|A notable sampler|
This was a "tough" year for building this list, mainly because I read so many books (for the Indies Introduce panel) that aren't being published until 2015. Some of the best books I read this year, in fact, were reluctantly put aside because of their publishing year: 501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine (2007), Detroit by Charlie LeDuff (2013), The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levy-Betherat, Soil by Jamie Kornegay, Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin, Young Skins by Colin Barrett, The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (all 2015). In fact, I think there are 5 or 6 books arriving in 2015 that I wouldn't be surprised to see on next year's Notable list. We'll just have to wait & see. But despite this "difficulty," there were 10 books from 2014 (with a couple of extras) of exceptional quality that crossed my path this year. Behold:
#10a. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
One of the last books I read this year that made it to this rigorous list - and definitely the weirdest. As every critic has written, it does unfold backwards in time, but strangely subtly. Calling it "backwards" oversimplifies the structure to the point of detriment - it felt so much more complex and unusual than that. I won't tell you what the nature of the accident that occurred to Sean, our narrator, was when he was a teenager, but I will say that it left his face horrifically disfigured. In the intervening years of depression and isolation, Sean spent his time creating a sort of role-playing game called Trace Italian - not a board game or an online game, but one played exclusively through the mail. Like a choose your own adventure played through regular old USPS snail mail. Sean writes out a scenario, mails it to you, you decide your next course of action, and mail it back - the ultimate, unattainable goal being a fort in the middle of Kansas. As the story opens, Sean is recovering from a spot of legal trouble he got in over a pair of teenaged players who took Trace Italian a bit too literally, which didn't work out so well for them. This serves as a bit of a hinge to the way things unfold. As Sean's story is dispensed in a rounded format - rolling back and forth through the previous 15 years - the nature of his accident is gradually revealed. Sean is a bit stalled at the age when the accident happened - he's no doubt some sort of mad genius and certainly an adult, but he still seems fixated on elements of his life from before the accident (ie: Conan the Barbarian) as a way of not fully coping with the incident. Slowly, perhaps triggered by the tragedy of the Trace players court case, he begins to reclaim the lost memories and they unfurl for us as they come back to him...
And then I had a memory from childhood, not childhood really but a while afterward, but what felt, in that moment, like childhood.Darnielle is a truly wonderful writer, fully willing and able to probe the despairing depths of Sean's shattered psyche and unfold them on the page for us with his lyrical prose. "Lyrical" makes sense, since his other job is being the front man (and then some) for the band The Mountain Goats - from which he is known as a master lyricist. Can't wait to see more fiction from him.
Let's be honest, this book is just plain awesome. When I was 8 I would have gone completely apeshit over it. As it is, I've gone at least partially apeshit. Written by Jenny Broom and illustrated by Katie Scott, Animalium is laid out like the rooms in a natural history museum, filled with incredible artwork and fascinating tidbits about the animal world. An outstanding book for kids (8-12) who dig animal factoids and eye-popping artwork. (And despite what the publisher's website says, you can buy this book from places other than Amazon UK - you can find it in pretty much any store in America. Big Picture Press is distributed in the US by Candlewick, which most places buy from. Just sayin'.) By the way, you need to check out katie-scott.com. I want it all.
This one's on the list for the same reasons as Animalium - mainly that the artwork is mindblowingly awesome. I've never been a humongous fan of Whitman, but this edition of Song of Myself (the core of Walt's epic Leaves of Grass) illustrated by Allen Crawford is just incredible. Here's Crawford on the book, taken from a speech he gave at a fundraiser for the University of Arizona's Poetry Center: "The entire 256-page book is drawn by hand: every comma, every period. I wanted to keep Whitman’s lines supple and wild. So in my edition, the words flow around hundreds of images. The book is meant to be viewed and read, and I think most readers intuitively understand that my book is asking them to approach Whitman’s poem in a way they hadn’t before."
