Our Year in Books: Ben

Article by ben

Should I agonize over a funny, smarty-pants lead-in to my list of best books of 2014—an introductory paragraph in which I find some kind of thread throughout the titles I’ve selected—in which I position my list as something cohesive?

Meh. To hell with that.

Instead, let me admit that 2014 was a year in which I mostly ceded control of what I read to external forces. The books I carried with me were ones I either had to review, or had to familiarize myself with for Brazos-related purposes (authors coming to do events, etc.). So in a year where I moved from Arizona to Texas, watched yet another unpublished novel die, and started, more or less from scratch, not one but two new “careers,” an unfocused list seems appropriate. Here are some books I read this year. I liked them all.

To begin: three special mentions—books that don’t quite seem at home on a top 10 list, but that I want to highlight anyway.

The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893381
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Coffee House Press - January 14th, 2014

Minneapolis-based publisher Coffee House Press has received a lot of (deserved) attention in the second half of 2014 for Valeria Luiselli’s FACES IN THE CROWD and Eimear McBride’s A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING—and while both of those books are great, my brain keeps drifting back to January and Merkner’s debut, which went mostly unnoticed. Obsessive and purposefully flat, Merkner’s book is a triumph of unpleasantness, and his stories are Midwestern gothics, focused on bleak and colorless domestic spaces. Of course this book escaped notice: when I reviewed it at the beginning of the year, I barely knew what to do with it myself. Yet it stuck in my brain, and Merkner, if he can stay true to the dark impulses that made this book so strange and challenging, will have a great career ahead of him.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (New York Review Books) Cover Image
By Joan Chase, Meghan O'Rourke (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781590177150
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: New York Review of Books - April 15th, 2014

This one came out in the early 1980s, but it had nothing in common with the popular dirty realism of Carver and Tobias Wolff. Rereleased this year by New York Review Books, Chase’s masterpiece feels fresh and timeless when removed from its initial context. In this lyrical debut, Chase tells the story of farm life from five perspectives, and the result is a fragmentary look at decades in one family. Though the novel is dense and literary, I keep thinking of it as a film, one with passages of joy that recall the coming-of-age sequences in THE TREE OF LIFE, and also passages of death that recall the greatest work of Ingmar Bergman. Yet it also recalls Marilynne Robinson and Flannery O’Connor in its straightforward portrait of spirituality—not only the wounds it can heal, but also the lies it can foster.

Also, this list would feel incomplete without mentioning the 2014 output of Columbus-based literary press Two Dollar Radio, whose recent novels—including D. Foy’s MADE TO BREAK and Shane Jones’s CRYSTAL EATERS, both of which are great—continue this publisher’s ascension into the upper tier. Two Dollar Radio produces smart and readable books that somehow all feel of a piece, despite the differences between authors. A lot of this has to do with the immediately striking design; no doubt, this press has the best branding in contemporary literary publishing. When I think of Two Dollar Radio, I think of a record label like Elephant 6: nobody mistakes Neutral Milk Hotel for Olivia Tremor Control, yet it seems that the two bands could’ve only lived under the same roof. (Read a longer review of CRYSTAL EATERS here>> )

Now, my top five books of 2014, with occasional (yes, yes, self-serving) links to longer reviews:

The Other Side Cover Image
ISBN: 9781935639831
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tin House Books - July 15th, 2014

#5  Anyone who knows anything about Brazos Bookstore in 2014 knows that we’ve talked a lot about Johnson’s second book—and if you’ve paid attention to the world of independent publishers at all, surely you’re familiar with the sensation of THE OTHER SIDE. You’re also no doubt familiar with the premise as recounted in endless press copy and reviews: in her early twenties, author Johnson was…on second though, you know what? I’m not going to bother with it here. Yes, there’s a brutal crime at the center of this memoir, but to describe it is to reduce Johnson’s staggering work to pulp. Johnson herself seems to agree, since she spends most of the book discussing not the crime but the aftermath—and also discussing who she is now. This is one of the most hopeful and redemptive books I’ve ever read. Despite its darker undercurrents, it ultimately tells a love story between a woman and her family, providing in the process a microscopic view of what it’s like to heal. (Read a longer review here>> )

Praying Drunk: Stories, Questions Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747634
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Sarabande Books - February 4th, 2014

#4  It feels strange to describe the effect of this book to somebody else. After all, how can you explain what it feels like to receive a baseball bat to your head? In these stories, people struggle to connect and die tragically, and at the center of everything is Minor himself, a fictionalized figure who sometimes seems so unable to comprehend the pain of the world that he has to backtrack, telling the same story again from different points of view. In its scope, relentlessness, and humanity, PRAYING DRUNK recalls Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 record BENJI—and like that other masterwork, the power of Minor’s book sometimes feels a little diluted when you’re far away from it. But in the moment of reading, PRAYING DRUNK bruises. Is this book for everyone? Of course not. But there’s sometimes catharsis in deep sadness—in approaching the edge and looking over, while your feet stay planted on the ground.

