Looking for something to read over the holidays? Hey, the New York Times 10 Best Books is a great place to look!
Pour yourself a nice mug of hot cocoa and get cozy to read about everything from, oh…uh, a collapsing marriage (Dept. of Speculation, Jeny Offill) or a family’s disintegration after a horrible tragedy involving a child (Family Life, Akhil Sharma), or a story collection about the devastating impacts of the Iraq War (Redeployment, Phil Klay).
Hmmm. Okay, well how about the one about the blind girl and the Nazi (All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr)? Or, uh, maybe the one about a female novelist who didn’t publish anything until she was almost 60 (Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee)? Okay, okay — here’s a “spellbinding blend of memoir, science journalism and literary criticism” about….oh….vaccination (On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss). Probably don’t want to bring that up at dinner. Same goes for the one about Israel and peace in the Middle East (Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Wright).
What about the one titled Euphoria? That sounds nice. Oh, looks like it’s about another marriage breaking up. Alright.
I guess it could be worse. We could be among the irreplaceable habitats and species whose destruction has been chillingly documented by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction. Jeez. What else is there? Oh, perfect, Roz Chast’s graphic novel about her parents’ decline into infirmity and old age: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel isn’t just about ugly girls. It’s about ugly people, ugly places, ugly lives—“ugly” being used on the deeper, moral level. Hunter presents a host of unlikeable characters living in a box-store world, Denny’s and Circle K and Payless and McDonald’s, trailer parks and cul-de-sacs, where alcoholic mothers suck on brown bottles and oversexed adolescents find that the only fun to be had lies in the back seats of cars and doing doughnuts in a Walmart parking lot. Hunter’s America may be shocking, a place without hope, upward mobility not even a glimmer in her characters’ eyes. But it’s vivid, visceral, and engrossing.
Hunter’s ugly girls are two best friends, Baby Girl and Perry, who are, in many ways, the archetypal teenage duo. Perry is the pretty one, who resembles “some kind of garden fairy, only tall. Bright green eyes, black eyelashes, blond hair. Tanned legs. Smallish boobs.” All the boys and men desire her, and some have had her. Baby Girl is the wannabe thug, the one who radiates I-don’t-give-a-fuck. Since her brother Charles got into an accident, leaving him in a helpless, mentally deficient state, she has made it her mission to be as unattractive as possible: she is the girl with the shaved head, her brother’s saggy jeans, a “sports bra to tamp those fuckers down. Work boots she’d stolen from Payless,” plump lips outlined in liner and shined with gloss, her lips her favorite feature. She considers herself a “tough bitch.” She is the virgin.
Sometimes you just want something beautiful. Here are the 5 most sumptuous, indulgent, stunning books to give (and receive) this holiday season.
5. The World of Ice & Fire
by George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
To be honest I haven’t read this book yet, because I’m so excited about it that someone has insisted I wait and receive it as a Christmas gift. But good lord, it’s everything I want in a George R. R. Martin book, which is to say, less plotting and more world-building. The World of Ice & Fire includes histories of the major houses of Westeros, deep background on memorable details from the series like the Sword of Morning, and plenty of original, full-color illustrations. It is going to sell a billion copies. Don’t be surprised if 6 of these turn up in your stocking.
4. The Best American Infographics 2014
edited by Gareth Cook
The Best American Infographics 2014
“The visual display of quantitative information” as the godfather of infographics Edward Tufte calls it, is finally getting its due. This book celebrates — and reproduces at full size, in lavish color — the best charts, diagrams, maps, and graphics of the year, from the mechanics of a professional pitcher’s arm rotation to the particular musical keys that classical composers favored. It will make you wish you could subscribe to a monthly magazine that offers nothing but really great bar graphs. Introduction by Nate Silver.
