I posted “5 more short stories you can – and should – read online right now” over a year ago in response to an article Paste Magazine posted. It’s gotten a consistant amount of hits since then, so I decided to follow it up with this post.
The National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday (November 18). Here are my predictions for who will win the fiction award. I should start off by noting that I really enjoyed two longlisted works that didn’t make the finals better than some of the finalists. Those were Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family (you can read an interview I did with him here) and Nell Zink’s Mislaid. Even so, I still think the eventual winner is among the following.
It’s pretty late in the year for a “best of (so far)” list, but whatever.
This year marked a challenge for me: read one book per week. The goal is to read 52 different authors in a variety of genres. For the most part I have read novels and short story collections published since 2010 (four were published prior; two in 2008, one in 1997, and one in 1981). Up until recently I haven’t been paying attention to releases from this year, but as I finished my 41st book of 2015, I realized I have read 10 that were published since the first of the year. Here’s a ranking with some thoughts.
I decided to read a book per week at the beginning of this year. For the most part I was ahead of schedule; then June came and I went to live in the Maine woods at a summer camp, and I fell back. Throughout the first six months I have read 28 novels. These are my top 10 so far. All were released prior to this year, but I swear I’ve been reading 2015 releases as well. I know this is about a month and a half too late, but here it is anyway. (Also: more reviews of recent reads coming soon…)
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel may not be considered a grand, sweeping novel, but it sure felt like one. We Need New Names is about Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl whose narration is honest and beautiful. Each chapter really feels like a separate short story; there is no fluidity between them other than characters and theme. This is not one story of a girl, but so many that truly define her.
The first half of the novel takes place in a town called Paradise. I’ve never been to Africa, but this young girls narration makes me feel like I have. The diction is in broken English. A man’s penis is simply “his thing.” She doesn’t understand why white people smile simply by just showing their teeth for a few moments instead of with their eyes and entire face. Bulawayo, born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to America for school, much like Darling. The best part of her writing is how she doesn’t shy away from how she spoke as a child. In fact, it’s a major part of the book. After Darling heads to America for the second half of the book, the narration becomes more Americanized.
Subtly, the theme of home creeps up. At first Darling is determined to go visit her small country in Africa, but as the chapters pass, she doesn’t seem capable of returning. The duality of her life isn’t as stark as one would imagine it could be. She does go from running around shoeless with children named Godknows and Bastard to attending a private academy in Michigan. However, it’s not black and white. In Zimbabwe or in Michigan, it doesn’t matter. She strives for something more than is being offered. In both places she is smart, but isn’t necessarily well educated on may aspects of life.
Understanding the character really does come from Bulawayo’s prose. The diction shifts, but even the character’s thoughts develop so genuinely over the short time we spend with her in the just under 300 page book. As the chapter’s progress so do the wants and desires. Any good coming of age story should do this, but rarely do they do so with such greatness.
Out of all of the books I have read so far, this was perhaps both the most straight forward and the most uniquely written one of them all.
Pete Snow is a social worker in the sticks of Montana. It’s cold, rugged, and bleak. The synopsis will tell you he deals with a family called the Pearls. Jeremiah is a survivalist who thinks the world is going to burn and his son, Benjamin, follows in his dads footsteps.
That is the basic narrative of Fourth of July Creek, but it’s only a quarter of it. As much as the story is about Pete and the Pearls, it’s about a few other families as well. I won’t go into much detail about his social work life, but like author Smith Henderson’s description of Montana, the lives these people lead are cold, rugged, and bleak.
There are some great pieces of literature and drama I get to read and lecture on as a teacher. I’m so lucky that I got to teach my favorite drama to my sophomore class last year. However, I teach a different course this year and don’t have the same opportunity. Luckily, I get to teach my second favorite drama. It got me thinking: what are five plays that I’d recommend to people.
Here they are:
Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, was the first novel I’ve read by the author. I really didn’t know much about him or works like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I was pleasantly surprised with the acclaimed writer’s latest novel for the majority of the read. However, the final part of The Laughing Monsters seems considerably less developed than what preceded it.
David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a techno thriller that will eventually be made into a Jason Bourne type film. Don’t think of the novel as Lee Child or Vince Flynn. This is a literary thriller; it’s not beautiful language, but it is descriptive and creative. It reads like you don’t expect it to, and it takes a while for it to develop.
Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, reads like it is trying to be a great literary work to be studies in classroom. There is repetition of symbols, dialogue, and imagery. Over and over again. There are the birds, people moving like snakes, the rain, and the quote the human eye senses movement before all else.