And once again as a year closes I find myself resorting to mini-reviews to make sure that I at least give a little publicity to the titles that I've read during the year. Many of the following actually have notes put together for longer, full reviews, but for now, these will have to suffice. They follow the eleven full reviews previously written this year.
12. Father of Lies by Brian Evenson
1998 Four Walls Eight Windows 197 pages
Book purchased online
A very well done book that may be mistakenly simply looked at as Evenson taking a flamethrower to the Mormon church but one that I think has him looking more at faith in general, and as at that time in life (if not still today) the Mormon faith was the religious faith he was most familiar with, it's the one utilized to do the looking. A dark book, and as with much of what Evenson has written, pared down to only the essential words.
13. Dark Property by Brian Evenson
2002 Black Square Editions 132 pages
Book purchased online
Another look at faith from Evenson, this time involving a cult surrounding resurrection, bounty hunters, a woman traveling with a baby in a burlap type sack, and an environment reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, though this was published originally in 1995. Extremely spare writing. Spare but powerful.
14. Contagion and Other Stories by Brian Evenson
2000 Wordcraft 151 pages
Book purchased online
Evenson's third collection of short stories is similar to his other works in that his writing is spare (maybe this is why you don't review three straight works by a single writer), and powerful and dark. He shows great range within these eight stories though, giving his readers a self-determined linguist that has some issues with murder, barbed wire, a protagonist seemingly trapped in a relationship - but does it even exist? At least one of these stories was an O.Henry Award winner.
15. Altmann's Tongue by Brian Evenson
1996 Knopf 239 pages
Book purchased online
Evenson's first collection of stories, plus a novella. There are 28 works in all ranging from half a page in length to the 68 page novella. The collection was edited by Gordon Lish and I believe his influence can be seen in both this, and all of Evenson's work. The craft witnessed by the reader all the way down to the sentence level, for every single sentence of the collection. Evenson's usage of repetition of specific words, the way he names his characters, frequently one or two syllable, single names, can be seen in these stories and are both things that will continue as one reads through his entire catalog (do it, do it, do it). It was Altmann's Tongue, the collection, that earned Brian Evenson his reputation for the dark, the macabre, and at times the truly strange. Having read much of his work backwards in relation to when he wrote it, I finally see where the fuss came from. It was, and is, deserved.
16. Aliens No Exit by B.K. Evenson
2008 Dark Horse Books 283 pages
Book purchased online (pre-ordered a couple of months before pub. date)
Had I not seen a post by Jeff VanderMeer about the Predator book he was doing, and the Aliens book Brian Evenson was doing, I probably would have missed out on this great read. The rest of the Aliens series remains unpurchased by me to this day, but I have to say that Evenson did a masterful job of taking a world somebody else had created and merging it with his normal interests. While this time around his protagonist, Anders Kramm, does have two names, he's referenced as Kramm throughout much of the novel - a typical Evenson character name. There is plenty of contemplation of faith throughout as well. And there's also a really fast paced, grab you by your lapels and drag you through the pages, plot.
17. Our Beloved 26th by Riley Michael Parker
2008 Future Tense Press 24 pages
Review copy supplied by FTP
This is one crazy assed little chapbook published by Kevin Sampsell and Future Tense Press. From what I understand it's Riley Michael Parker's debut publication and it is one helluva (hopefully) satire on the office workforce and globalization. Much of the writing is a bit reminiscent of the Crazy 88's chapter of the movie Kill Bill. If you're one that needs what you read to be politically correct, you'll definitely want to pass on Parker's writing. If you don't mind some insensitivities, or a lot of insensitivities, this might be right up your alley.
18. Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly
2008 Norton 96 pages
Review copy supplied by Norton
Beth Ann Fennelly remains one of my favorite poets. She's one whose name within a Table of Contents will almost always ensure my purchasing a literary journal. Within Unmentionables Fennelly goes between shorter poems, that cover a page or two, on up to works like "The Kudzu Chronicles" that cover 20 pages in 13 sections. No matter the length, Fennelly allows a sly, and sometimes dark, wit to sneak into her work. She also frequently allows some wordplay to capture the reader by surprise. This collection is a strong follow-up to her previous effort, Tender Hooks.
19. Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort
Translated from the Belarusian by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright
2008 Copper Canyon Press 113 pages
Book purchased at Shaman Drum
Valzhyna Mort is a young poet, determined to keep alive her native Belarusian tongue and she has done a good job of garnering interest from English speaking folks with Factory of Tears. Copper Canyon Press has put together a truly sharp looking book, and has published this in my favorite manner of translated work - the dual publishing of one page in the original language, and the facing page in English (ie, a bilingual format). Her poems range from those about family and her grandmother and the white apples of her youth in Belarusia to poems bordering on calls for revolution. I had the pleasure of reading these poems prior to, and then again after, hearing Mort read from the collection. She's an amazing reader/performer of her work and I highly recommend both the book itself, and taking the time to go see her read if she's within an hour or so of your humble abode. If there's a complaint I'd make it's with the translation of the work - and while it's credited to the Wright's, Mort speaks English quite well and it sounds much more like she's done the translations and they've worked with her on them. However there are places that don't seem fully translated (one example is a piece about a Christmas tree that refers to the lamps, which I'm sure are meant to be lights) and this does detract from what could be an incredible collection.
20. I Will Unfold You With My Hairy Hands by Shane Jones
2008 The Greying Ghost 26 pages
Book bought from the publisher
A really lovely chapbook, filled with six short stories by Jones. The folks at The Greying Ghost do really nice work, with a patterned inlay end covers and hard stock cover. The bonus is that Shane's words fit the beauty of the object itself. The title story is about the relationship between a hair monster and Stacey, a handicapped woman, and while it sounds fantastical, in this story and others, Shane hits the mark with tenderness, honesty and the ability to capture everyday human emotion dead on.
21. The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca
Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers
2008 Open Letter Press 166 pages
Review copy supplied by Open Letter Press
Fifteen wild stories ranging from a businessman that runs people over with his car to relax to one where poor people desperately try to butcher a cow killed in traffic to another where a man tries to confirm things from his past, but gets rebuked on all counts from his friends. Rubem Fonseca's first collection to be published in an English translation has him concerned with the yearnings we have in our lives. Be it the concern to find relief from work stress, or to get affordable food, or to know ourselves, albeit in very strange settings, Fonseca's mostly capable of capturing our attention. There were a few stories that seemed to push the wild aspect a bit too far, and one or two that left me wishing he'd pushed the envelope a bit more, but all in all a nice, solid debut.
22. As a Friend by Forrest Gander
2008 New Directions 106 pages
Bought at Shaman Drum
A slim work, written in four sections from four points of view. Gander's narrative is frequently broken down into simple, single-sentence sized paragraphs. It covers a lot of ground in so few pages tackling friendship, love and the green-eyed monster as well. Set in the south, the rural south at that, Gander's novel takes a look at a man, Les, and how his actions have an impact not only on himself, but on his girlfriend, Sarah, and his friend, Clay. Gander has published many collections of poetry and his mastery of that form shines through in the writing of this, his debut novel. Easily read in one sitting, but one you'll think about long after you're finished.
23. Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra
Translated from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis
2008 by Melville House Publishing 83 pages
Bought at Shaman Drum
A nice fiction debut (after two poetry collections) from Zambra, a writer from Chile. He's described this book as being about his youthful search for new words, for literature as a means to change lives (as he grew up in a household with no books and under the oppressive Pinochet regime). The fiction, a novella from Melville House Publishing's The Contemporary Art of the Novella series, certainly does explore the relationship between art and life, as it describes the love affair of a couple that read together, going so far as to refuse to finish a work as they believe it will yield to the end of their relationship. Zambra (with translation from de Robertis) writes truly fine sentences and does so with simplicity and not excessive flourishes. He's certainly a write to watch for more work from.
24. The North of God by Steve Stern
2008 by Melville House Publishing 108 pages
Review copy supplied by MHP
I was offered a copy of this novella as the folks at MHP knew I had been a member of the Litblog Co-op, a group that had selected Stern's The Angel of Forgetfulness as a Read This! selection. After accepting the review copy, it dawned on me that I'd not been a member of the LBC yet when they had made that selection. I do have a copy of the novel and most of Stern's story and novella collections, but had yet to read them. That will soon change after reading this novella. Stern's ability to take what I assume to be a Yiddish folktale, and merge it alongside a story that retells this folktale, though from within a cattle car of Jews headed to a concentration camp, to show the power of storytelling itself, is a marvelous bit of writing. In writing this, Stern reminds us of the power of the human spirit and does so with a helluva tale at that.