#9. The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
Donald Antrim is the underappreciated mad god of contemporary fiction. (See Catapult post, "Donald Antrim, Mad Genius?" from 2013 about his novel, The Hundred Brothers.) These stories in Emerald, his first story collection, are all almost all about protagonists with severe depressive pasts or anxiety issues that they're working through - although there's so much Antrim weirdness in them that they don't feel so weighty as all that. The hilarious, super-strange "An Actor Prepares" is about an overly enthusiastic drama professor at a small college who stages an alternative version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with nudity, simulated sex, a blind Puck, and a mud pit with a duck in it. "Another Manhattan" is a tragicomic mess between two couples meeting for dinner - each wife is sleeping with the other's spouse. Jim is a psychological wreck - he attempts to purchase flowers before dinner, although for which woman he's still not sure. When his cards are declined, he steals the bouquet, ending up torn to shreds by the thorns on his way to the restaurant. An anxious husband goes shopping in Manhattan with his wife in "He Knew." He is constantly filled with dread and amphetamines, she's popping Valium and thinks he's planning an affair with every woman he meets. And in the emotional, powerful title story that closes the collection out, on a rainy night, severely depressive & unstable Billy French gets his car stuck in the mud on a rural road. A boy approaches him, thinking Billy is the doctor coming to help his dying mother - leading to a meeting that may change Billy's life, or at least the course it may have been on for that particular evening.
There's a really wonderful piece on Antrim written by John Jeremiah Sullivan that ran in the New York Times Magazine back in September - "Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety". Read that, then try and not read Antrim.
#8. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
A monstrous, visceral, shocking, and brash debut that scared the pants off me. Nikki is a 13-year-old young lady from backwoods North Carolina who finds herself rather nonplussed when her mother dies falling off a rocky outcrop one fine summer afternoon. See, Nikki has been unwanted and discarded for all of her time on the planet - which has made her callous, bold, and relatively fearless. She seeks out her wayward, drug-dealing father, Coy Hawkins, and shacks up with him - quickly learning how to smoke heroin, how to identify a hooker, how to cut a drug deal, how to scare off a rival pimp, how to snort ecstasy, how to remove a corpse's teeth, and how to inject heroin. (I'm proud that I was able to get that last bit published in the conservative San Diego Union Tribune in a review.) Morris imparts all of this with an insane staccato pace that blazes across the page with an unparalleled frenzy, leaving you both breathless and feeling filthy from head to toe. I read this pretty much in one frantic go - it's one of those books that is absolutely impossible to tear your eyes away from, no matter how much you desperately might want to.
#7. Redeployment by Phil Klay
Fresh from winning the National Book Award, this amazing and important collection of stories is some heavy shit - these are war stories, after all, set either in Iraq or back home where soldiers try to deal with the leftover fog of war. We civilians stay at home, drinking our coffee & cruising the internet while these men and women are deployed over and over and over again to a futile and pointless war, all the while expected to be able to reinsert themselves seamlessly back into society. The opening title story was perhaps the most powerful to me - a soldier returns home from a hellish place where soldiers regularly killed dogs for eating human flesh and blood. At home with his wife, he silently struggles with a return to life, but his aging dog is dying & needs to be euthanized. Despite his war experiences, this proves to be more than he's capable of - or so it seems. This was just a gigantic punch in the gut to kick start an absolutely vital and brilliant collection of stories. Despite being number seven on this list, Klay's may be the one I would encourage you to read the most. (There's a really great interview Klay gave to BOMB magazine that shows his erudition and insight into his own experiences as a former Marine and communicating his thoughts on war and trauma.)
#6. The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson is proving to be one of the more versatile writers out there these days - and one of my all-time favorites. In his ever-expanding canon he now has (among many other things) a National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel, a gritty collection of short stories about addiction, a Pulitzer-nominated atmospheric meditation on an early-20th century everyman, several books of poetry, and this - a crazy, whirlwind spy-novel-ish adventure set in West Africa. The Laughing Monsters is complete madness contained within a slim novella, filled with enough double-crosses, double-double-crosses, lying, cheating, trickery, craziness, boozing, spying, and mayhem to make Raymond Chandler proud. Roland Nair is a NATO operative keeping tabs on person-of-interest Michael Adriko in Sierra Leone. Or maybe he's actually Michael's friend and they're working on the score of a lifetime? Or perhaps Roland is a Danish spy? Wait, maybe he's an American... And is Adriko a Green Beret? Or Ghanaian? Or just a drug smuggler? Or is he stealing enriched uranium? You know what, I think everyone is lying to me, actually. This is Hunter S. Thompson-esque bad craziness and... I loved every weird word of it. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of a 25-year long conversation, had almost no idea what was happening around me for 200-pages worth before I was sucked back out to my own life. Which now feels emptier somehow.
