Thursday, December 17, 2015
I'm an avid fiction reader. And when I want to know what to read, I like to turn not to the usual sources but instead to my friend, Josh Bodwell, director of the Maine Writers & Publisher's Alliance. For several years, Josh has been producing his "Bodwell's Baker's Dozen," which is not a collection of the best books published this year, but rather, the best books Josh read this year (most of which happen to be 2015 releases, though). I'm reproducing Josh's 2015 Bodwell's Baker's Dozen below, and you can view the original here.
2015 BODWELL’S BAKER’S DOZEN
THE LAST GOOD CHANCE
(Picador, 2002) Published almost exactly one year after 9/11, Tom Barbash’s debut novel The Last Good Chance traces the attempted by-any-means-necessary revitalization of Lakeland, a hardscrabble industrial town in upstate New York. Native son Jack Lambeau has returned to town after earning an Ivy-League education and being crowned an urban design visionary. He brings along his supportive but dissatisfied fiancée Anne, a painter. As the town’s development wears on and Lambeau compromises his vision and ethics, Steven Turner, a newspaper reporter he’s befriended, begins to investigate. Turner also happens to be sleeping with Anne. The novel is snowy and dark and often dark-humored. Barbash worked as a reporter in upstate New York and writes deftly about small town politics. Today, decaying mill towns across the country are so anxious to reinvent themselves and appease developers that community’s moral compasses seem to be either spinning or nonexistent. Reading this novel is evidence that Barbash saw this slippery slope a decade and a half ago.
THE STATE WE’RE IN: MAINE STORIES
(Scribner, 2015) 2015 was my Year of Beattie. Back in February I read Ann Beattie’s The State We’re In: Maine Stories, her first new short story collection in a decade, even though it wasn’t published until August. Then I re-read earlier Beattie short stories, some for the first time since my late teens/early twenties, when they made such a formative impact on me. Each week for months I immersed myself in Beattie reviews, interviews, and short stories in preparation to write “Once Something Is Said,” my profile of Beattie in the September/October edition of Poets & Writers magazine. Years ago, Margaret Atwood beautifully described a Beattie story as “a fresh bulletin from the front: we snatch it up, eager to know what’s happening out there on the edge of that shifting and dubious no-man’s-land known as interpersonal relations.” From the mordant humor of “The Little Hutchinsons” to the sly warmth of “Yancey” in The State We’re In: Maine Stories, Beattie remains a master storyteller I so admire as she continues to stretch out and evolve. I could write her about for 1000s of words. Oh wait, I did.
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT
(Knopf, 2015) I read Our Souls at Night with the sad knowledge it was the last novel Kent Haruf completed before his passing in late 2014. From the first page, Haruf’s already spare style is stripped to its very essence. I succumbed to the narrative momentum of these opening lines and read the book in one day: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.” Addie asks Louis—who, like her, is widowed and in his 70s—“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” And so begins their relationship: not out of sex but of companionship and conversation and comfort. Haruf’s final short novel was written after his diagnosis of lung cancer and is almost fable-like in its pureness and simplicity. We have lost a writer of massive empathy who had the courage to court tenderness and, yes, sentimentality.
THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS
(Knopf, 2014) The chorus of voices and life-stories in Christina Henríquez’s second novel The Book Unknown Americans is held in harmony by its two central characters and their families. The Riveras bring their beautiful teenage daughter Maribel from Mexico to Delware to receive treatment for a brain injury. The Toros, neighbors in the Riveras’ new apartment complex, arrived years before from Panama, and their son Mayor falls immediately in love with Maribel. The novel’s chapters hop between first-person reminiscences of the apartment complex’s Latin American residents. One character wryly observes that while amongst themselves, the neighbors hailing from countries such as Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Venezuela sometimes struggle to find common cultural ground, to the white Americans who observe them, they’re all the same, all just “brown people.” This is a novel of families—the ones we’re born with and the ones we create—and the lengths we’ll go to for them.