25. Our Aperture by Ander Monson
2008 New Michigan Press 32 pages
Review copy supplied by NMP at AWP
In this collection, his second, of 18 poems, Monson covers some territory familiar to readers of his past work (be it fiction, non-fiction, or poetry), perhaps most familiarly the emotion of loss. Monson's work frequently has as its narrator one that has lost a loved one, and that narrator frequently comes to the work with some latent guilt over still being around while the lost loved one has passed. If we readers are lucky, Monson will continue to plumb this idea for years to come because nobody is doing it better. And with Monson's penchant for dabbling with various forms and styles, even if every poem, story or essay he ever wrote again was on the same topic we could be assured they'd each read in a unique manner for a good decade. The only negative this time around is that Our Aperture is only 32 pages in length.
26. A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo
Translated from the French by Howard Curtis
2008 Europa Editions 221 pages
Review copy supplied by Europa Editions at BEA
Izzo has as his protagonist a homeless gentleman - not your most common narrator. Rico, the narrator, resides in Northern France and has a few regular acquaintances - other homeless men mainly. When one of them disappears and then is found dead, frozen to death it appears, Rico begins to stay within himself, no longer connecting with the others. He eventually decides to travel south, to Marseilles, where it is warmer and where his ex and son were the last time he saw either of them. During his traveling, the reader is reminded of just how great, and just how despicable, humankind can be. It's a book that is hard to describe and make it sound like a tale one will want to read, but it's an incredible book, very easy to get caught up in Rico's story.
27. The Lost Sailors by Jean-Claude Izzo
Translated from the French by Howard Curtis
2007 Europa Editions 272 pages
Review copy supplied by Europa Editions
Another great book by Izzo, reminding me I should really pick up the trio that make up his Marseilles Trilogy and read them. This time around Captain Abdul Aziz, on the verge of making what will be his final freighter run, finds out the owner of the freighter has declared bankruptcy and the route will be delayed as the freighter is impounded in the port city of Marseilles. This impounding gives Izzo the opportunity to explore port cities, to dig into the lives of the type of man that would spend his life living on the seas, only occasionally finding land, and then only for (typically) brief periods of time. He explores love, both current and lost, and the relationships friends and acquaintances have with each other. It's a captivating book, and I see I've not mentioned it yet, also funny as hell.
28. Between Two Seas by Carmine Abate
Translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar
2008 Europa Editions 209 pages
Review copy supplied by Europa Editions
Abate does a really nice job of capturing smaller town Italy, as he writes this multi-generational tale that involves friendship, romance, and action, but really concentrates on the friendship aspect of a couple of men, and their lives - Hans Heumann, a world famous photographer, and Giorgio Bellusci, and his obsession with rebuilding and operating his towns formerly famous Inn. These stories are told from the very romantic viewpoint of their grandson, Florian. Abate has a way with capturing images with his descriptions that place the reader right in the scenes with his characters.
29. Creation Myths by Mathias Svalina
2007 New Michigan Press 33 pages
Entire 2007/08 Chapbook Series purchased from publisher
Twenty-four creation myths in a scant thirty-three pages, sixteen of which start with "In the beginning . . ." Svalina does a great job of creating an actual chapbook, and not giving the reader a short collection of poems. That is, having his chapbook being a complete object; there isn't a poem in the book that doesn't fit in with the other twenty-three. The myths themselves are creative as well, some funny, some to make the reader pause and contemplate, and every so often a poem just a little too wild to fully wrap their heads around.
30. Feign by Kristy Bowen
2006 New Michigan Press 48 pages
Book bought from publisher
The thirty-three poems in this excellent chapbook range from prose poems, to those written in stanza form, to "Footnotes to a History of Desire," which, as the title implies, is written in the form of footnotes. Bowen's work has a bit of a mathematical feel to it at times. A 'the sum of a and b equals the sum of c and d' feel if that makes any sense. A sample line, like "This isn't a porno, it's a love story -- tongues everywhere and desultory lines." from the poem "Final Night at the Sunset Drive-In", gives a fair example of the attitude behind much of Bowen's work.
31. Invite by Glen Pourciau
2008 by University of Iowa Press 106 pages
Review copy supplied by University of Iowa Press
I'm guessing there'll be a lot of comparisons between Pourciau's stories and those of Raymond Carver as he frequently writes of characters that are sad or lonely and living quite a bit in their own heads - sorting through their issues in front of the reader. In the quiet contemplation of these characters though, one thing shines through time and time again and that's voice. I think what grabbed my attention and refused to let go was Pourciau's ability to establish a voice, and very interesting voices at that.