#5. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor
The full Catapult review
As you know, I naturally pick up any book about the ocean, whales, sharks, squid, octopuses, waves, etc, but I didn't know anything, really, about freediving before I read this - and any preconceived notions I might have had were firmly smashed. The sport of freediving involves diving into the ocean as deep as you can on one single breath. That's pretty much it. The purists use nothing in support - no fins, weights, ropes - just a huge breath and the pull of gravity. (The current world record-holder is William Trubridge at 331 feet.) As Nestor discovered – while reporting for Outside magazine - some subscribe to a less competitive, more respectful, philosophical side of freediving, smartly passing up the possibility of dying while diving too deep. It turns out that we humans are actually hardwired to be able to hold our breath and dive underwater. The Master Switch of Life – or the "mammalian dive reflex" – is the set of physiological survival reflexes we all share that trigger whenever we put our faces in water. By slowly sinking with the aid of gravity & without pressurized air in our lungs (like from a scuba tank) nitrogen doesn't build in our blood (giving us the bends) and we are able to float to unprecedented depths. Yes, even you have this innate ability. When Nestor reaches that point in his research where he starts wondering about his own Master Switch, he heads out on a quest to unlock the secrets of the deep and figure out what our place is down there. He swims with huge whales, freedives past the point he thought possible, rides in a homemade submersible to unfathomable depths. "What are we?" Nestor asks at the end. Deep-swimming mammals, it would seem. Freediving, master switches, blue holes, really loud sperm whale clicks - it all kind of scares the hell out of me. But part of me wants to try flipping that switch to see how deep I can go....
#4. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
The full Catapult review
This outstanding debut could've easily been the book of the year - in any other year but this one, which is stacked so deep at the top. An ode to the American Midwest that made me pine for seasonal changes, fields of corn, forests, snow, & cold air, Shotgun also about the complicated friendships between men and women. And it's certainly a novel about marriage - featuring prominently in the lives of all the characters, meaning something different for each one of them. Circling around everything else is the theme of the bonds of friendship; how sometimes old friendships supersede all else, while sometimes they just complicate everything. The moral compass seems to be Hank - but when his compass gets cracked by the long-ago actions of those he cares about the most, he has a hard time righting the ship. As most of us would. That's the best part about all of these people - more than just their fallibility, it's their tangible reality that so entrances you. They're just like you, me, and all the people we know. And we love them for it.
#3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The full Catapult review
The global pandemic book of the year! 99.999% of the world's population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu, 20 years past. Yet the world of this future is not as violent and horrifying as many post-apocalypse novels may be. Certainly not as terrifying as some of the things Hig does to survive in The Dog Stars - and we definitely see nothing like a Cormac McCarthy baby-barbecue in this. Really the plague was so all-inclusive that there just aren't enough people left and the ones who survived seem to just want to live in peace. There are actually two factions of people living in this post-flu world - those that remember how good we had it and those who don't. And that seems to be an underlying theme to this: we do have it pretty good right now, at this particular point in human history. Many of us in the world are comfortable and have every creature comfort we could ever imagine, yet we take it all for granted on a daily basis. That right there is what this magnificent, lyrical novel is about - recognizing that actual human connection is the most important element to human life. We are nothing without each other - just animals roaming the wasteland, muttering to ourselves. Once all the trappings of modernity are stripped away, what is left? Mandel's prose is fluid, emotive, and airy - yet there is a palpable tension to everything, hanging over every conversation, every act. But the thing is, I was never in doubt that this was the way we would behave if faced with the terrible reality of such a devastating collapse of human life. Tense, yes, of course, but it seemed a much more optimistic - and frankly, refreshing - view of a potential post-apocalyptic world. We regroup, we refocus, we reevaluate - and we move on and try to make the world worth living, however we can.
#2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The full Catapult review
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.
