This was a good year for me for reading. Lots of enjoyable material, got back around to doing some reviewing here at the EWN, and posted a lot of book cover photos over on Facebook upon buying or receiving titles. Some things that I read that were published recently that were among my favorites include:
Hesitation Wounds by Amy Koppelman (novel - 11/2015 by The Overlook Press) is a good place to start as it was one of the earlier reviews done in 2016 and remains one of the best books that I read (and it just came out in paperback December 6th). Koppelman crushes her readers both with her content, which tends to delve into issues of depression, as well as her prose which is reduced to allowing nothing more than is necessary.
There was also the trio of novels by Peter Geye who was kind enough to introduce himself to me at the Midwest Writers conference at UM early in the year. Turned out we had many similar acquaintances as well as taste in writers and it reminded me I had his first two novels (Safe From the Sea - 2011 and The Lightning Road - 2013 from Unbridled Books) to try to read before his new one, Wintering (June by Knopf) was to be published. What a fantastic three novels this turned out to be. Geye knows portions of Minnesota (especially that butting up against Lake Superior) like the back of his hand as well as much of the history of the area and he's created his own little postage stamp and given it quite a history of its own.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens (novel - May from Tin House) was a great, quick read. Set over the course of (surprise) eleven hours during which two women interact while one nurses the other through giving birth. That covers about 1/50th of what Erens has packed into this fantastic novel of pregnancy and birth and relationships.
The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson (novel - February from the University of Kentucky Press) is another lovely novel. Wilkinson uses a vignette-like style to capture four generations of women in the fictional town of Opulence, KY, a rural area to be sure. She tackles big issues in this short book such as mental health and the overall suppression of women in general. While some novels that take on big topics do so in a way that almost pushes the reader away, that is not the case here--the issues are brought up in subtle ways, not by beating the reader over the head. Also, from her descriptive writing, Wilkinson has created an area that I would love to be able to verify the visuals she put into my mind.
This gets me to a quartet of novels not reviewed here at the EWN yet--three where I'm simply behind and one where I've not yet finished. Anne Valente's Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (October from William Morrow) is a tough yet beautiful read. Following the lives of those in a small town where a Sandy Hooks type school shooting occurred can only invite some difficult reading, but Valente's approach (different points of view, lists, chapters out of nowhere) and simply beautiful writing combat that difficulty and bring this effort into something that feels very important, and very necessary to the United States we've become. Then Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels (May from William Morrow). This coming-of-age---werewolf mash-up is simply fantastic. Entertaining as you'd expect from SGJ, with moments of horror, of course. But it's also an incredible allegory using werewolves as a stand-in for migrant workers, for the homeless, for any other group of people without the stability of a single place to live with some sort of back-up plan. I'm not sure there are more than five or six pages that you won't want to reach in and give the unnamed narrator a hug. The first in her last century trilogy, Jane Smiley's Some Luck (mid-2015 from Anchor in paperback form) is the first in a fascinating project. Following a family for 100 years, writing mainly one one specific portion of the family, or about one definitive incident. Each chapter moves the story forward nicely, sometimes big jumps, other times small--just like life tends to be. I'm looking forward to the 2nd and 3rd titles in this pretty epic project. Last is a huge undertaking, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, a big look at the development of this country, partly through deforestation. It's a dizzying effort going through generations and seems to be extremely well researched while not feeling like it's trying to teach about that time of the world. Not done with it yet, but continually moving forward and loving it.
The EWN has done what it can to promote the short story collections this year and we have a few favorites that we completed (there are truly dozens of others that we've sampled and really can't wait to carve out ten free months to finish them completely). Those include:
Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper (March from Wayne State University Press). I don't think I can say it better than I did when I reviewed this title so..."Cooper's focus is women, and while she covers a very wide range of women, there's no doubt that, while wildly different in many aspects of life, in a world where racism is at least being discussed rather openly, sexism remains prevalent without discussion, even coming from those that love us most, and it touches them all."
A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell (September by Soho Press). I read this one mid-year and referred to it in a way that I don't think Mr. Bell agrees with--as New and Selected Stories collection. And while I agree with what I believe would be Matt's sentiment, that you really need a long writing career to enjoy that type of personal anthology, there's been a feverish pace behind Matt's writing/editing/publishing "career" the past decade and even before that--one that leads to this type of collection coming out at a fairly young age. Much as I've liked everything Matt has published, this one leapt to the top of my MB pile when it came out.
