With the end of the year almost here, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the books I felt were really innovative and got me thinking about writing in a different light, whether through the narrative, translation, or writing style. These are the books that broke the traditional mold for me, pulling it off in a way that at times made me gawk, contemplate, and meditate on the intersections between writing and the thematic meanderings of existence.
Backswing by Aaron Burch:
I read this collection at the beginning of the year and called it “provocative, melancholy, and meditative.” The stories still haunt me, from a religious upheaval arising from the literal cannibalization of a bus, to a boy with a zipper for his body. The stories showcase surreal without being absurd, allegorizing the myths of urban existence while leaving “stains” of pain and compassion. Queen’s Ferry Press consistently impresses with a catalogue of some of the best short story collections around.
“Something pushed the window covering aside, letting in an explosion of light. Temporarily blinding us all, nearly knocking over a few. As the brightness dimmed and the room became visible, we stretched ourselves awake, made our way to the window. No one spoke. Through the window, everything looked as we’d left it, though we hadn’t know we’d left it at all. We’d forgotten a time before the leaving… Only now, a new, dark red stain in the middle of the road that had before been solid road-coloured and without mark.”
Beauty on Earth by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones:
This is a fantastic translation by Michelle Bailat-Jones of a Swedish author that explores the impact the arrival of a beautiful young woman has on a lakeside village. While it’s a moving tale on its own, it’s the switching narratives that really distinguish it, jumping from third to second to first person in one seamless swoop. Earth had me thinking about my own perceptions, the way our views change, how reality itself changes depending on the perspective. Gradients of social structures blend and translate into a deconstruction that is as insightful as it is tragic.
“They had known each other forever and who knows when they went from knowing to that other thing. A border line is only marked on a map and in books; it isn’t visible in a person’s heart.”
The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes by David S. Atkinson
Stuck in a village inn, the Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes is Adam and Eve retold in the context of a diner over philosophical quandaries. It’s like Hotel California pondering the implications of gastronomical zeitgeist and Sartre’s No Exit in an IHOP. American culture clashes with the absurdities of existentialism, and the dialogue is as witty as it is disturbing. Atkinson deserves credit, not just for reweaving the fabric of morality’s inception, but the most delicious title of the year.
“What are we doing?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Apparently not,” I replied.
“It’s been a while,” she conceded. “I’ll give you a hand then. Social graces inquisition.”
Then it clicked. It really should have before; we used to play it all the time, back before our falling out. It wasn’t the nicest game, but sometimes being catty and picking other people apart made me feel better. Identify, classify, and sentence. No appeals.
Of course, it really wasn’t that mean. As long as you didn’t actually say any of the things to the accused, then what was the harm? That was one of the core rules anyway, not actually letting the accused hear. Judgment was supposed to be final, removed, and creative.
“I’ll go first,” she said, scanning the restaurant.
If We Could Know Our Bones by Mary Carroll-Hackett, edited by Nicolette Wong
If We Could Know Our Bones is the asymmetry of poetry and desire, the threshold that splits us into 206 different parts, sometimes working in cohesion, other times, at civil war. “Sometimes the words she doesn’t know burn in her head at night… and you know without being told the whole room smells of sage..” Carroll-Hackett’s words will burn in your head, then leave the scent of regret and longing. It’s a quick read, but there’s a gravitas in the individual pieces, as delicate and essential as every joint in conjunction.
“Thirty-one suns have crossed the celestial equator since then, science and memory rearranging, the Earth’s elliptical orbit bending, changing, precession, axis tugged in another direction. Spring even now is reduced by one minute per year, singing as it goes. Naked to the native acre, bone-clear, the body knows what it knows… Age has freed us from any need to hide, that sweet surrender of knowing celestial object near the celestial equator are visible worldwide… Assuming the body as love, my body remembers…”
Pilot Season by James Brubaker:
Dissecting the American psyche through pilot episodes of fictionalized television shows and exploring idiosyncrasies, I called it “a catalogue of American dreams, superstitions, stereotypes, beliefs, ideals, frailties, phobias, desires, and everything in between.” What I enjoy about it so much is that it plays on the tropes we expect of television episodes, but does it in a way that tells us as much about ourselves as it does the creative forces behind them. I could see any of the shows being made, touted, and whisked into American television, and literary, lore, including this ED-209 special.
