Ben Picks His Favorites

Article by ben

Making a “best of” list for 2016 is, I confess, either an act of self-aggrandizement or self-pity (I’m not sure which yet, because I haven’t gotten to the end of this paragraph). See, when I’m honest with myself, my favorite novel of the year was my own, THE SADNESS, which came out in June. Was it actually the best novel of the year? I can’t say (except, no, obviously it wasn’t--it was maybe somewhere near the middle). But it was the book in my life that needed the most help.

Can I talk about my dogs for a second as a point of strained comparison? My dogs are not the smartest or the best behaved animal in the world (don’t even ask me what I had to scoop off the floor this morning), but I’m the person they need the most, so obviously I love them the best.

But of course, on occasion, I spot somebody out walking statelier dogs, better groomed dogs, dogs that can walk in a straight line, dogs that don’t try to eat cat poop off the sidewalk, and in those moments, I have a quick pang of jealousy. Owning dogs makes you see other dogs differently, and publishing a book makes you see other books differently. So consider a list of the ten or so books of 2016 that gave me the sharpest pangs.

The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage: Essays Cover Image
ISBN: 9781944853013
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Outpost19 - August 2nd, 2016

Surveys (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781584351788
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Semiotext(e) - February 12th, 2016


Since 2009, I have spent many nights skirting the edge of trouble with Natasha Stagg and Lawrence Lenhart. No, not actual trouble, but MFA-style trouble: too much drinking, awkward confessions and admissions, arguments that start friendly then slow-boil for hours, late nights that lead to bad freshman composition teaching at 8am. Recently, I gave a reading with both of them in Tucson and was surprised to learn that they’d never met each other before: their time at University of Arizona never overlapped (I was there longer than either of them). Here’s my point: I’m not qualified to objectively review either of these debut books. Stagg’s short novel is simultaneously sly and grim, a terse and lovely look at the pitfalls of youthful aimlessness and living a life online. Lenhart’s essay collection consists of erudite, form-shattering pieces about animals, Greek mythology, painful childhood memories. Do I sound biased if I say that bother books are terrific? I do, and they are. I couldn’t be prouder of my friends.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594204838
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Penguin Press - February 9th, 2016


Here’s a cliche: everyone’s a critic. This--often said derisively--sort of gets as Scott’s argument in this book, but for him, the notion of criticism being a communal cultural project is an optimistic one. This is the best book on the philosophy of criticism--as vocation, as art, as essential practice--I’ve ever read. Scott is one of the lead film critics at the New York Times, oftentimes a fierce canine in print, but in this work, he ranges far from cinema, sniffing around in the gardens of ancient texts, literature, performance art, returning the the reader with a historical map of the discipline between his teeth. Nothing arrogant or pretention here. Scott proves with this book that he’s not only a great critic--he’s a great writer, period. One day, a family member saw this book and its title and asked if it was a book about how to better your life through being able to take criticism. At first, I scoffed inwardly. Then I realized I was wrong, and my family member was kind of right.

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How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101870570
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Pantheon - July 5th, 2016


Will this novel be known as the moment when Ball--one of the most formally inventive avant-gardists of his generation--went “mainstream?” Hell, it almost qualifies as young adult fiction. His narrator is a teenage girl at odds with her life, too eccentric for her peers, to perceptive to fit in. Her response? Be sassy, and set some fires. The first-person narration recalls the brash, blunt elegance of, you guessed it, Holden Caulfield, but Ball is even more unforgiving in what he puts his protagonist through, and his novel feels less like a sustained narrative (though it is) than a litany of the fragmented and often contradictory thoughts fighting for attention in a young person’s brain. So see? Still experimental--but more human.

