Book Reviews · 12/22/2015

Recommended Reading 2015

Our contributors and editors share some of the books we were excited about in 2015.

+

Michelle Bailat-Jones

Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation (Other Press) was a definite highlight of my reading year. It gave me the chance to reread Camus’s The Stranger and think about how a writer gives a “voice” to a particular character. In much the same way that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea asks readers to look again at a confirmed classic (Jane Eyre, in that case), The Meursault Investigation opens up a great conversation about The Stranger and its fictional legacy.

Michelle Bailat-Jones is translations editor at Necessary Fiction, as well as a novelist (Fog Island Mountains, 2014, winner of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award) and translator (CF Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth, 2013; CF Ramuz’s If the Sun Were Never to Return, 2016). Her fiction, poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in a number of journals, including the Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Quarterly Conversation, PANK, Spolia Mag, Two Serious Ladies, and the Atticus Review.

+

Ariell Cacciola

Ernst Hoffman’s prose is stripped down and direct just like the homeless teenagers of his novel Blood Brothers (Other Press). I was completely captured by not only the story but the attention Hoffman paid to Berlin, the post-World War I version of the city which the blood brothers lived in and suffered. It is not a Berlin we know of anymore, so the book also serves as a grimy photo of a city and its people dealing with the outcome of the First World War. Besides the novel, the author himself is an intrigue: He was once called by Joseph Goebbels to the Reich chamber of literature, but there is no record of him past the 1930s. Blood Brothers was banned by the Nazis and his original publisher burned down, ostensibly, with any records referring to him.

Ariell Cacciola is a writer whose work has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies in the US and Europe. She is also the World Literature Editor for The Mantle. She can be found online at ariellcacciola.com and on Twitter at @ariellcacciola. Her reviews for Necessary Fiction include Whisper Hollow by Chris Cander.

+

Leland Cheuk

Halle Butler’s Jillian (Curbside Splendor) was easily the funniest novel I read this year — from a small or large press. I’m a sucker for novels that deploy humor in a way that serves a broader commentary about people, and the belly laughs in Jillian made me remember the ridiculous, self-destructive decisions I made in my twenties, decisions that I wish the millennials of Butler’s novel weren’t repeating.

Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, [PANK] Magazine, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. His reviews for Necessary Fiction include McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh.

+

Edward Gauvin

I had two noteworthy translations published this year: the first was Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s essay collection Urgency and Patience from Dalkey Archive, select essays from which previously appeared in slightly different form in The White Review and Gulf Coast. Toussaint (1957 – ) is a Belgian writer and filmmaker whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. The author of nine novels, he is the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis in 2005 for his novel Running Away, and the Prix Décembre in 2009 for The Truth about Marie, the two middle books of the Marie tetralogy.

Eyes Full of Empty, a contemporary Parisian noir by Jérémie Guez, a rising star of French crime, was published by the LA-based Unnamed Press. It features a Kabyle fixer, an antihero who offers a new point of view on race and class in a gripping yarn that upends a few of the usual satisfactions.

Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation Prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PENAmerica, the Lannan Foundation, the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, the Villa Gilet, the Banff Centre, Ledig House, and ALTA. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Conjunctions, and The Coffin Factory. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review. His Translation Notes for The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry appeared at Necessary Fiction.

+

Steve Himmer

As always I’m faced with the problem of too many books I want to cheer for. Fortunately, the authors of some of my favorites of 2015 — like The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Our Endless Numbered Days, and Green Glowing Skull — generously shared their research notes with us here at NF, so instead of say more about those I’ll suggest you click over and read for yourself (after which I hope you’ll find it impossible not to go pick up the books). And some other books I liked most this year — The Meursault Investigation and The Dig, to name two — have already been championed elsewhere on this list.