In the famous ‘mirror scene’ of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rhetorically confronts himself with aggressive remarks. He seems to say, “You see what you see; now what are you going to do about it?” When you gaze into the mirror abyss, it gazes back, and there is no fleeing. Bickle, a war veteran who no doubt witnessed atrocities, doesn’t implode inward but explodes outward and confronts a world in which corruption and degeneracy have been normalized, and people conform by looking away. He does as the voice of his conscience bids him in an effort to bring redemption.
Long before Bickle was even flicker in Scorcese’s eye, the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing lashed out at blind conformity and the psycho-social regimen that coerced individuals into moral assimilation, even at great cost to their psychic integrity. Said Laing in The Politics of Experience (1967), “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.” Conformity can provide safety and certainty, but by necessarily submitting to authority it contains a strong potential for evil.
Bickle and Laing came to mind as I was reading Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness by the brothers Joel and Ian Gold. The Golds claim to have discovered a new behavioural pattern that suggests a growing psychological condition they are calling the Truman Show Delusion. As the name suggests, it is a conviction that one is being watched and televised, as if imprisoned in a reality TV show, wherein everyone is a player acting out a script. Joel Gold writes, “The delusion raised questions about the interplay between mental illness and our environment, and larger questions about the relationship of mind to culture.”
Without speaking for Michael Moats, Matt Tanner, or any of our contributors, I want to tell you about my favorite books of 2014. Because hot buttered Christ! It has been a great year for reading.
All of these books came out in 2014. All of them knocked me out of my chair. And we had the great fortune to cover many of them here at Fiction Advocate. Four of the ten authors agreed to write for our new column, Hitting Shelves, so they actually contributed to this site. Fuck yeah.
10. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
9. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories by Hassan Blasim (review)
8. Your Face in Mine by Jess Row (Hitting Shelves)
7. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Hitting Shelves) (review)
6. The People’s Platform by Astra Taylor (summary)
5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Hitting Shelves) (review)
4. Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (The Free Stuff)
3. On Immunity by Eula Biss (review)
2. Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (review)
1. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink (Hitting Shelves) (review)
- Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founding Editor at Fiction Advocate.
There is so much injustice in the world. And maybe you’ve been too preoccupied with cops getting away with killing citizens or women being fired because they’re pregnant to realize that the Worst. Thing. Ever. just happened to novelist Ayelet Waldman. After getting a really great review in The New York Times for her book Love & Treasure, Waldman was then viciously and heartlessly snubbed by not being included in the Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.
Feel her pain:
Yes, journal writing seems like something she would excel at.
As you can tell by trying to click the links in the tweets above, Waldman has since deleted these and other tweets railing against her horrible treatment (our fuzzy top image is a mere screen-grab from this page, where you can read the full rant). So I guess we won’t be seeing a #GreatReviewsMatter hashtag.
As her tantrum subsided, she did acknowledge that “There are real problems in the world. I’m just going to suck it up and do something good for someone else.” At which point she heroically offered to donate a dollar to charity for every pre-order someone makes of her book.
I was going to pre-order it myself, but I heard it wasn’t very notable.
“With what then will we hail the next ones, the ones who have to pick up around here long after we’ve been chewing the roots of dandelions?”
–C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil
A few years ago, my dear friend told me her professor advised her to stop writing poetry. At the time, we were making a zine together with the working title “I’m just like my shoes: complicated, beautiful, and leather.” This zine was to include my stories that I called poems placed next to her dress sketches. I imagined a zine-release party in which we read poems while people modeled her final creations.
Quit writing poetry, her professor advised.
While pursuing an MFA in visual art, my friend had started to earn some buzz for her paintings. After trying to incorporate poetry into her practice, her art professor told her to focus on this craft instead. He said she’d never be a good writer. This response devastated my friend, devastated, devastated my friend. It stopped our zine. Devastated, she couldn’t finish it. I considered his devastating response.
During a recent graduate poetry workshop at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana’s poet laureate looked at me, and asked, “Do you consider yourself a poet.”