THE LIBRARY 2016
TOP TEN (OKAY ELEVEN) BOOKS OF THE YEAR
We made it!
I write to you from the comparative idyll that is early 2017. It's not yet January 20th and David Bowie is not turning 70 today, but there's snow on the ground in Sparkle City, South Carolina and I am not getting out of these pajamas if it can at all be helped.
This past year was a doozy and we all know it. But, for the sake of the following list of arbitrarily bestowed awards and accolades based solely on my irregular and inconsistent reading habits, there are some things you should know. I had no set numerical goals for reading this year, but I did want to read more books by authors I personally knew, more classics, and more nonfiction. I failed pretty phenomenally at all of these, but what's new?
Instead, I made some reading choices that were as delightful as they were unplanned. Thanks to my work with the Hub City Writers Project, I actually read some poetry this year and I would like more of that this year. I also taught for the first time--first at an arts high school over the summer and then at our local lil' liberal arts college in the fall. Talking with my students about books and literature basically redeemed 2016 and had a massive impact on the following list.
Without further ado and in the style of Paris is Burning, I present the top 11 books of my 2016 Library.
THE LIBRARY IS OPEN!
Here are four books I taught this year.
The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction - ed. Lex Williford
I am awarding this one of my best books of 2016 solely for the fact that I FINISHED it. This golden brick of a book was the core text for my very first ever formal teaching gig with appx 2 dozen brilliant 8th graders from all over the Palmetto State. Ultimately, the experience was summer camp meets writing school meets MFA, JR and I left feeling more like myself than I had in a long, long time. I am an overgrown adolescent at heart and, bananas as the kids could get (because it was summer and they should've been climbing trees or fishing or whitewashing fences) they all had such pure, earnest intentions about writing and books and words and oh, but it was bolstering.
And if you haven't read Donald Barthelme's "The School" with a herd of 13 year olds, well, you haven't lived.
So many greats in this collection and so many new writers I'd been unfamiliar with--Richard Bausch, Amy Bloom, Deborah Eisenberg, Antonya Nelson, Melanie Rae Thon, Stacey Richter and Julie Orringer, just to name a few.
Building Stories - Chris Ware
File under ROOKIE PROFESSOR MISTAKES: I gave my class one session to discuss Building Stories. You could build an entire year of discussions around this book/box/graphic novel/representation of life/experience, and I did myself and my tenacious college freshmen a disservice by sneaking this behemoth in at the end. (I think we had more fun unboxing it altogether than we did talking about the contents.)
My ineptitude aside, this book-that-isn't-a-book is something else entirely. It's 14 disparate pieces, some as large as newspapers, some leaflets, all in a box the size of a board game. It's the story of a woman with one leg in a building in Chicago, and that is both all it is and not nearly enough to describe what, exactly, it is. Fortunately a lot of smarter people than me have written extensively about it and Ware's work as a whole.
What We See When We Read - Peter Mendelsund
File under ROOKIE PROFESSOR STROKE OF LUCK! I taught Freshmen Humanities at a local liberal arts school here in S'burg and, because my eyes are bigger than my ability to manage time wisely, I chose the grand notion of DESIGN as the backbone of the class. The concept swiftly degenerated / blossomed into me grabbing wildly from all corners of everything I'd ever read or watch or seen or considered--topics included kinetic typography, The Elephant Man, Ralph Bakshi's animation, how eyeballs work, what it means to be a cyborg, time travel, Razzle Dazzle camouflage, and more--which is a little like how Mendelsund structures WWSWWR. I was astonished at myself and my students when we read this--I hope I hold onto that astonishment when I teach it again, and I hope I get the chance to.
Invisible Monsters Remix - Chuck Palahniuk
But wait! Rachel! YOU HATE CHUCK PALAHNIUK!
It's true. I do, and I will, and this book actually helped justify my ever-so apoplectic rage towards Mr. Palahniuk. But I still, still, love the core story of Invisible Monsters so much, and, for the most part, that's what this book is. But because he can't leave well enough alone, Chuck reverted the text to the structure he initially wanted, full of flip-flopping chapters and "Turn to" instructions and completely useless page numbers. Oh, and some chunks are printed backwards. All of this was wisely nixed by the original publishers of Invisible Monsters but ten years go by, Fight Club happens and Chuck Palahniuk becomes a writer with enough purchasing power to warrant this "remix" edition.
So fuck all that noise. The book sucks, but it made for a lot of awesome class discussion. And because we'd been talking about capital-D Design, this was a textbook example of design's often unseen influence on the reading experience. I hate the book--the added sections add next to nothing and make me dislike Chuck P. even more--but damn, it's teachable.
Also, maybe, sure, it was a little fun to see these good Southern students so scandalized. Incidentally, I read Diary for the first time this year, and while it didn't make my Top 10 Okay 11, I have to say it's easily my second favorite of his books. So I don't hate hate Chuck. I just feel like he's a shitty ex-boyfriend, one who I like to remember but want nothing to do with today, or tomorrow, or ever again.
WRITERS ARE PEOPLE TOO!
Writers I know in the real world! Sometimes--yes!--it happens!
One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist - Dustin M. Hoffman
It makes me giddy and more nervous than it should when people whose names I know on paper turn into actual real life humans who are also really, really nice. I'm trying to take more advantage of that this year--that all good writing has a person who wrote it and that person probably has a Twitter--because as much time as we all spend alone, writing and reading and typing, there's a community out there. There's someone on the other side.
