just an occasionally updated list that goes to 11
Talia Kolluri, WHAT WE FED TO THE MANTICORE: I am thrilled about this book of stories by an amazingly talented author with whom I’m lucky to be serving on a panel at an upcoming conference. The first story, “The Good Donkey,” is as good a short story I’ve read in years, a sweet and heart-breaking tale that is gripping, magical, and socially relevant. The collection has a clear angle that allows again and again for interesting and outsized tonal impact. These are stories that anyone would and should love.
Leonie Swan, THREE BAGS FULL: A book about sheep in Ireland solving the murder of their herder? Sure, why not? The concept here might outstrip the delivery, as this might be the only time in my life I found myself thinking, I wish these sheep were smarter. Fun and strange book, all the same.
Sheila Heti, PURE COLOUR: I don’t understand this book. I can maybe summarize it: a woman deals with the death her father by, among other things, becoming a leaf. Also she falls in love and is sad. Also she’s a fish, or a bird, or a bear (as we’re all one of three). All this takes place in an early draft of existence. There is a great deal of reassuring reflections about how it’s okay to die. Sometimes we end up floating out by Saturn. And also we live. And also we die. This book is occasionally beautiful. It’s like meditating–the rest of the world falls away. (Sadly, the rest of the world is still there, though the book doesn’t seem to care.) I’m a little astonished that it was published as it seems like the sort of thing large (and maybe small) publishers would run away from. I have no idea if I liked it or if it’s good. I suspect that I did and that it is. It’s a flummox of a book–and that, in and of itself, is a good thing.
Susan Choi, PERSON OF INTEREST: I fell asleep at a Susan Choi reading once when I was twenty-two and she was visiting my grad school and I was teaching too many classes and feeling entirely out of sleep and I hope she didn’t notice and more than that I hope her host, a Choi-Cornell peer who was my workshop instructor that semester also didn’t notice, but I suspect she did, the latter, and also she (the latter, a Cornell actually named Cornell) sort of vanished from writing though she was fairly young and talented, had won the Drue Heinz, was in BASS, etc. Whither Jenny? Choi’s novel, one of her early works, is amazing, especially in the beginning chapters. I don’t think she pulls together the Unabomber-style plot with the POV’s experience as a husband, mathematician, and immigrant, but aspects of this are beautiful and taut, the ending chapters are impressively risky, and she’s generally a tremendously underrated writer. Don’t sleep on her!
James Clammer, INSIGNIFICANCE: Coach House Books, a phenomenal Canadian press, is also underrated. This book, about a repairman going back into the working world after a breakdown (brought on by some veryveryvery dramatic issues between his mentally ill son and religious-minded wife) is intense, lyrical, and very affecting. Hard to read? Yes. That’s good, right? Maybe a bit of a scapegoat ending, but focused and talented writing from a fine writer on great press.
Richard Lange, THIS WICKED WORLD: Richard Lange rocks. Taut thriller, textured settings, page-turner in all the good ways. No wonder Stephen King loves this guy’s books.
Michel Houllebecq, SUBMISSION: I thought about leading this latest eleven-book entry with a description of this book but enough people probably know about it. The premise is fascinating: imagine a suddenly Muslim-led France with the expected social reforms and upheaval that follow. Told from the POV of a literature academic, the casual narrative style while the world is changing very quickly and dramatically is maybe the best part of the novel: the ironic distance between the naval- and junk-gazing professor and his shifting society is a fun thing to navigate. But the ending feels rushed and the narrative disaffection can only carry you so far. And why does the book end in future tense??? Who knows. Is the premise here, again, better than its realization? Absolutely.
Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, THE BOOK OF KANE AND MARGARET: I’ll go on and on about this amazing collection for the foreseeable future: a series of short stories (over forty) that retell and resituate and recreate the titular characters and their experiences (magical, heartwarming, annoying, violent, romantic, hilarious, mundane, and much more) as captives in a WWII internment camp in Arizona. (This book reminds me of Lucy Corin’s Everyday Psychokillers–not at all stylistically, just in how amazingly great it is as a first book by an emerging author. More people should know about and read this. Writers, scholars, professors, readers. It’s an amazing achievement.)
Charles Portis, GRINGOS: If you’re my age, maybe you remember when all these white guys would write book after book after book about life … and the books would be published … and they’d be sometimes good, and more often they’d be merely okay. That time was called the 1980-90s, I’m pretty sure, and maybe also all the time before. I was excited to read this novel by Portis, the first I’ve read of him, especially as I love the Coens’ adaptation of True Grit. This book, sadly, was ultimately disappointing. It has a Tom Robbins or Bob Shacochis feel–it’s shaggy, warm, observant, smart enough, an enjoyable narrator. But it’s 320 pages with very little plot (and the little that’s there hasn’t aged well). I’d love to read a sixty-page version of this book. Portis is clearly talented–this was his last novel, and I suspect his earlier works have firmer plots and read a touch more urgently.
Jennifer Acker, THE LIMITS OF THE WORLD: Another upcoming co-panelist! Acker is the editor of the great literary journal The Common (and she’s an amazing editor, as good as I’ve ever had the chance to work with). This novel touches on big novel themes–assimilation, family dynamics, love across different cultures–and places a great deal of its drama in a place that I had no idea existed: a long-standing Indian immigrant enclave in Nairobi. The family dynamics are touching and infuriating, as families are, especially when communicated via this talented writer’s fingertips.
Jhumpa Lahiri, INTERPRETER OF MALADIES: You know already. Lahiri’s ability to casually write gripping stories–“small” dramas that they are–is, almost a quarter of a century after the collection came out, amazingly impressive.
Samuel Beckett, THE COMPLETE SHORT PROSE: Ugh, nothing ever happens. Who even is this guy?