32. In the Mouth by Eileen Pollack
2008 Four Way Books 257 pages
Review copy supplied by Four Way Books
In these five stories and novella, Eileen Pollack captures the human condition during that tightrope walk between hope and despair, and does so with just the right amount of each to allow her reader to make it across the rope. Similar to the Pourciau collection in that these are fairly quiet stories, in terms of action, they too have plenty going on within them. There is a dark comedy element to Pollack's writing as well. The stories are concerned about relationships and secrets and sharing and truly deserve to find an audience.
33. Ryan Seacrest is Famous by Dave Housley
2007 Impetus Press 198 pages
I may have purchased this, or Dave may have supplied a review copy
Dave Housley made me very sad with this collection of stories. Sad because he captures pop culture better than anybody around writing fiction, and because he couldn't find a single reference that I didn't get. Whether it's his take on reality television (which both he and I know is a serious oxymoron), beat culture, infomercials, wrestling, etc., it didn't matter - I knew exactly who or what he was skewering. It made me realize just how much time I must waste watching tv, reading weekly magazines, or visiting gossipy websites. The thing was, I couldn't stop reading because Dave's spins on these were both dead-on replicas, and sarcastic and funny as one could possibly imagine. His realization that you didn't need to exaggerate, and in fact really couldn't do so, many of the situations he categorizes/mocks is a very astute one. There's a reason these things are popular, and while we literary folks try to pretend shows like Survivor or American Idol or The Girls Next Door are beneath us, well, Housley reminds us that some of us must be paying attention.
34. A Garden Amid Fires by Gladys Swan
2007 BkMk Press 158 pages
Review copy supplied by BkMk Press
To be honest, I probably read this in 2007 and didn't get around to reviewing it because after speaking with Ms. Swan at AWP that year, I fully intended on finding more of her work to read, and review and do an interview with her. But enough of my slacking. This continues the fine bit of publishing that BkMk has been doing under the watch of Ben Furnish, as well as the long career of Gladys Swan. The nine stories within this collection vary from realistic to near science fiction, or at least the fantastic, in scope. Swan seems to be very interested in memory throughout her work, as well as looking at how art in various forms affects our lives. I do believe 2009 will be when I find the time to discover more of her work as this collection was excellent.
35. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
2008 Doubleday 203 pages
Review copy supplied by Doubleday
While I've probably mentioned Pollock as much as any other writer over the past 18 months here at the EWN, I have yet to sit down and write even a mini-review of Knockemstiff. I had the pleasure of seeing this collection in an earlier, manuscript, form and it caught my attention right away. Seeing these revised versions of what were already excellent stories only enhanced that memory of discovering this voice, a truly powerful and at times frightening voice. The stories Pollock has set in this small Ohio town, one that America has seemingly passed by and left behind, are blunt, they are sometimes brutal, but they are always honest. His is a voice that's been needed, one reminiscent in ways of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, but more straightforward, maybe more like Daniel Woodrell, and certainly more midwestern than the southern or old western that they tend to delve into. It's amazing to realize this is a debut effort, and certainly leaves me with Pollock as a writer to anxiously wait for more work from.
36. Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball
2008 Alma Books 242 pages
Review copy supplied by the author
The subtitle to this novel is "A Novel Written in the Form of Letters, Diary Entries, Encyclopedia Entries, Conversations with Various People, Notes Sent Home from Teachers, Newspaper Articles, Psychological Evaluations, Weather Reports, a Missing Person Flyer, a Eulogy, a Last Will and Testament, and Other Fragments, Which Taken Together Tell the Story of the Short Life of Jonathon Bender, Weatherman." Believe it or not, that simply doesn't cover everything that Michael Kimball has done with this book. Written as a review of the life of Jonathon Bender, by his younger brother, through all of the papers he found after Jonathon committed suicide, as well as conversations with their father, and old neighbors, etc., Kimball has given a voice to the voiceless. Jonathon Bender seemingly had a great deal to say, but nobody was listening. He never had a solid relationship with his father, his marriage fell apart, and it's obvious from reading through this that his brother never knew him well at all either. What Kimball shows his characters is empathy, and in doing so, has created a character in Jonathon Bender, one not ever alive as you read his words, that you'll have a great deal of difficulty ever forgetting.
37. The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti by Stephen Graham Jones
2008 Chiasmus Press 181 pages
Book purchased online (pre-ordered prior to pub. date)
Somewhat fitting to be looked at so closely to Michael Kimball's Dear Everybody as this novel, from the viewpoint of Nolan Dugatti, also includes notes, handwritten suicide notes from the father of the protagonist, Nolan Dugatti. For years his father wrote these notes and as Jones allows us into the worlds of Dugatti, both his current (where he's the overnight customer service phone rep for a gaming company, specifically for a came called Camopede that seemingly nobody in the world plays anymore) and his childhood, through these notes and narratives, the novel turns into one that, like much of Jones' work, transcends genre. There's certainly a science fiction aspect to it as Dugatti appears to have entered into the game of Camopede himself, and a bit of mystery as he plays cat and mouse on the phone with a detective, and ninja and horror both try to pry their way in as well. It's a short and very quick read, one that will quicken the pace your heart beats and make you laugh out loud in the very next sentence.
