten almost to death in 2010 for his reporting, but he continues to write. This English translation was published in 2016 by Restless Books.
The Underground by Hamid Ismailov (translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova) takes on a very different aspect of Russian life: racism. The main character, Mbobo, is the child of a woman from one of Russia’s ethnic minorities and a long-gone African athlete who competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. When Mbobo isn’t being beaten by fellow students for being poor and of Siberian descent, he’s being abused by complete strangers for being black. This book is set during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his mother’s struggle to make ends meet looms large in Mbobo’s life. His effort to navigate the Moscow subway system as he is passed from one adult to another is an apt metaphor for his effort to make his way in a dark, uncompromising world. Where the previous two books use humor to shine a light on terrible problems, this one breaks your heart:
“The whole of your life is built on the assumption that something will always distract you: maybe Mommy takes you to kindergarten; maybe at school you run, jump, eat, then sleep with your little eyes closed; then wait for Mommy; then go home; then eat, sing, go to the potty, and sleep… But when your mommy turns to stone, and there is nothing external in the whole wide world, then you find yourself face to face with yourself, beyond demands and duties, in spiritual weightlessness, superfluousness, uselessness… what do you do then…?” (ellipses in the original)
Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist who was forced to leave Kyrgyzstan because of his writing. He now lives and works in London. Restless Books published The Underground in English in 2015.
I ended the year by reading the nonfiction This is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler. The subtitle of this book tells it all: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Published in early 2016 by Nation Books, it seems uncannily prescient. With major demonstrations happening across the US since the election – one of the largest expected in Washington, DC, the day after the inauguration – Americans from all walks of life are suddenly engaging in mass political actions, many of them for the first time in their lives. Engler and Engler explain the theoretical roots of mass nonviolent action then lay out the elements needed for it to work, such as structure, discipline, and a transformational view of social change. They also offer a clear explanation of how and why nonviolence is more effective than violence in making social and political change.
This is an Uprising uses examples from modern Serbia to Ghandi’s India and across American history to illustrate their case. If you believe the Occupy movement was a failure, read this book to discover another point of view. Occupy brought us the language of "the one percent," which led to legislative action, though not as much as was needed. If you believe the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s were the result of inevitable forces of history, read this book to learn how many people worked how hard and how long to implement “Plan C” in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Their plans were so detailed they even measured the distance and time it took to walk from their offices to the places where they would engage in civil disobedience.
These four books offer a set of insights to prepare us for 2017 and beyond. Two use humor to shine a light on corrupt, self-serving leaders and the public decay their policies produce. They show how this is as true to capitalism as it is to communism. One is a cautionary tale about the price to be paid when racism intertwines with a collapsing economic safety net and declining social order. The fourth book reminds us that another world is possible, giving practical advice on how we can build it.
Combined, these books remind us of the power of independent book publishers. Whether they are giving new life to an old book, publishing in translation, or offering readers a new lens through which to view history, independent presses are a vital part of our civil society. These are only four examples. If you want to take literary action in 2017, check out your mass market books published by big transnational corporations from your local library. Spend your book money on independent presses.
Lori Hettler - Founder/TNBBC
Best of the Small Press 2016:
Mesilla by Robert James Russel
(Dock Street Press)
In this tight little story about survival in the unfriendly New Mexico desert, we meet up with Everett Root as he hides out in a mine after a recent shoot out. Having taken a bullet to the leg, Everett's in pretty rough shape. His only chance of survival is to outrun his pursuer, and get to Mesilla - a town he believes will offer him sanctuary.
Breathtaking, beautiful, and bloody as hell, Mesilla kept me captivated straight through to the very end. The book is all landscape and language, Russell is one helluva talented writer. The only complaint I have is that I wish it were longer.
Marigold by Troy James Weaver
(King Shot Press)
Warning: this book is basically a series of sad, heart-clutching, suicidal vignettes. I wanted so badly to reach inside the pages and give the narrator a hug. Or maybe a smack across the face. And then a hug. I live tweeted the shit out of this book because it was just so amazing and every sentence was a world.
Painfully beautiful. Perfectly neurotic.
Painfully beautiful. Perfectly neurotic.
Bridget Fonda by Elizabeth Ellen
Elizabeth Ellen's poetry reads more like a collection of flash fiction with common, interconnected themes woven throughout - abuse, drugs, depression, and a fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality that is overwhelmingly relatable. It's the best and worst of being human - an irrational fear of strangers, the mundane conversations and interactions we're forced to have, a unhealthy neediness and dependency on our children, the desire to be better than our parents but the realization that we're really all the best and worst of them depsite our best efforts. Breathtakingly, horrifically honest and incredibly grounded, I was in love before I even finished the very first poem.
Each Vagabond By Name by Margo Orlando Littel
(University of New Orleans Press)
Every once in a while, you end up reading a book that shocks the hell out of you. Last year, it was Charles Dodd White's A Shelter of Others. This year, it was Margo's Each Vagabond.
I don't know what I was expecting when I cracked it open but I certainly wasn't anticipating it to grab a hold of me so tightly. I fell in love almost immediately. I want to see this book in everyone's hands.
First, You Swallow the Moon by Kip Wessel
This is a crafty little debut. It's all heartbreak and obsession and not being able to see what's right in front of your own face because you're busy hanging on to the past and it's mopey and indulgent but in the absolutely sweetest sort of way.
It reads like art. It feels like home. It took me places I didn't expect it to. And you should let it take you there too.
It reads like art. It feels like home. It took me places I didn't expect it to. And you should let it take you there too.
8th Street Power & Light by Eric Shonkwiler
A solid follow up to Eric's debut novel Above All Men. Set some years in the future, we are reunited with Sam Parrish. Gorgeously written in Shonkwiler's trademark bare-bones prose.
The Shooting by James Boice
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Swallowing a Donkey's Eye by Paul Tremblay
Arachnophile by Betty Rocksteady
Puppet Skin by Danger Slater
Best of the Big Press 2016:
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
The North Water by Ian McGuire
I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reed