So! Dustin is one of those real life writers! We were both in Issue 8 of Sundog Lit and he sent me a hello and some other nice words and lo and behold, not only did his book of short stories win the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, he was a professor at a nearby university! And since I work in a bookstore where we host readings with writers, well--it all made sense.
The book is great. It's hard to find a volume that balances short fiction--flash and language-driven--with solid traditional short stories, but Dustin manages that and more. Get yourself a copy stat.
We Eat Our Own - Kea Wilson
I don't know Kea Wilson. I also don't know Annie Hartnett, whose debut novel comes out from Tin House in April, and who recommended Wilson's book when I asked for horror recommendations. (Remember October? Remember when horror was a luxury?) I saw Annie's press packet for Rabbit Cake, and friends--it had crayons and Peeps. It was, hands-down, the most amazing press packet I've seen in my brief tenure of bookselling. (I haven't read Annie's book yet, but my mom did! and she loved it--it's top of my TBR never-ending galley pile). Annie is also a bookseller and wrote this kick-ass piece about it.
Kea Wilson is also a bookseller, and she also likes horror movies and disjointed narratives and the power of limited second-person point of view, because her book, We Eat Our Own, has all of that and mud, murder, mayhem, and more mud. It draws heavily from Cannibal Holocaust but don't go thinking it's some corny novelization--it's not scary so much as it unsettling, distressing. It's exactly the kind of book I'd like to write and I would have missed it entirely without knowing a friend of a friend of the writer.
The Best Small Fictions 2016 - ed. Robert Olen Butler
Deleted scenes: I almost didn't include this because I couldn't find it on my shelves because it is a wee little book.
I love that this exists. The good people at Queen's Ferry Press realized there was a gigantic gap between what was being awarded (10,000 word short stories) and what many places were publishing (500 - 3,000 word short stories). Or so I understand it! Regardless, this is the first in what is now an annual prize anthology (and you can bet your butt I'm gunning for it so watch out!). I have 2016's and I can't wait to carve out a minute to marvel over it, because if it's anything like the inaugural edition, it's gonna be rill good.
I have met none of these contributors in real life (though I did see Ron Carlson read once) but there are more than a few who I've interacted with on the internet, because we can do that now! That's how this works! Maybe some of them are reading right now! Hello!
Heartbreaker: Stories - Maryse Meijer
This is my worst nightmare, but it doesn't stop me from being as gosh-darned candid as I feel when I'm writing reviews on Goodreads. I think part of it is plain anxiety--if I write snarky reviews, I'll somehow protect myself from the someday-snark of someday-reviewers of my someday-book--but whatever it is, I have never had a remarkable or noteworthy Goodreads interaction. It ain't Uber, after all.
So I read Heartbreaker because the cover was cool as hell and it reminded me of all these other bad-ass women writers whose NASTY GENIUS I aspire to, so I wrote that in a review. And Maryse Meijer--THE AUTHOR--sent me a thank you! Via Goodreads! In which she said "getting reviews like yours gives me the courage to keep plunging ahead. It really makes a difference to know that someone out there is reading."
100% PURE MAGIC.
OH! MY HEART
Books that gave me, in today's parlance, "all the feels"
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth - Chris Ware
I read Building Stories before this but I think, of the two, this is more masterful. It's fascinating in comparison with Building Stories (the amputee is missing a leg and Jimmy uses a crutch--what is this all about?) but on its own, it's maybe the most moving comic book I've ever read. Ware's drawing is flawless, and the story is so ordinary and human and tragic and normal and fantastic, but don't be surprised when you cry. Because you will cry, and it will be an ugly cry.
Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living - Jes Baker
This year I got into #BoPo which is a stupid and useless abbreviation of a really important and necessary concept called BODY POSITIVITY.
I just gave you a free voucher for cosmetic surgery. All expenses paid! What do you get done? Do you have an answer? How fast did you come up with it? Is this a weird example? Or is this rhetorical proof that you would change something about your body if you could? That there's something you want to change?
Who's gonna give back a free voucher for cosmetic surgery?! Who's gonna say "No, thank you"? NOBODY.
And that's a backwards introduction to the idea that all bodies are good bodies which is a kindergarten paraphrase of body positivity. We put so much weight--ha!--on how we appear when really, fatness is just another part of me. It is not the end all be all of me and what's more, it means nothing. I have blue eyes. I have flat feet. I have some troubling moles. I'm also fat. So what?
Jes Baker's book explains how fat became so vilified, synonymous with stupidity and laziness. She also makes some great points about the world we live in, like the gazillion dollar advertising industry and how we've replaced skinny with healthy and the effect is just as extreme.
So here are a few things I learned that no one told me--or that I'd forgotten--because I am a fat girl:
Your body is the thing that has you in it and therefore deserves respect, love, and yes, a cookie. If you want a fucking cookie then eat a fucking cookie because food is fuel that propels your body AND your brain AND your everything and it really is that simple.
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself.
And last, but not least, category is...
LUCKY NUMBER ELEVEN
The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
In the future, we will be invaded by SENTIENT PLANTS who know our one true weakness: OUR EYEBALLS. Bonus points for making me afraid of large potted plants in waiting rooms, such as the one pictured here. Let's make #triffid happen.
SAVE YOUR FORK! THERE'S MORE!
My very favorite book and reading experience of 2016 is coming up next, as well as what you've all been waiting for: another vitriolic take-down of a successful white male writer who I have declared my personal nemesis from now until the end of time. What fun!