Ben's Top Five Books (and Top Five Categories)

Exit West Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9780735212176
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Riverhead Books - March 7th, 2017

If you know one thing about EXIT WEST, it’s probably the magical realistic coup Hamid pulls off here: creating a global landscape linked by doors that transport people across oceans, from continent to continent. Hamid’s narrative, which follows a young couple trying to escape an unnamed, war-torn country in the Middle East, uses this magical touch to level the horror of the situation: bombs falling, military executions, and displaced populations of unwelcome immigrants. But the real heart of this book is the relationship between the young man and woman, drawn together by tragedy, kept together by trauma, and then, finally in safety, remembering that they’re both still young and that love is a finicky thing. I rarely read a book twice; EXIT WEST, however, I read in one sitting and then, as soon as I’d finished, immediately returned to page one.


Fever Dream Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780399184598
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Riverhead Books - January 10th, 2017

(Plus, an extra...)


You Should Have Left Cover Image
By Daniel Kehlmann, Ross Benjamin (Translator)
$18.00
ISBN: 9781101871928
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Pantheon Books - June 13th, 2017

Two books of claustrophobic horror, both in translation, that echo/complement one another. FEVER DREAM is the masterpiece, the story of a woman, holed up somewhere (where?), talking to a young boy (who?). This mysterious novel, told entirely in dialogue, recounts a strange period of time in an even stranger town that seems to be under threat of an impending natural disaster. A terrifying book, FEVER DREAM is also about motherhood, and the fear, both practical and existential, that comes from not being able to protect your child. YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is slighter, but still intriguing—a riff on The Shining, with a family living in seclusion and a father having a supernatural breakdown. Read these books with the lights on.


Her Body and Other Parties: Stories Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781555977887
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Graywolf Press - October 3rd, 2017

The year’s best short story collection—and maybe the year’s most fun book to talk about. Everyone I know seems to love it, although some in a begrudging, bemused way. Take, for instances, the book’s centerpiece story (novella?), “Especially Heinous,” a beguiling piece that takes a surprising form: a summary of every single episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It starts normally enough, with descriptions that feel like they could be accurate, until the prose becomes loopier, stranger, weaving together ghost children and doppelgangers, unless Machado has created a haunting portrait of violence told through a pop culture filter. She does this elsewhere too—some stories take the form of fairy tales, others take on generic tropes (her post-apocalyptic sexual inventory is especially striking). But I don’t mean for this to sound grim: did I mention this is also the funniest short story collection of the year?


Lincoln in the Bardo Cover Image
$28.00
ISBN: 9780812995343
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House - February 14th, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO seems so ubiquitous at this point that we maybe need to remind ourselves why it’s actually startling. There’s no reason why this novel, which merges American history and Tibetan philosophy, should work, yet somehow its experimental narrative structure—taking the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief as he buries his son, and fracturing it through the voices of untethered spirits in the cemetery—invites, rather than alienates, the reader’s emotional engagement. Saunders has had an equally unexpected road to success: he started publishing relatively late (close to forty years old) and gained “writers’ writer” success with short stories and essays until his collection TENTH OF DECEMBER brought him sudden and surprising commercial appeal. LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, his first novel, combines all his skills as a short story writer into a work that, while fragmentary, builds to an astonishingly moving climax.


Shadowbahn Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780735212015
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Blue Rider Press - February 14th, 2017

It seems to me that Steve Erickson sees what the rest of us do not, or cannot, or don’t want to. Since his first novel came out in the mid-eighties, Erickson has been an apocalyptic visionary (and America’s most painfully underrated author). Each new book feels less like a standalone work and more like another truck stop along the narrative highway he’s been travelling his entire career. SHADOWBAHN is a surreal road novel in which the Twin Towers inexplicably appear in the middle of the Badlands and people travel from far and wide to see this bizarre spectacle. At the same time, SHADOWBAHN creates an alternate history of the second half of the twentieth century based on one hypothetical: what if Elvis Presley, not his twin, had died in childbirth? How does Erickson bring these two narratives together? Don’t ask; just read, and watch his American mythology grow denser with each page.


 

Plus, the five categories below:

 


 

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

After years of swearing off short story collections, I fell back in love with them in January, mostly because of these three books, which have very little in common except for the form and release dates. ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR is cluttered with shitty apartments and rundown motels, filled with women who smoke too much, drink too much, and fuck too much, while seeing their lives as grand things. THE MAN WHO SHOT MY EYE OUT IS DEAD embodies historical periods and different modes of storytelling, the author disappearing behind each in a ventriloquistic feat. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE? (actually published at the tail-end of 2016) posthumously collects the work of an author who explored race and gender as deftly as anyone ever has, although with a humor and dexterity that, at times, given the weight of her subject matter, seems unfathomable. These stories are short only in page count; they contain sad, lonely universes that, somehow, expand ever outward.