38. The Expeditions by Karl Iagnemma
2008 The Dial Press 320 pages
Review copy supplied by The Dial Press
Set mainly in mid-1800's Upper Peninsula Michigan, Iagnemma once again allows his love for science and biology guide his writing (as he did often in his short story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction). Sixteen year old Elisha Stone is fascinated by the natural world and gets a job detailing animal and flora names for a scientist in Detroit, MI and then eventually being added on to an expedition to the Upper Peninsula where he helps collect specimens and fills his journal with notes and drawings. His father, a Reverend from Massachusetts, finds out where Elisha is, after a three year absence of his son from his life, and a few months after the passing of his wife, and he decides he must travel to be by Elisha's side on this expedition. The Reverend has never been an outdoor man,has always had his congregation to fall back on, which makes his own expedition all that more difficult. Iagnemma does a strong job of allowing his seeming fascination with nature to come into the novel without dominating the reader's mind. The story of father and son, of their individual determinations, absolutely equal the look at 19th century Michigan and discoveries of land and animal alike, and interactions with Native Americans. The novel is a strong follow-up to Iagnamma's excellent story collection.
39. The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg
2007 Riverhead Books 291 pages
I do not recall where I picked this up
The fascinating story of Jarvis Miller. Her husband, a budding painter, fell off a ladder and went into a coma six years prior to the opening of the novel. Jarvis has been plugging along ever since, slowly selling off his work for funds to live on, and visiting Martin regularly, though she's been notified he is only alive due to the machines he's on, and does not hear her, nor have any recognition that she's there when she visits. The breaking of her washing machine leads her to a local laundromat where she meets a trio of men that refer to themselves as the Kept Man Club, as their wives are the breadwinners of their families. It's the looking forward to seeing these men weekly that slaps Jarvis into the realization that she's been kept herself these past six years, kept waiting for Martin to die. While there are aspects to the plot that drive the drama of this novel, it's Attenberg's writing and astute development of her characters that are the real impetus to continue reading. Jarvis Miller is just a great character, one with internal conflict, external conflict, and Attenberg advances her through her various dilemmas expertly.
40. Nov 22, 1963 by Adam Braver
2008 Tin House 208 pages
Review copy supplied by Tin House at BEA
Adam Braver has done something that might have seemed impossible not long ago - he's created a fresh look at the events of November 22, 1963, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He's done so by avoiding the main incident in his writing, and instead looking at some of the quieter events surrounding the day - Jackie's getting dressed that morning, the dealings with the local funeral home, the story of Vaughn Ferguson, who, working with the White House garage, was in charge of getting the car cleaned and back up to speed. Braver has found a way to once again dip into this event that shattered a nation, and reminds us of how devastating a day it was without simply re-hashing what others have written before. It's a bold task for a writer, begin to write about something that every reader picking the ball up already thinks they know the ending to, but Braver was more than up to the task.
41. I Smile Back by Amy Koppelman
2008 Two Dollar Radio 185 pages
Review copy supplied by Two Dollar Radio at BEA
Having loved Amy Koppelman's debut, A Mouthful of Air, a few years back, I'd been looking forward to this novel. Though I must admit, looking forward might be a bit of a stretch when it comes to Amy's work. She's a fearless writer, willing to take on topics that will make her readers at least a tad uncomfortable. Her debut's protagonist was a mother suffering from post-partum depression. This time around she gives us Laney Brooks, truly a difficult woman to care about from beginning all the way to the end. She's suffering but isn't completely willing to admit this to herself. She's constantly worried about her appearance, about what others are thinking about her, and most of all, how she is fucking up the future lives of her children. While it's hard to like and/or root for Laney, Koppelman makes it all but impossible to not pay attention to her. She's given us a perfect mix of the seemingly fully in control exterior and completely messed up interior, with perhaps the only mis-step being a reliance on giving Laney a semblance of a reason for her actions - the bailing out on her own family by her father when she was growing up. It's not introduced right away, and by the time it is, I'd already been convinced of Laney's issues, and didn't need a hardline reason for her actions. That said, her actions, drugs, sleeping around, coming and going as she pleases, horrible comments about her husband in front of his work associates or clients, are where Koppelman's writing shines. The internal conflict Laney goes through while acting in this manner is written perfectly. Koppelman seems to be content to challenge her readers, and those that are up for the ride will be treated very well.
