Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

Biblio Mysteries, by Otto Penzler*****

 

“…Diaz realized he was stabbed by guilt at the thought that he’d just planted a bomb that would take the life of a man at his most vulnerable, doing something he loved and found comfort in: reading a book.” (Jeffrey Deaver)

 

BibliomysteriesOtto Penzler doesn’t mess around, and so when I saw this collection, I was all in. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Pegasus Books for the digital review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

All of the stories included here are themed around books; we have bookstores of course, and libraries, both public and private, magical and actual. All of them are copyrighted between 2011 and 2013. In addition to the excellent name of the editor here, some of whose other collections I have enjoyed, I saw three authors that I knew I wanted to read right away: John Connolly, Thomas H Cook, and Max Allan Collins. Sure enough, all three of their contributions were excellent; I have to admit Connolly’s was my favorite–featuring book characters that had come to life, which made me laugh out loud—but the quality was strong throughout. The very first story is by Jeffrey Deaver; I had never read his work before and it is excellent, so now I have a new author to follow. I confess I didn’t like the second story, which is by C.J. Box; I found his writing style curiously abrasive and I bailed. The third story likewise didn’t strike a chord. However, that still gives me 12 or 13 outstanding stories, and the collection is thick and juicy, like a terrific steak. Or tofu burger, depending on the reader’s tastes.

I can’t think of a more congenial collection than mysteries and books. For those that love the genre, this book is highly recommended.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

The Accomplished Guest, by Ann Beattie*****

theaccomplishedguest Ann Beattie is a seasoned writer with a list of accolades as long as your arm, and this is why I requested a DRC of her soon-to-be-published short story collection, whose theme is visitors and travel. I was not disappointed. Thank you Net Galley and Scribner for letting me read it free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 13.

The first selection is droll; our protagonist is going to see an older man, and so we wonder…is this a boyfriend? Is it an ex? And as we move down the checklist, I love what she does with it. The next couple of selections are good but not as striking, but then the wind catches in Beattie’s sails and she is unstoppable.  Other favorites here are “Other People’s Birthdays”, “The Debt”, and “The Cloud”. I found myself highlighting most of the text, which is wasted effort, since I can’t quote most of the book to you, but it’s something that happens to me when I read top-drawer fiction. The story I loved best is “The Caterer”, which made me laugh out loud and woke Mr. Computer, who was slumbering next to me and had to get up the next day for work.

Short stories are wonderful bedtime material, because there isn’t the wrenching sensation in tearing oneself loose from the book. When the story is over, it’s time to bookmark one’s place and turn out the light. I’ve read over a hundred short story collections, and this one is among the best.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent prose, and in particular to Boomers.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead, by Paul Benedetti***-****

youcanhaveadogwhenThis is a collection of funny stories and brief essays. It’s geared for the Boomer generation, and is billed basically as bathroom reading. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn Press for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this book with 3.5 stars and round it upward; it will be available to the Canadian public –and presumably anyone anywhere that wants to buy it digitally—February 17, 2017.

I confess I made an assumption when I saw the title. I was expecting jokes and essays dealing with man’s best friend; actually, I find very few stories related to dogs, but an unexpected number related to death. Of course, many of the essays are not humorous, but of a more reflective nature. This is all well and good, and the quality of the writing is worthy of such a sobering topic. But when I saw the book billed as being similar to the work of Dave Barry, I wasn’t anticipating reflections on my own mortality. I was expecting jokes.

That aside, there are indeed some very funny pieces here, and although I am on the borderline in terms of being in—or out—of the Boomer generation, a lot of the humor does resonate. I love seeing Benedetti try to explain a home phone to a young person:

 

“I should probably explain to anyone under thirty that a home phone is an actual device about the size of a toaster that remains in your house. The reason you cannot take it with you to the bar, to your class, and into the toilet, where I’m sure you’re receiving very important calls, is that it’s attached by wires directly to the wall in your house.”

 

I enjoy the piece on his garden, and about his elderly mother’s dance class.  I am disquieted to learn that every person, real or imagined, in any of these stories is assumed by the writer to be Caucasian.

I also find myself wondering why every story has to have booze in it somewhere. Wine, beer, whiskey, Bailey’s, more beer, more wine, gin, Kahlua…what’s up with this?

Should you pick up a copy for yourself? I suppose that depends upon what the purchase price looks like and how much time you spend at home. If it’s affordable and you are retired, you might like to have it. If the price tag is hefty, you may want to wait.