Paper Lantern: Love Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374146443
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Farrar Straus Giroux - June 3rd, 2014

Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374280505
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Farrar Straus Giroux - June 3rd, 2014

#3  A writer’s writer? Yes, that cliché certainly applies to Dybek. But while other “writer’s writers” have recently had banner years—think about Deborah Eisenberg or George Saunders—Dybek continues to languish on the margin of American fiction. If there’s justice in the world, PAPER LANTERN will win one of the big year-end prizes and help to change this. Like Alice Munro, Dybek writes stories that feel like novels. Often longer than 30 pages, his best pieces move freely through space and time, pairing the grit of Chicago with transcendence and poetry. But his prime focus is memory—the way that moments of the past, sifted through at random, can create powerful and unexpected portraits of who we are. Consider one story in which a lonely man becomes obsessed with the forgotten Kevin Costner film OPEN RANGE because he recalls an ex-girlfriend inexplicably quoting from it. Or was she quoting from it? Has he misremembered? Is he simply chasing his past down a dark—and, perhaps, dead-end—corridor? Dybek’s stories have wings, and they can fly far overhead, only to then surprise you by descending and perching right on your back. (ECSTATIC CAHOOTS, released at the same time as PAPER LANTERN, is the lesser book, but that doesn’t mean much, since it’s lesser somewhat by design, presenting in 200 pages fifty short stories, some remarkable, some forgettable, but all distinctive in one way or another.)

In the Course of Human Events Cover Image
ISBN: 9781619022942
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Soft Skull Press - April 15th, 2014

#2  Clyde Twitty isn’t a bad person—just a desperate one. In his early twenties and living in a recession-scarred small town, he works two part-time jobs, owes the IRS money through no fault of his own, and has begun to blame the federal government for all his woes. Into his life comes the Smalls family—especially its patriarch, Jay, who seems to “see” something in Clyde. At first, Jay wants to train Clyde in karate as a self-esteem boost…but from there, Jay’s motives become more sinister, until finally the reader—if not Clyde himself—starts to wonder why Jay keeps recommending the kind of books Timothy McVeigh read leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing. Harvkey’s astonishing debut novel forces the reader to empathize with a character as he gradually loses his humanity, while also presenting a portrait of the contemporary survivalist movement. How is one’s hatred of the federal government formed, and why does this hatred drive some young men toward violence? Harvkey answers these questions without fear, and the result is the scariest novel of the year—scary because, even in its most violent and over-the-top moments, it feels like only a slight exaggeration of very real American paranoia, the kind we see during each 24-hour news cycle.

Thrown Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747924
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Sarabande Books - October 14th, 2014

#1  Is THROWN the best book I read this year, or just the most book? In this work of nonfiction, a philosophy student—not so much Kerry Howley as “Kerry Howley”—finds herself drawn to the spectacle of mixed martial arts and two fighters in particular, one up-and-coming, the other battling obscurity. Though relatively slim—Howley hasn’t written a 600-page opus here—THROWN manages to do many different things with envy-inducing skill. (She’s the kind of writer I drive myself crazy checking my own age against. In other words, why does she have to be so young? Why can’t she be in her late fifties? She was already working on this book when she was my age. What the hell am I doing?) A sports story; a portrait of a subculture; a philosophical inquiry; a journalistic study of two men; a satire of academic pretension: where to begin? Howley doesn’t see these different styles/narratives as disparate; instead, she sees them all as part of the same spectacle. Like the fights she portrays with a mix of blood and poetry, Howley’s THROWN overwhelms.

And five more great books, in alphabetical order by author…

Staff Pick Logo
Inside Madeleine Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616953096
Availability: Backordered
Published: Soho Press - May 13th, 2014

Sensitive, ugly, vomit-inducing, raw—Bomer’s stories of young women feel like confessions. Imagine you’ve picked up a friend’s diary. As you flip through the pages, you’ll feel a mix of fascination and guilt. Here, Bomer seems to say as she hands you her most honest thoughts. Good luck. (Read a longer review here>> )

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316033978
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Little Brown and Company - May 13th, 2014

CATCH-22 in a dentist’s office? Sure, it’s tempting to describe Ferris’s third novel this way—but it has more to say about our relationship to social media and religion than any book I’ve read recently. After the effectively dour THE UNNAMED, Ferris is back in satire mode, energized and finding targets in the banality of everyday life.

Pills and Starships Cover Image
ISBN: 9781617752759
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Black Sheep - June 10th, 2014

Mermaids in Paradise Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393245622
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - November 3rd, 2014

Okay, so actually two books, but how to separate these twin 2014 titles from the great Lydia Millet? Both are works that dwell on extinction and the end of the world. The first is a YA novel that runs counter to nearly every YA trend; the second is a satire that puts cynical adults face-to-face with mermaids. Both books entertain, but they also issue dire warnings about the state of our environment. You’ll laugh—until you realize it’s too late, and the world has crumbled around you. (Read a longer review of PILLS AND STARSHIPS here>> . Read an interview with Millet here>> )

The Transcriptionist Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616202545
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill - May 13th, 2014

An elegy to a dying way of life, Rowland’s debut examines the newspaper business at a moment of transition. The main character—a woman who transcribes interviews for journalists—tries to hunt down information about an unidentified person who threw herself to the lions. Along the way, Rowland ponders questions of objectivity in an evolving media landscape where subjectivity is rewarded. (Read a longer review here>> )

A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies Cover Image
ISBN: 9781937402624
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Outpost19 - April 1st, 2014

The title says it all. Yes, the main character is a moody fellow (named Moody Fellow). Yes, he finds love. Yes, he dies. But this book is witty, playful, honest, and sad. Watson’s voice—wise, irreverent, and unimpeachably kind—is like nothing else. You’ll read this book in an afternoon, but it’ll live in your brain for a long, long time.

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