Always Happy Hour: Stories Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9781631492181
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - January 10th, 2017

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead: Stories Cover Image
$24.99
ISBN: 9780062490759
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco Press - January 17th, 2017

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?: Stories Cover Image
$15.99
ISBN: 9780062484154
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Ecco Press - December 6th, 2016


THE DOROTHY PROJECT

These books, from the St. Louis publisher, are, first and foremost, beautiful objects, nearly perfect squares with bold covers. Plus, they’re all short, exploring the forms of novella and short story without self-aggrandizing mission statements. I bought most all of them this year. The first I read, SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN, is still my favorite, an elliptical exploration of a largely forgotten 1970 film that blends film criticism, personal anecdote, and fiction. Also of note: the scathing Plath-isms of Suzanne Scanlon, the abstractions of Renee Gladman, and the bonkers “realism” of Joanna Walsh. You can read these books in a sitting and carry them in your pocket, yet they’ll haunt you.


Suite for Barbara Loden Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780997366600
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Dorothy a Publishing Project - October 17th, 2016


THE KUMA-KUMA CHAN BOOKS

First of all, the bear, Kuma-Kuma Chan (which translates from Japanese as “cute little bear”), is cute. He lives alone in a little house up in the mountains. He has a friend he invites over for dinner sometimes. Other times, Kuma-Kuma Chan fantasizes about the trips he will go on. He packs his bag but then can do nothing more than imagine his journeys. He writes letters to his friend telling him about his “travels,” but his friend cannot read them because Kuma-Kuma Chan gets over-excited and writes too fast and his handwriting is sloppy. These are picture books for kids, but also somehow either: a) incredibly potent portraits of loneliness, or b) monuments to the tranquility of being alone. Actually, they’re both, and they’re perfect.


Kuma-Kuma Chan, the Little Bear Cover Image
$12.99
ISBN: 9781940842011
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Museyon - December 1st, 2014

Kuma-Kuma Chan's Travels Cover Image
$12.99
ISBN: 9781940842189
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Museyon - October 1st, 2017

Kuma-Kuma Chan's Home Cover Image
$12.99
ISBN: 9781940842097
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Museyon - April 1st, 2016


LANDSCAPES OF DESTRUCTION

Destruction was on my mind a lot throughout 2017: destruction of a personal nature, and also, eventually, on a citywide scale, the latter thoughts engendered by the pounding of Hurricane Harvey. One of these books, THE END WE START FROM, a lyrical meditation on a flooded landscape, I read as the rainfall beat against my window-unit air conditioner, the outward-sticking metal amplifying the sound hammer-like. IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS, a graphic novel/memoir, takes destruction more metaphorically, as a young woman wanders through and ruminates on a series of deserted spaces. More abstract still, THE ILIAC CREST, which shrouds itself in horror’s garb, seems about nothing less than the destruction of the body and the mind. This isn’t always cheery fiction, but who the hell wants to be happy all the time?

 


The End We Start from Cover Image
$22.00
ISBN: 9780802126894
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grove Press - November 7th, 2017

The Iliac Crest Cover Image
By Sarah Booker (Translator), Cristina Rivera Garza, Elena Poniatowska (Foreword by)
$16.95
ISBN: 9781558614352
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Feminist Press - October 10th, 2017

Imagine Wanting Only This Cover Image
$29.95
ISBN: 9781101870839
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Pantheon Books - April 18th, 2017

 


THE WORK OF DENIS JOHNSON

Some people: you don’t realize how much you miss them until they’re gone. I’d always been a casual fan of JESUS’ SON, as most one-time, booze-guzzling MFA students are. “And you,” I remember yelling at people during grad school, “you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you?” Also, from his under-read poetry collection THE INCOGNITO LOUNGE: “Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson.” To break into one’s self like that is really something. When he died, I read and re-read nearly all of them: the belligerent gothic ALREADY DEAD, the bizarre cross-dressing noir RESUSCITATION OF A HANGED MAN, the haggard genre experiments of NOBODY MOVE and THE LAUGHING MAN (“Oof, this ain’t literature, folks,” I remember him saying while reading from the former at my university). Ultimately, for me, it comes down to TRAIN DREAMS and its haunting final image of a silence that sucks up everything—even time itself. As evidenced by the aforementioned masterwork JESUS’ SON, full of reprobate behavior and yearning that almost drowns you, nobody has ever been better at making the poetic seem so natural. I go looking for that feeling everywhere.


Jesus' Son Cover Image
$15.00
ISBN: 9780312428747
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador USA - February 17th, 2009

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