This past year has been a big one for me in terms of poetry, from releasing my first book of poems and signing a contract for my second to touring the country giving readings and talks to wrapping up my years with the Los Angeles Review. Somehow, in the midst of so much poetry, I found myself gravitating toward reading fiction as a way of appreciating word work while taking a break from my primary obsession with poetry. In my downtime, in airports all over, on days home sick with various bugs I brought home from readings, and on many too-late nights spent up flipping pages, I devoured quite a number of novels and short stories this year. Below is a partial documentation of my prose habit for the year past, just in case I might inspire some other readers of poetry to take a fiction binge-break:
After the Quake–Haruki Murakami. I’m not a big short fiction girl. There, I said it. I don’t like to get emotionally invested in characters who leave so quickly, and I don’t care much for endings, either. But Murakami has long been the comfort food of my reading life, and I’ve just about run out of his work, though I hoard and ration it meticulously. I expected this collection to give me a little Murakami fix, but I was happily surprised to see that this was Murakami distilled to his best, forced into greater structure by the exigencies of the short. Loved it.
The Good Lord Bird–James McBride. What a delightfully odd novel this was. John Brown has long been a historical figure who’s captured my attention, both for his wholehearted devotion to ending slavery and his wildly miscalculated military tactics. McBride’s novel, written from the point of view of Onion, a child captured by Brown, is funny, moving, fantastical, tragic, and ultimately satisfying. Liked it very much.
The Ecstatic–Victor LaValle. I wanted very much to like this book that my husband picked up on a recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland. I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that the entire book was being made up on the spot in manner of a wild bar story, though, and I couldn’t manage wade through the seemingly random circumstances that would make a coherent plot. Perplexed by it.
Blueprints of the Afterlife–Ryan Boudinot. I had high hopes for this book, which my writing partner raved about. I found much to appreciate in its style, but some distasteful characterization that I just couldn’t get past. One plot element deals with the use of the morbidly obese to grow spare parts, if you will, for organ donation. The main character refers to his overweight, organ-growing foster sister, who is painted as greedy and squalid, as simply existing in order to “give the plumbing something to do.” I can’t deal with that. I just can’t. Something funny happens when you undergo a life-changing illness; as you watch scary and surprising things happen to your body, you no longer have patience for people who want to assign so much shame and loathing to other people’s bodies. Frustrated by it.
Everything that Rises Must Converge–Flannery O’Connor. What a great palate cleanser to the ickiness of all that body dysmorphia. O’Connor always “got it” in terms of revealing our human ugliness without every failing to offer moments of redemption and true grace. Loved it.
Rivers–Michael Farris Smith. I came across this book when I was complaining on Twitter about a run of bad luck at the bookstore (see above). Michael Farris Smith offered me an ARC of his new novel, and I happily accepted. Rivers was excellent–it’s nuanced and lyrical at the same time as it is gritty and violent. I think of it as an apocalyptic novel written by some version of Cormac McCarthy that understands and values women. Loved it.
An Artist of the Floating World–Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is the master of hiding the insidious in plain sight, and of letting prose breathe. He has the enviable quality of advancing the plot even in the interstices between points of action. I’ll never be half the stylist Ishiguro is, and I always stand in awe of his work. Loved it.
The Round House–Louise Erdrich. I stayed away from this book for some time, mostly because the jacket description made it sound as though it were nothing but grimness and brutality. I’m glad I finally got over my qualms and read the novel, though, because it’s a stunningly tender, beautiful, and moving portrait of a family, a group of friends, and a town. Yes, it was grim, and yes, it was brutal, but it was so much more at the same time. Loved it.
The Night Guest–Fiona McFarlane. I’ll admit it: I bought this book because I loved the beauty of the cover. I stumbled on this book while browsing in the University Bookstore in Seattle, and the gorgeous teal and gold dust jacket was too much to pass up. What I got in addition to a beautiful object was an insidiously creepy story of elder abuse, manipulation, and the dangers of trust. The book was slow to start, but worth the read. Liked it very much.
