Echoing the bold everlasting words of narration in Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, “What a Midwesterner he was, a thoroughly unhip guy with his heart in the usual place, on his sleeve, in plain sight,” I wanted to share some stories I loved from last year.
There’s quite a bit of corny, unapologetic and Hallmark-y content in mid-February, and it can make any toiled romance feel heightened for unnecessary reasons. I know you’re smart enough to not place all your chips in the same stack. Of course I’m getting at sleeping around. It can’t be just one book we cuddle with all year. We need many different stories, many different worlds traveled and loved, in order to find the truly loved stories we can all carry in our hearts and on our sleeves through the moons we will experience in the future.
We are insatiable, are we not? With our bibliophilia (Ray Bradbury once said, “I never went to college, but I went to the library every day for three or four days a week for ten years and when I was twenty-eight I graduated from the library”), our bibliophagy (book-eating, or Ignatious J. Reilly Syndrome), bibliomania (OCD of books where they take over your shelves and wallpaper and any excuse to interact with other humans, aka Too Loud A Solitude-ness), and of course we can’t forget about bibliotaphy (book-burying, which hopefully never happens as long as we live).
I’m in search of more love in 2014, so my thoughts draw upon the unbridled boundaries we all encounter from stories found, revealing themselves to us like unexpected treasures. Below are a few titles I was fortunate enough to sleep with last year. They’re all hot. Like, Geek Love hot.
Mary Miller’s Big World offers a healthy collection of short stories reflecting characters engaging and disengaging from the world around them. Most of the stories are terse yet wield quiet vigor. Her economy of words catapulted her into my New Favorite Writers category. The honesty she illustrates through her narrators and characters never poisons the reader from the unyielding truths faced on each page. She’s a very talented young writer with a captivating voice. Her writing has been likened to a Lorrie Moore knife sharpened on a Raymond Carver stone. (And good news fiction fans – Mary recently published her first novel, The Last Days of California, so hop skip jump teleport to your nearest indie bookstore for more inspired writing. Odds are it will end up on my Best Of 2014 list.)
Middle Men by Jim Gavin has many terrific stories inside, but to not exploit the opening story, “Play The Man,” would begrudge my memory of youth. We can all agree some of the most memorable stories we read and resonate often find us reading characters and scenarios familiar to our memories in certain ways. Why is that? Fascinating how the mind translates thought when articulated so well. “Play The Man” immediately transported me to high school basketball, an influential and pivotal time in my upbringing. The main character in Gavin’s story is going through significant changes in his life as told through the conditioning of a wannabe basketball star, attempting any significant rituals to achieve these lofty goals. To dream big is so easy. And it’s fucking enjoyable as hell. But reality will inevitably interfere. Gavin captures this so well. Best of all, he establishes just how okay it is to be in a realm of unrealized stasis. Does every story need an ending? Fuck, I hope not.
I don’t watch much TV. But my guess is, like you, I find myself talking about it a lot. Arguably, television has brought some interesting stories our way in recent years. And yet all good things must come to and end. The only show I committed to watching was Breaking Bad (A great break from reading books!). My Breaking Bad book would be Jodi Angel’s You Only Get Letters From Jail, a collection of stories recognizing the emotional breadth young men experience once the cave of adolescence all but closes on them and they are left to deal with the blinding light of reality. On top of well-wrought story after story, Angel trumps everyone’s favorite excuse to not pick up a book by conjuring subject matter we tend to avoid or never quite appreciate enough. We’re given rattlesnakes, snuff films and muscle cars. We’re dealing with unfulfilled dreams, tense relationships and driving around town in the thick dark of night with no real destination. Holy hell. Is this one of my recently favorite collections of short stories or my lucky ability to re-live the tenth grade? Like Breaking Bad, I wanted to re-experience the stories after the train pulled away.