A National Book Award Finalist, a New York Times 10 Best Book (and currently at 32 weeks on the NYT bestseller list - and experiencing a huge holiday surge to #2), an event in San Diego with me co-hosting (or something) 2 readings by the Book Catapult, documented photographic proof of the President purchasing a copy, and now... a Catapult Notable book. This has been one hell of a year for Tony D. - and deservedly so. I've read everything he's published (a few more than once) and in my opinion, ATLWCS is the best thing he's ever written. A beautiful story set in northern France during WWII that follows the lives of a blind French girl and a brilliant reluctant Nazi youth and maps how their lives intersect for the briefest of moments, altering the life of each in immeasurable ways. Behind the plot, which seems very simple when put into one single sentence like that, is the wonder of radio - one of the core story elements that Doerr imparts. In an interview with The Rumpus, Doerr said "One of the great projects of this novel was to conjure a time when radio—when hearing the voice of a stranger, or a distant loved one, in your ear—was still a miracle." That gave me pause, even while I was reading this - for most of us, we cannot remember a time without regular telephone connections, television, let alone radio. In fact, amazingly, in just the last decade, radio has almost become an extinct media. My generation - which is also Doerr's - is the last to remember life without the internet. My god, think about that! Now think about what it must have been like to hear voices on the air for the first time, coming into your home, your own ears, from far away lands. We can't even imagine - yet this was only 70+ years ago.
|Catapult & Doerr, Warwick's bookstore, July 30, 2014|
In the hands of Doerr, this meditation on technology becomes something heartbreaking, elegant, vivid, and timeless. Coupled with the powerful story of these two people, from vastly different worlds coming together in an unbelievable way in the middle of the worst period of death and destruction that the world had ever seen... It will leave you speechless. Seriously.
The full Catapult review
This was actually a pretty close race for #1 between Doerr and Mitchell. I read both books twice, I studied them hard, I spent a good amount of time with each author, and posed questions to them in front of crowds. For me, the complexity of the narration and the connective threads to previous Mitchell novels that present in The Bone Clocks was more than enough to push this Mitchell Nerd to pick it as #1. Its core structure seems simple enough, following the life arc of a relatively normal seeming woman named Holly Sykes. But as things progress through time, Holly's life splits down several forking path, some more grounded in our own reality than others. Small town England in 1984, a "chance" encounter in the Swiss Alps in the 90’s, events surrounding a wedding in 1997, a series of book tours throughout the early 2000's, and a frighteningly realized vision of the future of our planet 30 years from now. How does all of this come together? The underlying thread - and the plot point that both ties it all together and scares some readers off - is an epic, fantastical battle between good & evil that exists in the shadows of our world. Immortals fighting for the survival of the human race.
I love this dichotomy, actually - that some readers and reviewers are quick to peg this as science fiction and be done with it. I, for one, know that every word Mitchell puts to page has significance, either in the current book or for a previous one or even in service of laying the framework for future writing. (Like, as an example for all the fellow Mitchell Nerds out there, a possible novel set 250,000,000 years in the future. That makes me smile every time.)
In my first post about The Bone Clocks, written after reading a very early manuscript, I was excited about the appearances of Nurse Noakes, Luisa Rey, and other characters from earlier Mitchell novels. Some of them didn't make the cut to the final version - so I apologize for anyone who read that post and then spent hours scouring their copy for Timothy Cavendish. However, Marinus - a somewhat peripheral character from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - shares center stage with Holly in TBC, revealing deep elements of his character never even remotely considered from his earlier appearance. In fact, Marinus' actions here throws the world of Thousand Autumns off its axis in a delicious way - but one you need to discover for yourself, friend.
That right there is what pushed this book to the top of my list for 2014. That playfulness of narrative, the way Mitchell can expand his meta-verse in ways unthought of by his most careful readers, puts him in a different category of writer for me. He has often referred to his works as chapters in one gigantic "übernovel" that he is working on over the course of his whole career. That he is able to create this vast, calculating writing experiment and still knock each book out of the park by stringing together countless indelible, graceful sentences... well... That puts him in a different universe altogether for me - thus, he's top of the Catapult Notables for the second time.
|David Mitchell, in conversation with The Book Catapult, September 22, 2014|
*Thanks for reading all these years, everyone. I really appreciate it. Expect a physical change from The Book Catapult coming soon. It's time to look a little more professional, I think.