Book Reviews · 12/18/2014

Recommended reading from our editors, 2014

Steve Himmer, editor

A catalog of the narrator’s wine-soaked misadventures at readings and lectures by Booker Prize winners, How To Be A Public Author by Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug), published by Galley Beggar Press, really may be the funniest novel I’ve ever read — it certainly drew me some concerned looks from my fellow bus and subway riders. But it’s so much more than just funny as it punctures the bubbles of pretension and illusion that insulate the cult of the “literary author” and those of us who perpetuate and, perhaps, aspire to it.

I’m a sucker for any Arctic novel, and Martha Baillie’s The Search for Heinrich Schlögel from Tin House is a superb entry into that field. It’s a provocative inquiry into loneliness and isolation and the mythic lure of the north, asking how our most single-minded pursuits — even when successful — might untether us forever from who we were and from the world we belonged to.

Read Martha Baillie’s Research Notes for The Search for Heinrich Schlögel.

Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall, again from Galley Beggar, is a very smart novel about what it is to make art, to be part of a cultural moment that explodes beyond itself (in this case the Young British Artists years of the 1990s), and to make sense of that moment long after its clamor dies down. It all makes for an impressive feat of rehumanizing an era too easily dismissed in cartoonish broad strokes.

Read Jonathan Gibbs’ Research Notes for Randall.

And, quickly, a few additional highlights of my reading year, each of which I could happily go on about why I liked it, so feel free to ask: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke, What Ends by Andrew Ladd, After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry, Beastings by Benjamin Myers, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, The Way Inn by Will Wiles, The Shimmering Go-Between by Lee Klein, and Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones, translations editor

By far my favorite book of 2014 comes from the unique Cahiers Series published by Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translations at The American University of Paris. I’ve now read Anne Carson’s Nay Rather about a dozen times. It’s not a piece of fiction; it’s a combination of an essay on translation and an accompanying poem. But it made me think — think hard — about what fiction achieves, what words attempt and how this is all fused together and torn apart by silence.

A second novel I’d love to mention is Christa Wolf’s August (published in German in 2012, out this year from Seagull Books in a translation by Katy Derbyshire Feb 2014), which is about an older man looking back upon his childhood, and a very particular experience. It is a tiny but beautiful book about memory and how the past and the present work a kind of magic on each other.

Read Michelle’s full review of August.

Finally, I’ll also mention Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (tr. Clarissa Botsford) from And Other Stories. This unique story tells of Hana and how she became Mark, one of Albania’s “sworn virgins” — women who vow to live their lives as chaste men in exchange for an independence that most women cannot have — but who gets the chance, by moving to America, to become Hana again. It’s a fascinating psychological portrait but also a careful exploration of desire and personal transformation.

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Helen McClory, fiction editor

For me, it’s been a year of reading individual stories, and mostly online. But I firmly believe physical books have the advantage of keeping stories tightly bound together, where they might otherwise be scattered (how many bookmarks can I keep amassing?). My two favourites of 2014, then, are both collections, and both, as it happens, wrapped up beautifully.

I read The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan at the dark end of the year’s beginning – I should say here that Kirsty is a fellow Scot and friend, and I published her stories here way back when I had the wonderful luck of being Writer-in-Residence. Logan’s book is like a box full of chocolates wrapped in golden foil. Some stories have the tang of the sea, like “The Gracekeeper” or “Girl #18,” others tick, like “Coin-Operated Boys,” a twisted story of clockwork lovers and the genteel ladies who acquire them, and the title story, “The Rental Heart,” about the mechanisms of love and heartbreak. Comparisons to Angela Carter and Kelly Link spring to mind, though The Rental Heart speaks with its own tongue. Now that the dark winter days are here again, it’s a good time to read it again.

The other book I loved this year was a graphic novel, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, whose cartoons I had enjoyed online. I’d never read a graphic novel, or not one that was called that, before her book, but it was gloriously dark — a book of silent snow-blanketed landscapes and frail looking cabins, and red-faced monsters that only appear monstrous if you know what you are looking for. The undercurrent of menace is perfectly matched to the blank space and stretched shadows on the page. When I think of the stories I want to be reading, illustrated or not, it’s this sort of vividness I look for, this careful kinship of elements.

Lastly — surprise! A final book, by_ Necessary Fiction’s_ Michelle Bailat-Jones — Fog Island Mountains. I don’t want to gush too much and be open to charges of favouritism, but like Through the Woods, Bailat-Jones’ novel of love, suffering and foolish mistakes is perfectly matched to its backdrop — that of typhoon blowing through a small Japanese island town. And the author with quiet, assured sentences, manages this balancing act without ever making the force of nature into a pathetic fallacy. It helps folk like me who are drawn to the mystical elements of the everyday that the narrator of the story has a speckling of vitality — and a sort of magic — of her own.

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Susan Rukeyser, reviews editor

Larissa Takes Flight by Teresa Milbrodt, Pressgang, May 2014.

Reading these stories is like getting to know a strange new friend. They are tiny and episodic, often amusing, all told in the first person. Larissa offers glimpses of disappointing boyfriends, awful jobs, daily interactions with a world in which fantasy and reality are thoroughly blended: a boyfriend is consumed by a snake, slowly, over days. Goblins and tiny horses gather at her bedside. Pet mice eat fireflies until their bellies — and babies — glow. Compulsively readable, the prose is crystal clear and breezy, but Larissa is a poignant character. A lemon-yellow halo from a Virgin Mary costume travels with her through several stories. She wears it to dispense miracles, because she knows how much we all need them. Real insight is tucked into droll remarks. Larissa is that new friend who turns out to be smarter than you thought. Maybe life isn’t as full of possibility as she believed when she was a child trying to make a laundry basket fly. But she insists, “I try not to think about what happens next and next and next, because everything will be okay.”

The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide by Schuler Benson, Alternating Current Press, July 2014.

This collection left me with an acrid tang in the back of my throat, as if someone nearby was cooking drugs or burning leaves. That’s how fully Benson realizes the world of his stories. You inhabit his Southern country landscape. The language is sharp and precise, with finely-tuned dialect. Benson understands the minimum number of words required to tell each story. Some are quite brief. The book is illustrated with spare line drawings by Ryan Murray and is organized into three parts, to be read in order as one might listen to an album. And indeed there is a sort of music that flows through these stories, hitting life’s varied notes: heartbreak, humor, blood, God, death. There are hilarious moments — “Now, which Hindershoot is this? The streaker or the one who fights chickens?” — but it can also be uncomfortable to read, with frankly unlikeable characters. But we understand how it came to this. We see the bottles of booze. We see the generations of defeated men. Benson makes us care. He keeps us interested, keeps us reading, until we can smell and taste this world.

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