MAN IN PROFILE: JOSEPH MITCHELL OF THE NEW YORKER
(Random House, 2015) When the nattily dressed North Carolina native Joseph Mitchell first ascended to a coveted staff position at the New Yorker in 1939, he turned out work at the same pace he had as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune; in 1939 alone he published thirteen pieces. And then came a shift. Mitchell spent longer and longer walking the city to gather his stories. When he finally wrote, he sought perfection. Throughout the 1950s, Mitchell filed just five stories. But his carefully wrought long-form nonfiction—pieces such as “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” “Professor Sea Gull,” and its sequel “Joe Gould’s Secret”—were such a fresh take on the form that John McPhee would later quip: “When the New Journalists came ashore, Joe Mitchell was there on the beach to greet them.” Yes, the last thirty years of his life were spent struggling to write anything he felt worthy of publication, but insight into Mitchell’s empathetic reportage and crystalline prose—along with his loving 50-year marriage to photographer Therese Jacobsen and close friendship with the Rabelaisian A. J. Liebling—are the real reasons to read this biography.
(Knopf, 2015) When Thomas McGuane’s early novels—such as The Sporting Club (1969) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—burst onto the scene, they were celebrated for their loose, rambunctious, and comic language. In the 1980s his work began to shift. The stories in Crow Fair are his tightest, quietest, and most spare to date. But the humor, thankfully, is still there. While “Hubcaps” is my favorite of the collection, “Prairie Girl” might have the funniest opening line of the year: “When the old brothel—known as the Butt Hut—closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.” McGaune recently told an interviewer, “It took me a long time to know enough about writing to really write short stories…Novels are a very flexible, accommodating form. Short stories aren’t.”
(FSG, 1967) In September of this year, John McPhee published the wonderful essay “Writing by Omission” in the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. In the essay, McPhee cited his article “Oranges” as one example of his ongoing writerly dilemma of what-to-leave-out while editing. The original draft was cut 85-percent by New Yorker editor Robert Bingham, though sections were painstakingly restored over a five day editing session with McPhee. The piece was still long enough to be serialized across two issues. The nonfiction master soon restored more of the article for the 1967 book version, also titled simply Oranges. There are few nonfiction writers who can pack as much information into effortlessly readable sentences as McPhee. He guides us through primeval orange groves and onto factory floors for an explanation of the Food Machinery Corporation’s “short-form extractor.” McPhee seems to possess a bottomless pool of curiosity and his writing renders that curiosity contagious.
DO I OWE YOU SOMETHING?
(LSU Press, 2013) Not long after I met the novelist, memoirist, and journalist Michael Mewshaw at the Key West Literary Seminar this past January, he visited Maine to talk about and read from his newest book, Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal. Mewshaw is a smart, funny, and often self-effacing presenter. I devoured his Vidal book in two sittings. And then I did something rarely do: I just kept reading on a Mewshaw tear. His 2003 literary memoir Do I Owe You Something? is compulsively readable with a cast that includes James Dickey, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, James Jones, Anthony Burgess, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, Pat Conroy, and, of course, Vidal. After that I went on toLife for Death (1980), which is something of an overlooked masterpiece in the tradition of In Cold Blood. Mewshaw’s gifts for reportage and research merge perfectly with his novelist’s instincts to tell the story and aftermath of Wayne Dresbach, who, at 15 in 1961, killed his adoptive mother and father—the Dresbachs happened to be Mewshaw’s neighbors.
CLOSER ALL THE TIME
(Islandport Press, 2015) There is nothing flashy about the way Jim Nichols tells stories. And yet, his stories have within their quiet dignity a kind of propulsive readability. Nichols writes honestly about his mythological Maine in plain, patient prose that could border on folksy if not for the author’s compassion for his characters. It takes humility to write this way. Set in the fictional town of Baxter, Maine, in the years between World War II and the computer age, Closer All the Time traces the lives of damaged Vets, good-hearted drunks, clam poachers, broken boxers, damaged young boys, prop plane pilots, husbands and wives, single women, and others. They are all, each in their own way, people like the rest of us who struggle profoundly to understand their place in the world. At a moment in our culture when there appears to be no surplus of authenticity, Jim Nichols tells authentic stories without ego.