Benjamin Lytle’s debut book A Map of Tulsa isn’t just a Hallmark channel sounding Thursday night film of the week with Mary Steenburgen and Mark Harmon, it’s a terrific story of young love captured in a familiar yet wholly original take on it. We’ve all been in love in our early twenties. We all recognize the turbulence. Yet here is a young poet searching for love in an unexpected place, his hometown while on break from school, unexpectedly making acquaintances with the most alluring and mysterious girl he’d never known, a human embodiment of a poem, so well-crafted and dimensional she reminded me of past lovers, all scrambling back to me, all clawing for attention, and the young poet had a piece of my heart inside him, inside all of us, which is a testament to the measures reached within the story.
I finished the book on a plane as we taxied in New York. The end was so touching I sat an extra moment to fully surrender under its weight, not unlike realizing when something loved had passed. Few books locate the dizzying brilliance of young love’s potential better than this one.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. My local go-to book shop in New York is called Three Lives. (Also the front cover photo of Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays How To Be Alone.) One might argue that’s the subtitle Peter Heller subjected his protagonist to while recording this fictionalized hypothesis on a world still very much alive but reduced to two percent of its population after a rare blood virus took away everyone near and dear. Enter Hig, a rare and great name for a main character. Enter his dog, Jasper, who embodies as much human elements as the two main characters in the book. Enter passages where Hig describes life through the details of flying a plane or fishing in a river unable to exit my consciousness. Such as:
“When I lost my high school girlfriend, I fished. When in a fit of frustration and despair I quit writing anything, I fished. I fished when I met Melissa and barely dared to hope that I had found someone I could love in a way that surpassed anything I had known. I fished and fished and fished. When the trout got hit with disease, I fished. And when the flu finally took her in an Elks Hall converted to a hospital and crammed with the cots of the dying not five hundred yards from our house, I fished.”
Dog Stars was recommended to me by one of the book clerks by way of another customer who frequents the shop at least once a week and purchases Dog Stars for other people. It’s within that sentiment we should all focus on the world champion heavyweight thunderclap dominance books wield, and why computers are two-bit hacks.
This is a repeat category from last year, re-named to celebrate change. I don’t play favorites, but Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees was one of my favorites. It was a gift from a friend who reads a book a day, and like any good surprise it caught me off-guard with the narrative voice – or voices, as it were, given the story is narrated by two teenage sisters and their newly acquired best friend/neighbor, an older single man recently released from prison for cavorting with a young boy. It yields a raw, grim and undisciplined way to live in the world, and the two young girls have to find a way to grow up faster than one could imagine after the mysterious death of their rotten parents. Though categorized as YA, one should not overlook how adult the themes within might shock, and I find that particularly engaging, as experiencing unfamiliar themes wielded such resonance when we were young and first experiencing the world, our synapses firing into the stratosphere.
Simply put, it is beyond rewarding when we stumble upon engrossing and unusual tales curated by new voices who make bold decisions on the characters and content they inhabit. Lisa O’Donnell, I hope you’re around for a very long time.
Who doesn’t love a character named Doc? And frogs. And phonographs. Model T Fords. 1950. Monterey, California. Lee Chong and a twenty-five-foot string of firecrackers and a big bag of China lily bulbs. Jellyfish. A pot of coffee, Old Tennis Shoes whiskey, and beer milk shakes. Cannery Row was a joy to read. A summer love. Sunny days by the water and warm nights under martini streetlights while you sit with the story and the characters, somehow hoping people will feel or think the way great writing encases your sentiment, if only for a little while. Like listening to Sun Kil Moon sing over an undulating guitar as he sings “Track Number 8” from Among The Leaves.
And who doesn’t love John Steinbeck? I’m nowhere near a scholar’s expansion when it comes to fully harnessing Mr. Steinbeck’s legacy, but boy do I love reading John Steinbeck. Especially in the summertime. A true poet with his ear crossing the earth in so many celebratory tones; a voice to be cherished; wearing the world on his sleeve, in plain fictional sight.