Eve Out of Her Ruins Cover Image
By Ananda Devi, Jeffrey Zuckerman (Translator), J. M. G. Le Clézio (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781941920404
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing - September 13th, 2016


This novel pulverized me, and more than nearly any other book I can think of, it demands to be read in one sitting. Set in Port Louis, a tourist town on the island of Mauritius, its four narrators are all looking into mirrors and not liking what they see. All are trying to realize a different version of themselves in their impoverished neighborhood, trying to be sexier, tougher, smarter. As their stories intersect, they all learn the ways that these other lives are impossible to live, and they glimpse truths about one another. So what the heck is this book actually about? No way am I telling you here, except to say that halfway through, something happens that changes everything. At that point, you realized Devi’s strategy, making you focus so much on character, voice, and setting that you haven’t noticed the tense thriller uncoliningling in the background. Why read this in one sitting? The book is short, yes, but the couple sustained hours you’ll spend with it make you realized just how far Devi gets in such a short space.

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977498
Availability: Backordered
Published: Graywolf Press - September 6th, 2016


Here’s the thing: I’m an idiot, often stubborn, not wanting to read outside my comfort zone. When I first was given a copy of this book, I buried it in my stack. Maternity? I will never give birth to a baby, nor am I even thinking right now about becoming a father. How would this book speak to me? Like I say, I’m an idiot, because I finally picked it up, it became one of the most engrossing reading experienced so of my life. In this memoir, Boggs recalls her experience trying to become pregnant, but “memoir” should be in quotes, because her book is also a study of infertility from artistic, economic, and cultural perspectives. Every wondered why Martha’s childlessness in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Seems deployed to make her appear even more monstrous? What cultural expectations underpinned that decision? I think I had wondered, but it took Boggs to make me realize it--to realize that, specifically, and to realize many other things.

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101870853
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Pantheon - May 3rd, 2016


More and more often, my barometer for great literature is whether or not I hear the author’s voice in my head long after I’ve finished the book. To put it mildly: Dyer changed the way I see the world. In these travel essays--or are they short stories? memoristic blips? ekphrastic exercises?--Dyer uses his signature wit and urbanity to craft limber pieces that remind us of all the ways our lives intersect with art, culture, politics, you name it. Hell, why do I say “us” here? I mean me--me--and the “me” in Dyer’s pieces goes to the desert to look at installation art, travels to Asia to find unexpected personal connection, picks up a hitchhiker who may be murderous, visits the former home of Theodor Adorno, and confronts his own mortality in a very “Los Angeles” way. Travel essays, sure--but Dyer would be the ideal travel companion, smart and perceptive and curious. But then again, why would you need to actually travel with him? Read this masterpiece, and you’ll hear his voice in your head wherever you go.

Those five, and these five, in alphabetical order:

A Bestiary Cover Image
ISBN: 9780996316743
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Cleveland State University Poetry Center - April 15th, 2016

Hoang, a shape-shifting writer, breaks out with a shape-shifting essay collection, a raw-nerved examination of race, family, sex, abuse, and the shapes we’re all expected to shift into over the course of a lifetime in order to survive.

Good People Cover Image
ISBN: 9781942658023
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Bellevue Literary Press - January 12th, 2016

Do you need me to tell you that this title is ironic? Well, maybe it is. Lopez writes stories about characters who spin themselves into self-destruction spirals of self-delusion, and he has a better ear for interior monologues than nearly any contemporary writer I can think of. Great stuff--dark, funny, brutalizing. These “good” people are me, and they’re you.

The Mothers: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399184512
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Riverhead Books - October 11th, 2016

Rumors ripple through a community Southern California--rumours about a young woman’s pregnancy and her family’s response. A great debut novel about gossip told from the point of view of the gossip itself. A pernicious game of telephone between two covers.

Of This New World (Iowa Short Fiction Award) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781609384432
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: University Of Iowa Press - October 1st, 2016

A debut short story collection, but no navel-gazing here. Hyde embodies cults, outlaws, even life on Mars. Her interests and talents feel infinite. I have no idea how much of herself is in these stories, and I don’t want to know.

We Eat Our Own: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501128318
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Scribner - September 6th, 2016

Another debut--this one a novel about a tortured film production in the middle of the jungle (based on the notorious found-footage forbearer Cannibal Holocaust). A tyrannical horror filmmaker intersects with guerrilla warfare. Totally original, and scary storytelling so smart if feels high-def.

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