The Shining and Doctor Sleep–Steven King. Steven King thrillers make, in our house, for fun co-reading. My husband and I take turns reading aloud to one another at home (yes, you may say “aw, how cute” at this time) and creepy books are the best for this purpose. The Shining was satisfyingly more depthful on the page than on the screen, while Doctor Sleep, the follow-up, lacked a bit of luster for both of us. Thought they were fine.
Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects–Gillian Flynn. If there’s such a thing as the “song of the summer,” then there must be a book of the year. For 2013, that was Gone Girl. I couldn’t be happier to see such a smart, immaculately well plotted and fearless thriller making such waves across so many groups of readers, from the literary crowds to grandma’s book club. Dark Places and Sharp Objects felt a little more like Flynn was growing into her stride as a novelist when she wrote them, but all three were smart, smart, smart. Loved them.
The Little Friend–Donna Tartt. I had been meaning to get around to this one for years, and finally dug my teeth in this fall. I felt somewhat cheated by this book. Tartt puts an enormous gun on a mantle in the opening chapters, and never fires the darned thing in many, many hundreds of pages. There was some delightfully strange snake-handling in the book, but that’s about all that I can say in praise of this one. Didn’t like it.
Maddaddam–Margaret Atwood. I have such love for everything that Atwood writes. There is very little that she can do wrong in my eyes, even when I can clearly see that she’s not writing at her best. Maddaddam was a nice closure to the trilogy, and while it wasn’t as compelling as the first two books, Atwood’s prose is delicious throughout. Loved it.
Hangsaman–Shirley Jackson. I’ve been teaching Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for many years, and I relish the eerie, unabashedly spooky female characters Jackson writes. Hangsaman felt, in many ways, like a counterpart to Castle, but one that took more liberties with form and structure. Loved it.
The Intuitionist–Colson Whitehead. You can’t fault Whitehead for lack of an original concept: safety inspectors embroiled in deadly shenanigans and petty rivalries. The subtext of this book–race in America–was more interesting than the actual plot–elevator inspection–but the book stands, as a whole, as an impressive work of serious, if odd, fiction. I didn’t like it, but I appreciate it.
Love Water Memory–Jennie Shortridge. This is the kind of novel that says to the literary world, “commercial fiction can do everything you can do, and do much of it far better.” It’s a moving story of a marriage told in a succinct, no-words-wasted style. Beautiful. Loved it.
The Interestings–Meg Wolitzer. This book struck me as a response to Franzen’s much-hyped Freedom; it’s the story of childhood friends who remain tied to one another, for good or for bad, throughout their adult lives. Whereas Franzen’s attempt at this style of story struck me as distasteful, crass, and sex-obsessed, Wolitzer takes a much more humane, more believable approach. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s an improvement on the form, if two books in one vein a form make. I liked it.
Red Moon–Ben Percy. I enjoy Ben Percy’s work a great deal, even if I find that his female characters are usually just guys passing for women. I was willing to buy into the testosterone-fueled lady characters for much of the book, but the characters didn’t hold up throughout for me. The plot was inventive and delicious at first but, in the words of my husband, who by virtue of being connected to the literary world only by marriage can give blunt opinions on books without offending anybody he may run into one day, “this thing really falls apart at the end.” It’s worth a read, and it’s a fun one, but I wish the book had resolved a bit more elegantly. I thought it was fine.
May We Be Forgiven–AM Homes. I just don’t know where to start with this book. The opening chapter had me by the throat, and I expected a violent, gut-punching, knock-you-to-your-knees book, but the book soon devolved into much of the same kind of writing that bothered me about LaValle’s work; everything after chapter 1 seemed to happen apropos nothing in particular. The characters were unbelievable, and the plot bizarre. I didn’t like it.
Big Brother and So Much for That–Lionel Shriver. If Homes failed to deliver on the emotional front, Shriver came, delivered, dropped the mic, and walked off. To me, no contemporary writer so consistently, compellingly destroys her characters and plumbs the absolute worst of human nature as does Shriver. Big Brother was, by Shiver standards, a little on the lighter side, while So Much for That rivaled We Need to Talk About Kevin for sheer fearlessness. Loved them.
And, you, dear reader? What are you top picks from your own year in fiction?