Beyond that, And Other Stories probably gave me more readerly thrills page-for-page than any other publisher this year. Yuri Hererra’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), offered a remarkably compressed epic of the Mexico/US border and how people, language, and stories move back and forth in ways far more complex than media caricatures let us see. Carlos Gamerro’s The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón (translated by Ian Barnett) was a rollicking followup to The Islands, and I hope the third novel in that series, A Yuppie in the Column of Che Guevara will be published in English soon. And Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket was published in 2014 but I’ve just read it recently and it’s a brilliant novel about a retired bureaucratic proofreader waging a misguided struggle against declining standards (moral and syntactic alike) in post-Apartheid Johannesburg. It’s funny, sad, and smart, with a challenging narrator and a remarkable deftness at forcing the reader — me, anyway — to question their own empathies and assumptions along the way.

But also nonfiction! Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press) I dipped in and out of for weeks, happily distracted by daydreams of the myriad municipalities it describes. And Kirsten Weld’s 2014 book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala I picked up this year as research for a novel, and it’s such a fascinating, unsettling account of how bureaucratic records can be empowered for oppression and resistance alike that it has kept me thinking for months.

Steve Himmer is editor at Necessary Fiction, and author of the novels The Bee-Loud Glade, Fram, and Scratch (to be published in 2016). Find him at SteveHimmer.com and @SteveHimmer.

+

Diane Josefowicz

I was moved by Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne (Siglio Press), a book-length collage of text and image that tells the story of the narrator’s gently creepy obsession with Henri B., whom she meets by chance in Paris and whom she secretly follows to Venice, snapping grainy photos all the while. The images are paired with diary entries that record the vicissitudes of her quest. Familiar Venetian sights — shining canals and clean-swept squares — take on uncomfortable meanings, giving a glimpse of what this beautiful city was like before being disfigured by tourism and environmental degradation.

Diane Josefowicz’s fiction and essays have appeared recently in Conjunctions and Dame. Follow her on Twitter at @dianegreco. Her reviews for Necessary Fiction include Bewildered by Carla Panciera and The Petals of Your Eyes by Aimee Parkison.

+

Tony Malone

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Heart of Man is the final part of the trilogy starting with Heaven and Hell and continuing with The Sorrow of Angels (all available from MacLehose Press). Once again, we are in nineteenth-century Iceland in the company of the enigmatic (and literary) ‘boy’, where a group of outsiders struggles to live life in the shadow of greedy, mercantile overlords. Philip Roughton’s translation is superbly poetic, with the novel comprising a fitting finale to a series everyone should read.

Another must-read of 2015 is Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, a gender-bending (or, better, annihilating) love story in which the reader is kept in the dark as to the sex of the two main protagonists. Dark at times, but also tender, Sphinx, another of Deep Vellum Publishing’s inspired discoveries, is far more than a one-trick Oulipian concept, however; it is also a novel which explores what it means to love someone and how to cope when it all comes crashing down.

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a passion for language and literature. In 2009, he started a review site, Tony’s Reading List, which has developed a strong focus on literary fiction in translation, featuring around one hundred reviews of translated literature every year. His reviews for Necessary Fiction include Tristano Dies by AntonioTabucchi and Farabeuf by Salvador Elizondo.

+

Patti Marxsen

I can’t resist mentioning my own Riversong of the Rhone (Onesuch Press), the first English translation of C.F. Ramuz’s 1920 epic prose poem, “Chant de Notre Rhone”.

Also, currently reading a “classic” with a troubling relevance to our world today: Germinal (Barnes & Noble Classics) by Emile Zola (1885). I have it on my Kindle in French, but also enjoy dipping into the big, fat paper translation of 1894 by Havelock Ellis, almost as masterful as Zola himself.

Writer and translator Patti M. Marxsen is the author of Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2015), Island Journeys (Alondra Press, 2008) and Tales from the Heart of Haiti (Educa-Vision, 2010). Her work has appeared in over 40 journals and magazines, including Ekphrasis, Fourth Genre, The International Herald Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Women’s Review of Books, and The Writer. Her Translation Notes essay The Magical World of Haitian Literature: A Primer appeared at Necessary Fiction.