But I imagine Mr. Benedetti would prefer you to purchase it before you get that dog. Because…yeah.

 

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

earthforinspirationClifford D. Simak wrote for decades during the mid-twentieth century.  His close friend, David W. Wixon, has undertaken, with Simak’s approval in his declining years, to collect all of the stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies beginning in the 1930’s and ending before the digital age was off the ground. This one is volume 9, and it’s an interesting hodgepodge of the very best—which is most of it—and the very worst, which is just two stories. Needless to say, I thought a lot about how I should rate such a collection.

Finally, I decided that price would be the deciding factor. If it was going to set you back twenty or thirty bucks, then I’d have to cut it down the middle and call it three stars, which would be sad but fair. However, I logged onto the big A and found it’s sold digitally for six bucks. At this price, you’re paying a buck each for six absolutely stellar short stories; there are three more good ones thrown in; and you can afford to skip the two stinkers. Given that factor, I’m rating this 4.5 stars, with just half a star gone for the two missable stories, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Thank you Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, the fifth Simak collection I have received from them. I sat on this one for a long time because I’d been reading a lot of his work, and was beginning to get grumpy at the similarities among some of them. Just how many different characters can a writer name “Doc” and remain credible? But then I realized that when Simak submitted his stories to various periodicals, names were about the least important aspect of his work, because he wrote them never dreaming that his writing would be important enough to appear in an entire series, back to back. Who knew he would become so successful?

During the 1940s and 1950s, as Wixon points out, science fiction was barely off the ground—pun intended—and Westerns were massively in style. I guess you could say they were the zombie apocalypse of their time; if a writer wanted to pay his rent without having to work a day job, he had to write some westerns. And since Wixon is publishing all of Simak’s stories rather than the best-of, he has to insert the few losers somewhere also.

So let’s just get the bad stuff over with so I can tell you what’s great here. The bad ones are sandwiched midway through the collection and appropriately flanked by good writing before and after. “Hellhound of the Cosmos” is bad enough that Wixon’s preface—a brief paragraph appearing before each story—says he “…will not try to excuse this story’s failings” by pointing out that Simak wrote it in 1931, at the very get-go of his career. Fine; don’t. But it’s a really dumb story, and I’d hate to see you use it as a yardstick by which to measure this man, who would become a Grand Master of sci fi. Read it or skip it, but this is not the story I recommend.

Further along we have “Good Nesters Are Dead Nesters”. This one is actively offensive, and if it were written today, I might well shoot down the entire collection because of it. But I know from the things I heard during my childhood that the language used here, while truly offensive, was also commonplace back then. The US was a lot whiter; the interstate was a new thing; satellite communication wasn’t yet dreamed of. People lived in isolated areas and got stupid ideas about what other people were like, largely due to stereotypes promoted in the news, on radio, and on black and white television.

So although I—married to an Asian immigrant—am as pissed as anyone about the singsong caricature of the Chinese cook, I also know this was a widely accepted way to regard people from China and Japan. As if that’s not terrible enough, a disabled person is referred to as a helpless, “twisted cripple”. Ohhh, no thank you. As you can imagine, I quickly gave myself permission to make a note and then skim till I reached the next story.

However, the stories that flank the collection, starting with the title story and ending with “Full Cycle”, are outstanding.  The latter is written in the 1950s, and reflects both the reality of a pair of Atomic bombs having been dropped in Japan eleven years before it was written, as well as the anti-communist hysteria so prevalent in the news. The idea is that all cities are decentralized, because a bomb might be dropped on a large urban center, but the USA is a very big place, and so small, mobile communities, all of them having traded their houses for trailers, is now the way Americans live. It’s very cleverly put together conceptually, and Amby, the protagonist, is so well drawn that at times, I wanted to weep for him.

“Honorable Opponent” has to do with a US planetary colony that has just been defeated by another planet’s military. The result took me entirely by surprise, and I think I’ll remember this story after I’ve read other science fiction by other authors. The same is true of “Carbon Copy”, a fine tale combining  science fiction, ruthless capitalism, and brilliant imagination. “Desertion” is another stellar story. If you want to read science fiction that makes your dreams sweet, read this one at bedtime. “Golden Bugs” is equally clever.

So for the price you pay, there is too much good writing here to turn your back on. My records tell me that over time I have read over 100 short story collections, which is about 90 more than I ever expected to read, and yet this one is outstanding among them. For those that love old school science fiction, this one, with the caveats mentioned, is highly recommended, and it’s available now.