42. Turning Tables by Heather & Rose MacDowell
2008 The Dial Press 324 pages
Review copy supplied by The Dial Press
Okay, the elitism sneaks in with this one as the cover is a little pink and the blurbs are from the authors of titles such as Lipstick Therapy and Knitting Under the Influence, and well, if the topic didn't involve restaurants and the world of food I'm sure I'd never have opened it up. Which means I'd have missed out on a very good story, and while there is a plot line of romance within, it's not the main idea behind the novel. The amazing thing to me is that these twin sisters wrote the book while living on opposite sides of the country, doing so via email and phone. I'd think co-writing would be difficult enough when done so in person, but via telecommunication devices? No way. Back to the story, it's solid and while I think much of the ending was very determinable by about the halfway point, the authors did a nice job in getting to it, and the sections specifically set in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms were excellent.
43. The Inhabited World by David Long
2006 Houghton Mifflin 288 pages
Review copy supplied by Houghton Mifflin
A long overdue review on this one as I've had the galley since it was sent out, and had picked up, or intended to read this one many times since. It's a quieter novel, one I'd compare to maybe Kent Haruf or Per Petterson's recent output. Like their work, it is also nearly impossible to put down once you've found yourself captured by Long's words. Evan Molloy shot, and killed, himself. He's now bound, in spirit form, to the land that his home was on in what we'll call a purgatory as he tries to determine why it was that he took his life. Maureen Kiniston now lives in his former home, having moved to this quiet area after a breakup with a married man. Long expertly weaves back and forth between the two until reaching an extremely satisfying conclusion for both his characters and his readers.
44. The King of Gaheena by Squire Babcock
2008 Motes Books 301 pages
Review copy supplied by the author
The life of Calvin Turtle, a young (20) heir to a playing card company owner, shortly after the death of his parents, gives Squire Babcock a chance to write about nearly every type of conflict one can imagine - loss, love, violence, lust, wanting, hatred, discovery and I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two. Babcock does so and does it all quite well. Nothing happens out of the blue, without a reason. The novel progresses, with quite a bit of action (including a great power struggle), at a real nice pace, with bits of humor and bits of suspense sharing the stage. I read this one straight through in the back seat of a car and can only say that about two of the books this year, and both were excellent. Look for this one and more from Squire Babcock in the future.
45. Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas
2008 Bloomsbury 262 pages
Galley supplied by Bloomsbury, hard copy purchased at Shaman Drum
With his debut, Mark Sarvas shows he is a man that can write a really good story, and many really excellent sentences. It also shows his fondness for literature, as he weaves other tales into Harry's life, especially The Count of Monte Cristo. At times some of what I'll call the flair of this novel seems a bit too thought out, and not seamless enough, but not nearly to the point of ruining my reading. Harry's journey as he works his way through the shock of his wife's passing, and slowly admitting to himself who he was, and who he had been during his marriage, is entertaining, and at times both action-packed and really quite funny. It's more than a solid debut, it's definitely a book worth your time.
46. The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris
2008 Tin House 280 pages
Review copy supplied by Tin House at BEA
This just might be the best book I've read this year. Morris skillfully weaves through the lives of five major characters, in a third person narration, as they struggle with their lives and with what they might and might not be able to control. Russell Harmon is the self-proclaimed 'dart league king' and immensely proud of this fact (even given the fact that said league is located in a small town in Idaho). The entire novel takes place during the day that the league's championship match is to take place. At this time, Russell is in debt to the closest thing to a local mob member, 42 year old Vince Thompson, is set to face Brice Habersham, ex-professional dart player, store owner and, oh yeah, undercover DEA agent, and his team for the championship. There's also a love triangle with Russell, teammate Tristan (who is trying to get past a traumatic event of his own) and Russell's former classmate, Kelly Ashton. Morris allows the reader into the minds of each of these characters and with each one he's written an almost perfect blend of positive and negative, or of confidence and worry. As they move through the day and night, both they and the readers come to the realization that there's only so much of your own life that you have control over, that the others involved in your life exert a little control through their actions as well. This was one I did not put down after I had read the first two or three sections - Morris had me hooked and didn't let go, and really still hasn't.