(Riverhead Books, 2015) The motivations of the characters in Peter Nichols’sThe Rocks, his second novel, are revealed via a unique narrative structure: backwards. The book begins in 2005, and in the first pages the two central characters—the once-married Lulu Davenport and Gerald Rutledge—tumble from a cliff to their deaths. From there, the novel runs backwards to 1948. Set predominately on sunny Mallorca, the crystalline Mediterranean ceaselessly glinting in the distance, The Rocks is rife with depravity and powered at times by a dark current. And yet—and yet—Gerald’s calm amidst the narrative’s maelstrom anchors and buoys the reader. In a scene of Gerald watching his young sleeping daughter, Nichols wrote my favorite sentence of the year: “He missed all the children she had once been—the eighteen-month-old, the three-year-old, the five-year-old, the smallness of her then, the whole weight of her against his shoulder when she was asleep—and he could only bear it because she grew into something more precious and extraordinary, more a necessary part of him, with the passage of time.”
LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER
(Viking, 2007) While discussing favorite examples of American realism, my friend Monica gushed about Stewart O’Nan’s slim eleventh book (nearly a novella) Last Night at the Lobster. As usual, she didn’t steer me wrong. From its opening line (“Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day, stalled.”) O’Nan turns the last dinner service at a suburban mall Red Lobster into a sincere celebration of the quotidian. I don’t know how much time the author spent stalking Red Lobster chain,s but the descriptions of place and characters—especially our “hero,” the restaurant’s general manager, Manny DeLeon—feel so real it reads at times like a piece of well-reported and big-hearted journalism. I also thoroughly enjoyed O’Nan’s West of Sunset this year, his tender and lyrical fictionalization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days lived out in Hollywood. After a slightly sluggish third-quarter section, the novel’s final quarter hits breathtaking beats with great authorial command.
AFTER THE PARADE
(Scribner, 2015) On its surface, the narrative momentum of Lori Ostlund’s luminous debut novel follows forty-year-old Aaron Englund as he calls it quits with longtime partner Walter (many years his senior), moves from New Mexico to San Francisco, where he lives in a somewhat renovated basement garage (he still comes and goes via the garage door), and teaches in a second-rate ESL school. But Ostlund is a master of digression. At least half (if not more) of the book looks back at Aaron’s Midwest childhood and the makings of his stunted development, looks frankly at his monstrously abusive father and often kind but also unpredictable mother. The unforgettable cast also includes a well-read wheelchair-bound dwarf and a PI who runs a detective school across the hall from the ESL school. Ostlund is a writer of great humanity and has a gift for infusing the novel’s sometimes nearly unbearable sorrow with laugh out loud humor.
THE PARIS EDITION: 1927-1934
(North Point Press, 1987) I only discovered the newspaperman-turned-food writer Waverly Root this year when my pal Don Lindgren, who owns Rabelais Books, mentioned him. When Don suggests a book or author, I try not to simply nod or just jot it down—it’s no mistake after all that Rabelais was named “the best cookbook shop in America” by Bon Appétit Magazine. Root is revered for his 1958 classic The Food of France, but his memoir The Paris Edition: 1927-1934 recounts the New England native’s days after WWI working as a reporter for the English-language Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, a paper helmed by the tyrannical and eccentric Colonel McCormick. Hilarious, warm, and witty, Root offers a joyous but un-romanticized take on his life as an American in Paris during an extraordinary time. Root never met Hemingway, though Henry Miller makes a brief cameo while he worked as a less than stellar Tribuneproofreader.