Shortly after I finished Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner's brilliant novel about the promise and the impossibility of salvation in the experience of art, and one of the best books I've read in years, the Sunday New York Times Book Review arrived, with its annual list of the Top Ten Books of 2011.
And Leaving the Atocha Station was not on it.
Which made me sad, because I knew then that millions of people will never hear about Leaving the Atocha Station, only because the New York Times compiled a list that includes, instead, an exquisitely written but slightly meandering story about a tiger, and Christopher Hitchens' doorstop collection of recent magazine work. I don't mean to be hard on the New York Times, or anyone else, and best-of lists are necessarily subjective, but did I mention how good Leaving the Atocha Station is? It's just so good. Also, remember when the Times failed to review Tinkers, the Paul Harding novel that won the 2010 Pulitzer? Well, the Times hasn't reviewed Atocha Station yet, either. Get with it, New York Times!
These (also meandering) thoughts sent me on a journey powered by the question: "How hard would it be to compile a list of top books from 2011?"
I limited myself to books by D.C. authors, because every blogger needs to set himself apart, and also because I'm writing for the HuffPo DC page. I also excluded political thrillers, memoirs and biographies, simply because there are too many of them, and because the idea of reading anything by Donald Rumsfeld or Newt Gingrich is like death to me. As you'll see, I had to bend the rules a bit, and include books my (mostly) local authors from the past year (or so). Finally, in a daring challenge to the conventions of book reviewing, I have included some books by friends of mine. I'll post my selections several at a time, starting with two today.
How hard was it to compile a year-end best-of book list? Not as easy as I thought. D.C. authors published some great books this year (and in 2010) but finding them required effort. I blame my poor Internet search skills, and the lack of a "local authors" shelf at either Kramerbooks or Politics and Prose (or, perhaps, my inability to find the "local authors" shelf at either Kramerbooks or Politics and Prose), but it's also true that book reviewing is hard work. Who knew?
OK New York Times, you won this round. I can forgive you for overlooking Ben Lerner's masterpiece. But let's try to not let something like this happen again!
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
2011 Riverhead (paperback edition)
Danielle Evans' debut collection of stories was first published in the fall of 2010, and it made her a rising literary star. Evans lightly draws her readers in, easily layering her characters' lives and stories with complexity until, before you know it, you are lost in their worlds. Her stories move at the pace of life itself -- maybe that's part of why they are so damn good.
Evans is also hilarious. In The King of a Vast Empire a brother argues with his little sister, who uses the scar she won in a childhood car cash as a weapon against her father:
"Maybe he wouldn't dwell on it so much if you weren't always throwing it in his face so you could walk all over him," I said. She'd done it at dinner that night: flashed her scar at our parents when they started on her for mouthing off to her history teacher.
She looked at me, exasperated more than angry.
"It's call love, shithead. You hurt people, and then you make it better."
Evans' stories are mostly about young African-American women and men coming of age in New York and the Virginia suburbs. The last story, Robert F. Lee is Dead, is a tour de force about escape. From the wobbly chain-link fence she scrambles over in the opening, to the conflagration she runs away from in the closing lines, the gifted high school senior at the center of the story is navigating a coarse divide, finding herself while searching for her road to a better place. The story is a coming of age narrative with a biblical twist. When she has escaped the flames of her youth, our heroine pauses to reflect. "On the other side," she writes, "I stopped to catch my breath, and then kept running, knowing that a better person would have stopped to turn around."
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
Stories by Laura van den Berg
2009 Dzanc Books
Here is the first book by a friend of mine. Laura and I met several summers ago in the B concourse of O'Hare International Airport, when we were both traveling to the Tin House Writer's Workshop. Laura looked cheerful, and bookish, and the B concourse looked like it always does -- crowded, coated in grey, and sheltered by those glass walls that should let in so much light but somehow don't. Our paths have crossed a few times since she moved to Baltimore. Recently, we had cheeseburgers at Kelly's on Capitol Hill. Despite all of this, I am able to remain completely objective about Laura's work and write a brutally honest review. How am I able to do this? Easy: Because her stories are so good.
Laura's first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, is a small literary gem you might not have heard about. Van den Berg is a naturally charming writer, and her stories, which feature awkward heros cast into storylines from adventure tales, are quirky and fun. An out-of-work actress takes a job in a Bigfoot theme park (Where We Must Be). Scientists in Scotland search for the Loch Ness Monster in a tiny submarine (Inverness). Up High in the Air is narrated by an English teacher married to an explorer looking for a fish-monster in Lake Michigan. In Goodbye My Loveds, a boy finds a pothole that goes all the way to nowhere.
Van den Berg's stories may be steeped in the marvelous, but her real subject is abandonment. The fear that motivates her characters is the fear of loss. In these stories parents disappear, husbands sink into murky depths in tiny crafts, would-be lovers fade into sidewalk crowds. Van den Berg is a smart writer with a lot of style, and she balances the playful set-ups and darker themes of her stories with care. The young woman who narrates the title story wants to be a champion endurance swimmer. It is, I think, a perfect metaphor for wanting always to be able to rescue the people and things that matter to us, should they ever become lost in the deep.
That's all for now. Tell me in the comments section what D.C. authors I should be reading, and happy holidays!