47. Rock Island Line by David Rhodes
2008 (reprint) Milkweed 384 pages
Review copy supplied by Milkweed
Originally published in 1975, and "rediscovered" by a Milkweed editor, this reprint version comes out along with David Rhodes' first new novel in over 30 years, and it's really a great thing. This epic tells the tale of July Montgomery, after taking some time to discover the lives of first his grandparents, then the small Iowa town they resided in, then his parents, and finally getting around to July's early years. Then Rhodes pulls out a Nolan Ryan-like curve ball and has family tragedy causing July to run away, at age 14, to Philadelphia via train. There he makes a life for himself, first living in a small cavelike room under the subway system and selling newspapers, and eventually moving towards what most would consider a more proper lifestyle. He eventually returns to that small Iowa town where more good and bad occur - typical for most of us I believe. Rhodes writes in a very straightforward manner, albeit taking some wide paths to get where he intends to, and has created some fascinating characters, especially July Montgomery. It's really a shame that a novel this good had ever gone out of print - I greatly look forward to Rhodes' new work, and hope that Milkweed, or some other publisher, is working on bringing his two earlier novels back into print as well.
48. Waste by Eugene Marten
2008 Ellipsis Press116 pages
Book purchased from the publisher
If this wasn't the best book I read in 2008, it was the most intriguing. Marten's writing about Sloper, an overnight janitor at a high-rise office building was keeping me interested well before he brought in an extremely creepy element about halfway through the story. At just over 100 pages, Marten's incredible usage of language was essential to this novel being as tight and powerful as it is. No pun intended, but he doesn't waste a word in this, a novel essentially about what he does with the waste of the office workers. What he does with it and how he does it. Marten is able to bring an incredible intimacy to the reader about what one might normally consider an unconsidered life - an overnight janitor that lives in his mother's basement, and doesn't even see her, but communicates with her through the vent system. To pass along the twist at that halfway point would be a rude gesture on my part, but I will say that Marten's Sloper is a very unique character, one that will stay in your mind long after you turn the final page of this short, excellent, novel.
49. A Tomb on the Periphery by John Domini
2008 Gival Press 193 pages
Review copy supplied by Gival Press
A follow-up to Domini's excellent Earthquake I.D., he once again takes his readers to parts of Naples, Italy that they may not ever have known existed. Also similar to his previous work, he fills this new novel with extremely well-developed characters, and not simply his main characters like Fabbrizio, the local criminal with archeological knowledge, or Shanti, the goddess-like woman pushing Fabbrizio's buttons correctly, but also with background characters such as Nerone and Treno, gangsters, and the family of homeless Africans that get sucked into what mystery develops throughout the novel. And while the book somewhat masquerades as a crime novel, it's much, much more. Domini writes of both culture and cultures with a flair not frequently seen in either the mystery or the literature sections. With the back to back stunners of Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb on the Periphery, he's become a writer that I look to for new work to read.
50. The Conviction of Richard Nixon by James Reston, Jr.
2007 Harmony Books 207 pages
Book purchased, probably at Borders or Barnes & Noble
The subtitle is "The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews" and that's exactly this is, a behind the scenes telling of the infamous televised production from the late 1970's that has rolled around into an award winning play and possibly award winning movie. Reston, Jr. was asked to be part of the Frost team of historian/investigators and took a sabbatical from teaching to do so. It's a very interesting look, and especially well-timed with the play doing well when this came out and the movie out now. There was infighting amongst the Frost team in terms of what route to go - how detailed to be with dates and facts, would it create a quagmire of useless information or nail Nixon down, etc. Well written and not too self-serving as to what Reston, Jr. himself accomplished. A solid look at an interesting bit of history/entertainment.
51. The Gateway by T.M. McNally
2007 SMU Press 211 pages
Review copy supplied by SMU Press
This collection of seven previously published stories (in literary journals) furthers my enjoyment of the fiction of T.M. McNally. In fact, it reminds me I need to pull out my copy of his novel, The Goat Bridge, and read it soon. Back to this collection though, McNally has a great knack for finding new ways to write about relationships, especially those within families, and the various connections we develop over time. His characters walk that fine line between hope and despair that many of my favorite stories do. McNally doesn't rely on irony, as so many contemporary writers do, to hammer home his final scenes, there is an honesty to them. Varying in settings and scenarios from the French countryside (a son visiting his father's WWII battlegrounds) to an American hospital (where a burned boy is visited by his sister and we learn of his relationship with his father and how he ended up as a patient), McNally is capable of sending his readers around the world and having them feel at home. I'm also excited to say that one of the stories from this collection, "Open My Heart," is included in Visiting Hours, the anthology I edited.