Another trio finished and not reviewed at the EWN but absolutely loved and I'd say would be right there in terms of my favorites of the year would be Dana Johnson's In the Not Quite Dark (Counterpoint Press in August), The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks (Liveright back in January) and Alexander Weinstein's Children of the New World (from Picador in September). All three of these are fantastic collections with nothing but excellent stories--no filler, nothing added that is overly reminiscent of any of the other stories within. Johnson's collection is more set in the current/realism world than the other two. Mainly set up in Los Angeles, a city with nowhere near enough fictional work written about it, Johnson tackles history, racism, sexism, and all very poignantly. She uses history and people's relationships with each other and to that history to help us look at contemporary life. Weinstein's stories seem maybe more futuristic than they really are, which is both frightening, AND what seems to be his point. Just because we can, should we? is a question frequently posed as his characters and their fairly weak relationships to each other are exposed story after story. It shines a strong light on the loneliness of being "social" these days. And the Sparks collection, wow. If I had to pull up a line from my past reviewing history it would bring to mind something said about Amelia Gray once here at the EWN--you can start one of her stories and it doesn't matter what the idea might be behind it, I trust that no matter how crazy it might seem, I completely trust in the fact that Sparks is going to nail the story--going to give me a reason to keep reading and it will go well beyond simply entertainment. Sparks is two collections in to what one can only hope is a big long Alice Munro type (in regard to output) career.
There was also some damn fine non-fiction picked up and read here at the EWN in 2016. Four in particular really captured me. Jennifer Armstrong's Seinfeldia was a really interesting look at the television show, Seinfeld, both from a behind the scenes creative viewpoint, and how the show affected television and maybe even the way we looked at things. I do believe you'd need to be a fan of the show to enjoy this title. Similarly, Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys about the band The Replacements would probably need you to be a fan of the band in the first place to care nearly as much as he did about the minutia of their career and lives of each member. It's meticulously researched though, with the help of band members, which I believe gives it a step up over other books about them. Aaron Burch's Stephen King's 'The Body', an Ig Bookmarked title (the series for books to compare with 33 1/3's series on records) was a great read. Blurring Stephen King's novella, The Body, along with the movie version, The Stand, as well as his own life (and very specifically, his own readings and viewings of those) into a pretty fantastic read. I'm not 100% sure just how interested you need to be in Aaron's life to enjoy the book as much as I did. Burch is a good friend of mine and has been for a decade now and I can hear his voice behind the writing. All that said, I did find this book very enjoyable. Lastly, and the one I'll call the best of the bunch, is a couple of years old--Dispatches From the Drownings by BJ Hollars. Hollars, who has previously published two more straightforward non-fiction titles, sub-titled this one, "Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction." In his Author's Note/Introduction, Hollars notes that he tells his students in his nonfiction classes that "most facts--even those offered neutrally--are about 75 percent true and 25 percent false." This bringing to light of the "Fiction of Nonfiction" is pretty fascinating and the whole Author's Note should be used as an essay for other nonfiction classrooms. The book is a fantastically creative work, with what I find to be a tremendous germ of an idea--the Fiction of Nonfiction--truly followed up on by hard work, great creativity, and the fact that B.J. Hollars is one hell of a writer.
Not to be forgotten at all should be writing done in comic book and/or graphic novel form. My reading of comics has increased quite a bit the past year and a lot of it has been spurred on by female created characters and titles. The first that really caught my attention was Kelly Sue DeConnick's Bitch Planet which is a fascinating, frightening futuristic allegory that should not be being missed. The comic alone is fantastic but all of the additional material in the back--essays, lists of recommended reading, listening, watching, etc. is also great. Really something to look for and being released in batches of 5 or 6 issues at a time in graphic novel form. A couple of others are Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Clean Room by Gail Simone. Both have self-created worlds with fully developed characters right from the beginning issues. And if you're a superhero only type of reader, Ben Percy's doing bang up work on the rebirth of Green Arrow. Oliver and the Black Canary are thrown for a loop in the first couple of issues and are fighting their way back. Excellent writing--which is what I'd expect from Ben Percy.
Lastly, the best book I read in 2016 is a horrible tease for you readers as it does not come out until April 2017 from Pantheon Graphic Novels--it is Kristen Radtke's Imagine Wanting Only This. It's a great book both in terms of the writing AND the artwork. Radtke does a lot with very little at times on the page. She uses a combination of family, history, relationships, travel, and a frequent look at decay and crumbling of locations and juxtoposes each upon the others in a way that captures our world, captures heartbreak, captures loneliness, and expresses it with just enough hope to make it all seem worthwhile. I've read this book at least four times in completion in galley form and it will be my most anticipated book of 2017 as well. Sorry to teach you with it here.
Just over 20 titles that are all very much worth your time.