2016-favorites

I always get something wrong in these. There’s generally one book that I utterly forget to include, remember two days later, and curse myself for leaving out. And this year, I’m throwing in some thoughts on music, so that should offer even more opportunities for retrospective regret. I’m getting in just under the wire with this one, yes indeed.

I’ve written about a few books I’ve liked this year in other places: John Langan’s fantastic The Fisherman at the StarTribune, and Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall, Amber Sparks’s The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and Colin Dickey’s Ghostland at Tor.com. Short version: all of these books are great and you should read them.

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As the author of a relatively short novel, I’m pretty happy to see Tor.com’s program of publishing original novellas going strong. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is the first one that comes to mind–it both pushes a host of cosmic-horror buttons and acts as a critique of the racism that’s wrapped up within H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Both LaValle’s book and Langan’s demonstrate ways for horror writers to evade tapping into the more loathsome aspects of Lovecraft’s work: LaValle confronts it directly, while Langan creates a horror mythos of his own that draws upon different sources.

Also in the “short novels I enjoyed” camp were Warren Ellis’s Normal and Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future. Ellis’s is a locked-room mystery set in a retreat where futurists recuperate that, in its final pages, turns into something much more haunting; Penny’s is set roughly a century into the future, and explores questions of class and art in a world where the wealthy are able to prolong their lives dramatically. Both do one of the key things that I seek out in speculative fiction: explore  questions relevant to our current situation that leave me thinking about them in new ways. And Jeff Jackson’s Novi Sad was an end of the world story like none other–a surreal story about the end of things and what might come afterwards, abounding with imagery that’s worked its way into my dreams several months after reading it and shows no signs of leaving.

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I read Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun in preparation for moderating a panel at the Slice Literary Writers Conference this fall. It’s a harrowing read. After reading it, I found myself thinking about the famous line from The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Throughout the novel, several of Dennis-Benn’s characters do horrific things, and yet, as a reader, there’s never a sense that we don’t know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s the stuff of great drama, and it’s deftly carried out here.

Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage got under my skin like few other books did this year. It’s written with a stunning precision, and there’s a powerful tension between Arudpragasam’s sometimes lyrical use of language and the horrors of the war around which this book is set. It’s not an easy book to read, but it also has powerful observations to make about questions of intimacy, memory, and family. As I write this, it occurs to me that it might make for an interesting literary double bill with Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja, which chronicles Ortiz’s dreams over a period of several years. Here, too, the beatific and the horrific coexist; here, too, the transition from peaceful imagery to something fraught and nightmarish can take place over the course of a single sentence. And Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise begins as something familiar–a sprawling American family saga–before its narrative splinters and transforms into something much more harrowing.

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Identity, too, became a theme that haunted this year in reading. Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is, on one level, an immensely satisfying historical saga about the changing fortunes of an opera singer in 19th-century Europe. But there’s also plenty to mull over in this novel about identity and how we present ourselves, the nuances of language, and the relationship between art, class, and time. And there’s the elasticity of the novel’s realism, which sometimes becomes more stylized–this is a novel inspired by opera, after all.

The way that questions of self dovetailed with prose forms was a source of constant surprise for me as a reader this year. Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. used the techniques of experimental nonfiction to tell a Vertigo-inspired story of obsession, doubles, and mistaken identity. Scott Esposito’s The Surrender is a rigorous investigation into its author’s own concept of gender, and how that’s been echoed in his life and his literary aesthetics. Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies embraced the flaws inherent in memory and turned them into an essential part of the essays making up the book. And Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile told the story of a family dealing with grief in a host of ways, blending emotional realism with a host of narrative risks, and creating one of the most indelible reading experiences I’ve had in a while along the way.

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And then there were books about human connection–family, history, intimacy, or some combination of the above. I can remember reading along with Tommy Pico at one of the first 3-Minute Stories events, back when we did them at Matchless, and so I was thrilled to be able to read his book IRL this year. (And his followup, Nature Poem, is due out in 2017–one of a host of books by fine writers to look forward to next year.) He’s doing things here with language and voice that strike me as both deeply contemporary and deeply classical, which is mightily impressive.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You explored questions of intimacy and the way that the past and distance can affect us; it also did so with some of the most stunning prose I encountered this year. D. Foy’s harrowing Patricide explored cycles of abuse within a family, and the ways that emotional horrors endured by one generation can have repercussions stretching for decades to come. Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green juxtaposed the slow disintegration of a family in 1990s Chicago with the surreal (but also not) appearance of a UFO in their back yard. And Bae Suah’s A Greater Music grappled with big questions–nationality, relationship, and art–through use of an unconventional structure and mesmerizing language.

This still feels decidedly incomplete, and there are a number of books that I don’t want to avoid mentioning: Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Alexis M. Smith’s Marrow Island, and Norman Lock’s The Port-Wine Stain all come to mind, to say nothing of my cohort in “books released this year by Vol.1 Brooklyn folks,” Jason Diamond’s Searching For John Hughes. But it seems like a start–a sense of the books that got inside my head this year and stuck around.

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I didn’t make it to as much live music this year as I’d have liked to. Some of that can be chalked up to a slower freelancing year than I’d have liked; some comes down to me reading more. That said, I tried to keep music as a constant presence in my living space (and my life in general). So–some albums I enjoyed this year, in no particular order.

Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion

dälek, Asphalt for Eden

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Anna Meredith, Varmints

The Julie Ruin, Hit Reset

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Martha, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

Mitski, Puberty 2

David Bowie, Blackstar

Jamila Woods, HEAVN

VATS, Green Glass Room

Bon Iver, 22, A Million

Third Coast Percussion, Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich

Hound Dog Taylor’s Hand, Hound Dog Taylor’s Hand

Mikey Erg, Tentative Decisions

Marisa Anderson, Into the Light

Vanity, Don’t Be Shy

Sunwatchers, Sunwatchers

Notekillers, Songs and Jams Vol 1

Helen Money, Become Zero

Pure Disgust, Pure Disgust

Roly Porter, Third Law

SAVAK, Best of Luck in Future Endeavors

Tim Hecker, Future Streams

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