“Under the guidance of ED-210, ED-209 makes several attempts at self-replication. These attempts include building a robot with its outsides on its inside and its insides on its outside, building a robot with a cinder block where its head should be, building a robot with component parts made of brittle glass, and building a robot by fusing a central intelligence data processor to a living bird. These attempts are largely unsuccessful, though the robot-bird hybrid displays a brief flicker of artificial life, which causes ED-209 to feel a glimmer of hope that it will someday be able to participate in the self-replication upon which the continuation of robotic society relies.”
Kill Marguerite and Other Stories by Megan Milks:
Kill Marguerite will kill you with its creative execution of the intangibles of relationships, the dripping loneliness personified in wasps, and the best throwback to Choose Your Own Adventures I’ve experienced since, well, childhood. It was a thrill to once again navigate teenage angst and aliens with alternative plotlines to explore. But the choices are also about “creating chaos in the relationship” because “it gives you a sense of freedom from the stifling confinement of intimacy.” Milks unleashes an artillery of provocative prose that will leave you scarred and still wanting more.
“Artaud’s screaming body is the original body without organs, screaming with suffering and the desire to end its suffering, though suffering is necessary for its survival… If I had answers, I would not be telling this story like a story, like this. Instead I’d develop a thesis.”
Twilight of the Wolves by Edward J. Rathke:
Twilight of the Wolves is feral, a hybrid that defies definition. Rathke renders the lupine sublime, and at the same time, douses it in the grim cruelty of dead gods and an even bleaker city called Luca. At first, it seems to follow three main characters in a fashion similar to his earlier work, Ash Cinema. But there’s a heavy sense of desperation, of hopelessness and timelessness that is willing to countenance reality regardless of its decimating effect. This is one of those books you need to read and re-read to catch the layers, the themes you missed.
“The stars cry and die all from the sky and he watches with his corrosive wolfeyes and his dark flamed heart beating the blackness through his veins and the veins of this shell.”
Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious by Vi Khi Nao
Earlier in the year, I wrote: “Prepare to be devoured by Vi Khi Nao’s prose. Her words are a hypnotizing mix of melancholy and visceral repulsion at the urbanity of every day existence that also, strangely, feels joyous.” Several months later, I’m still mesmerized by the way she blends the viscous with the lyrical, a poetry that vomits and a fiction that pulsates in the nocturnal rhythms of antipathy and longing. Nao’s words are a ten course meal of the finest cuisines, rich, saturating, and ready to make your stomach burst. Seconds anyone?
“Midway through erasing his well-hidden, nonetheless erasable heart, Tom begins to form lines of regrets. Regret is the price you pay for over-thinking, he thinks. The over-thinking usually emerges from being hung on a sheet of paper extensively and over-extending one’s contemplation for self-annihilation. He begins to un-erase himself.”
Damnation by Janice Lee:
I’m a little late on this one as it came out at the end of last year, but it deserves a place for its innovative use of the eponymous film as a launching board to tell a fable mired in the dripping misery and paralyzing ambivalence of its characters. Lee not only brings Bela Tarr’s cinematography to life, but splices in a whole new film with drenching layers. I wrote at the LitPub: “The segments in Lee’s Damnation are frames stratified in desolation, sorrow, and misbegotten aspiration, teeming with as many questions as unspoken answers.” It isn’t just the book that’s so damning, but her prose and her speculations on the metaphysics of the universe that condemn us with hope.
“It is a mistake to assume that black is the most haunting and terrifying of colors. It is empty and dark and lonely, but it is also absolute, certain, and calming in its overbearingness. White, on the other hand offers overwhelming possibility, uncertainty, and notions of hope that drive the strongest of men mad.”