Even with major changes in publishing, far too many reviewers still focus on books published by major houses. It's a sort of default position, possibly due to unconscious prejudice against independent publishers, or maybe even laziness. Who knows? But independent and university presses have been putting out books every bit as good as those published by New York's major houses. They typically don't get the same media attention or the same space in bookstores, so here are some of the best small press books of the decade.
An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell. Making music and making a life out of making music are two completely different things. This gorgeous novel explores the mysteries and joys as well as the brutal business realities of a musical life, focusing on a woman violist's grief when her secret lover dies. News of that death leads her and readers along surprising paths to a splendid resolution.
Made for Each Other by Meg Daley Olmert. The bond between humans and dogs isn't just thousands of years old, it echoes the one between humans because of oxytocin, a hormone released when mothers nurse babies and when people pet or even look at their dogs. Engaging and witty, Olmert explores the latest neuroscience on this dynamic in a deft mix of science and speculation, anecdote and analysis.
The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare. In this short, stunning novel, an Italian general travels to Albania two decades after World War Two to harvest a terrible crop: the remains of Italian soldiers buried in unmarked graveyards across the country. Public pressure back home has forced this mission into being. It's a grim task, dogged by miserable weather, the hatred of the people he meets, and the heavy weight of history.
A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses by Anne Trubek. Why do people visit writer's homes? What are they looking for and what do they hope to take away that isn't sold in the gift shop? This memoir-travelogue takes you from Thoreau's Concord to Hemingway's Key West, exploring the tracks authors and their fans have laid down over the years. Trubek is a sharp-eyed observer, and you'll wish you could have been her travel companion.
The Jerusalem File by Joel Stone. Mystery and murder combine with Jerusalem's violent ethnic politics for a gripping new take on the classic pattern of PI + femme fatale = nothing but trouble. This is a model of what a thriller writer can do without having to produce the bloated "big book" too typical of American crime fiction, and it's one of my favorite thrillers of the decade.
Waiting on a Train by James McCommons. If you've ever wondered why our train system doesn't even measure up to that of some Third World countries, this is your book. The Michigan author spent a year taking trains in every part of America to interview passengers, bureaucrats, politicians, and everyone involved in a system not remotely living up to its potential. A fascinating, must-read journey for the next decade.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Based on the true story of an ordinary Berlin couple suddenly launching anti-Nazi resistance, this novel was published right after WWII and feels as if it were written in a white heat. I can't recall any novel that gives such a vivid feel for life inside the Nazi whirlwind. Melville House deserves kudos for being the first publisher to translate this novel by a popular German author who ended up hounded by the Gestapo.
For more terrific small press books, check out another one of my Huffington Post blogs.