+

Helen McClory

Two books have blown me away this year. The first is Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm (Two Dollar Radio). It’s a book that will place you in a rich and humid landscape — a field somewhere in Kentucky — then gently reach into your chest and take out the shadow of your heart. Stories of sibling loss are an easy wrench, but there is nothing easy about the choices the author has made, no easy saccharinely melodramatic outs, nor are ends tied up neatly at the end. There are echoes of Woolf’s Jacob’s Room to the narrative, built as it is in small fragment around the absence of a life. But infusing the gorgeous language and subtlety is a Southern Gothic literary sensibility that will creep right on into inside and inhabit you.

The second book I adored is entirely different in tone; Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran (Harper Perennial). It’s the tale of a relationship between two art school students, who go on beyond the confines of that bubble of life into the jagged slog of post-graduate malaise. It forefronts young creative women doing petty posturing things for and to one another, failing and succeeding in the various ways they push their bodies together and apart, all while managing to be vivid and funny and lyrical and sardonic and deeply quotable. It’s a novel by a poet, with a poet’s sly seeing.

Helen McClory fiction editor at Necessary Fiction. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press and won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. She can be found @HelenMcClory.

+

Erica Olsen

Morning and Evening by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls (Dalkey Archive Press): Part of Dalkey Archive’s Norwegian Literature Series, this spare, hypnotic novella captures the beginning and the end of a life. “[T]here aren’t any more words where we’re going,” says one character, a reminder that adds weight to the simplest of Fosse’s words. Individual consciousness, a family, and a world, condensed.

Pictograph by Melissa Kwasny (Milkweed): Classified as poetry, Pictograph is a collection of prose poems, paragraph-long pieces that struck me as passages — through life, time, and places in the natural world. In one piece, Kwasny writes: “Shouldn’t every act be painstaking? Shouldn’t we take extreme care in all we do?” Her prose poems led me to read with greater care, which was a refuge and a pleasure.

Erica Olsen lives in southwestern Colorado. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories, a collection of short fiction about the once and future West. Her stories have appeared in High Desert Journal, Terrain, and other magazines. Her reviews for Necessary Fiction include Steelies and Other Endangered Species by Rebecca Lawton and Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen.

+

Susan Rukeyser

One book that took me by surprise is Feminist on Fire by Coleen Kearon (Fomite Press). It is a raw, taut fictionalization of the life of Pamela Kearon, the author’s aunt and a founding member of the radical group The Feminists, active in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Shifting forward and back in time and written in the first person, the writing is as disarmingly beautiful as the subject matter is harrowing. As a child, Pammy is terrorized by her violent mother. Her only ally is her father, who nevertheless allows the abuse to continue. As a young woman, Pam shows promise as a dynamic speaker, but her drug and alcohol abuse and worsening mental illness doom her to a downward spiral. She abandons feminism, disenchanted by how internally contentious it becomes. By 43 Pam has emphysema and is wheelchair bound. By her 60s she’s in hospice care. Most heartbreaking is the disintegration of Pam’s relationship with her beloved niece (named Mia in the book). As early as age 14, Mia “has enough sense of what is socially acceptable to find me disgusting.”

I fell in love with Myfanwy Collins’s exquisite writing and compassionate perspective when I read her 2012 novel Echolocation, published by Engine Books. Her latest book, The Book of Laney, came out under Engine’s YA imprint, Lacewing Books. It is the story of 15-year-old Laney, whose brother West commits deadly school violence. Laney is left behind to carry the family’s shame and guilt. Empathy takes the form of “visions” in which Laney is overcome by the experience of seeing through another person’s eyes. She literally sees another’s point of view. Laney is sent to live in a rustic cabin in the Adirondacks with her reclusive grandmother. Distanced from society, she finally learns the secrets of her family’s darkness but also its light. Laney finds forgiveness for herself and those she loves, the only way to survive.