52. Wounded Warriors by Mike Sager
2008 Da Capo Press 255 pages
Book purchased at Shaman Drum
Thanks to an excellent review by Paste Magazine's Book Editor, Charles McNair, I ordered a copy of this collection of excellent essays, many of which had appeared in places like Rolling Stone, GQ, Washington Post Sunday Magazine and many in Esquire. Sager does a very nice job of digging into the personalities behind stories about dog fighting in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant, ex-pat Vietnam War veterans living in Thailand, and from the inside of an L.A. crack gang, as well as the title essay about the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune, NC, for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling. Sager digs into the stories and the people behind the stories, getting as close to an inside perspective as seemingly possible. He doesn't judge those that he writes about, allowing the reader to make up their own minds, which I think adds to the experience of reading his work.
53. Hamburger America by George Motz
2008 Running Press 299 pages
Book purchased at Borders
A state by state guide to 100 Burger joints, those deemed to be the best by author George Motz after years of traveling across the country to search out the best. The book also comes with a DVD of the documentary with the same name as the book (which I'd forgotten all about until writing this review). This was a fascinating read to this cheeseburger lover and I have to say he nailed Michigan well as Miller's and Krazy Jim's are two of the probably three or four most frequently named places in SE Michigan. And a stop at Wilson's Sandwich Shop in Findlay, OH this fall on a return trip from Murray State University in KY with Aaron Burch and Matt Bell confirmed that it belonged on such a list as well. Obviously a book with a target audience, but I'd say that audience will definitely enjoy it.
54. Black Glasses Like Clark Kent by Terese Svoboda
2008 Graywolf Press 222 pages
Review copy supplied by Graywolf Press at the suggestion of the author
Saved for last, the book that has stuck with me more than any other I read this year, and definitely the best non-fiction book I read in 2008, if not the best outright. The very deserved winner of the 2007 Graywolf Press Non-Fiction Prize, this story of Svoboda's uncle, and the tapes he sent her of his story as a GI's secrets from his days in postwar Japan - he was assigned to guard convicted fellow Americans. As the prison became overcrowded, there were executions. As the stories of Abu Ghraib came out, Svoboda's uncle became terribly depressed and the tapes quit coming as he committed suicide. Using his tapes as her starting point, Svoboda went into historian mode and researched files, interviewed other former soldiers and has written an incredibly moving book that should be read by lovers of fiction and non-fiction alike.
Whoops, while the last book noted 'saved for last,' it seems I inadvertently mis-filed the following two titles in the wrong box.
55. To Catch the Lightning by Alan Cheuse
2008 Sourcebooks Landmark 502 pages
Book purchased at Shaman Drum
I picked up a review copy of this at BEA, but then had the good fortune to attend a reading by Alan Cheuse at Shaman Drum when the book came out in hardcover. With this historical novel, Cheuse writes the life story of Edward Curtis. Sadly, prior to picking up the galley, I was unaware of Curtis and his great work in documenting the history of Native Americans. Cheuse's novel is a compelling read and seems to be more than simply about Curtis' life, but about the life of any artist, one who sacrifices so much of what many may consider to be normal to give to their work instead. It's a book filled with photos from Curtis' own lens, and Native American artwork, and, most importantly, a fantastic fictional version of Curtis' life. Coming in late to the party for Alan Cheuse's writings, this one has me going back to look for his previous works.
56. Serena by Ron Rash
2008 Ecco 384 pages
Review copy supplied by Ecco at the suggestion of the author
I was fortunte enough to a) have the author make sure I was on the review copy list and b) be asked by Charles McNair of Paste Magazine if I'd take a shot at reviewing Serena (see what happens when you've read and reviewed all nine of an author's previous books, including his book for children?). While the aforementioned novel by Squire Babcock was read straight through riding home from Murray State University, this one was read straight through on the way down to Kentucky (many thanks again to Aaron Burch and Matt Bell, personal drivers for the weekend!). I couldn't tell you a thing about the first half of the drive there - what the weather was like, what we listened to, what Matt and Aaron were talking about, etc. Rash is an author that I've obviously enjoyed in the past but I think Serena is his best work yet. He's given his readers an incredible protagonist, an extremely tough-minded woman (Serena Pembleton) in a fantastic setting (1930's North Carolina timberlands) and pushes her and her husband (George Pembleton) to extreme limits. As in most of Rash's writings, there is a nice mix of violence and beauty, and the language with which he serves both is lush.