Susan Rukeyser (www.susanrukeyser.com) is reviews editor at Necessary Fiction. She was a Senior Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor before she left to devote herself to writing and mothering and caring for an assortment of rescued cats and dogs. Her short fiction appears in Luna Luna, Black Heart Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. For a while she owned a tiny used bookstore in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was there she found inspiration for what became Not On Fire, Only Dying, her debut novel, published in 2015 by Twisted Road Publications.

+

Brian Seemann

Some of my favorite small press books this year were story collections: Nick Ripatrazone’s Ember Days (Braddock Avenue Books), Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories (Curbside Splendor), Jared Yates Sexton’s The Hook and the Haymaker (Split Lip Press), and Andrew Brininstool’s Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession (Queen’s Ferry) all offered something unique — meditative, funny, a little rough around the edges at times.

In terms of novels, Cynan Jones’ The Dig (Coffee House) was a thrill to read, and I’m very much looking forward to his other work being available in the US. The biggest trip was Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network (Melville House). That was a whirlwind reading experience unlike anything I can remember.

Brian Seemann’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in REAL, Red Savina Review, and Mojave River Review, among other journals, and has been anthologized in Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53) and The Mix Tape: A Flash Fiction Anthology (Flash Forward Press). Winner of the William J. Stuckey Memorial Prize for fiction, a Southern Writers Symposium: Emerging Writers Contest Finalist, and an MA and MFA graduate of Wichita State, he currently lives in Colorado. His reviews for Necessary Fiction include The Let Go by Jerry Gabriel and From Here by Jen Michalski.

+

Greg Walklin

The Blue Girl by Laurie Foos (Coffee House Press): The mothers of a small lakeside town spend hours making moon pies for “bake sales.” Their children know they are lying — that instead they are feeding the mysterious blue girl, who lives in a house by the woods. In writing this multi-perspective, surreal novel, Foos constantly keeps the reader off-balance — focusing on the everyday strangeness and estrangement of the family, of children who don’t turn out to be what their parents hoped they would be, and avoiding the tendency of magical realism to verge on the sentimental. The only thing sweet in The Blue Girl are the moon pies.

Greg Walklin’s reviews and essays have appeared at The Millions and Ploughshares, and he is a regular book critic for the Lincoln Journal-Star. His fiction has appeared in Palooka, Midwestern Gothic, and Pulp Literature, among other publications. His reviews for Necessary Fiction include Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente.

+

Adrian Nathan West

Pierre Joris’s translation of the later Celan poems, Breathturn into Timestead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), seems shamefully overlooked. Joris has dedicated much of his life to Celan, and the insights contained in his introduction and commentary, as well as those reflected in his choices as a translator, do much to illuminate this very difficult poet. Late Celan is jarring, fragmented, and rife with allusion, and even readers who know German may miss out on specific aspects of Celan’s idiom, which often relies on — despite Celan’s protestations to the contrary — a hermetic web of associations. If Celan’s reputation is to thrive in English outside of academic circles, it will do so thanks in large part to Joris. Breathturn into Timestead and a forthcoming companion volume, which will collect the earlier poems, are likely to become the definitive English versions of Celan’s work, and non-specialists in particular owe Joris gratitude for bringing these poems as fully as possible into English.

As far as my own translations, the ones that have come out this year were Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things (Dorothy) which got tons of great press, to my surprise and delight, and Josef Winkler’s Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, which just came out from Contra Mundum Press.

Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation will be published mid-2016 by Repeater Books. His essays, fiction, reviews, and shorter translations appear in numerous journals including 3:AM, Words Without Borders, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He has translated books from German, Catalan, and Spanish, as well as short pieces from Portuguese, French, and Italian, by authors ranging from Josef Winkler to Pere Gimferrer to Enrique Vila-Matas, and has worked with a wide array of publishers including Jonathan Cape, Dalkey Archive, Planeta, and NYRB Classics. His Translation Notes for Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer appeared at Necessary Fiction.

+++