Here are twelve books that made a significant impact on my life in 2011. Some of these were published this year while others have been around for a while. This is not a ‘best of the year’ list or necessarily a list of favorites. These are the books that are closest to my heart, the ones that I learned from, and the ones that guided me.
1. The Moomin series by Tove Jansson
On nights when writing and editing don’t keep me up until the late hours, Kirsten and I will read to each other before going to sleep. This year, bedtime books included The Search for Delicious, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, and one of my all-time favorites, The Phantom Tollbooth, but nine times out of ten, we choose the Moomins.
We are absolutely enamored with these characters and their strange little world. The Moomins exhibit a Buddhist-like detachment from the problems they encounter in their daily lives, unless that problem happens to be the dreaded Groke. The undercurrent of melancholy that pervades these books makes them all the more mysterious.
Over the past year, Moomin Valley has become my favorite world in fiction. It’s an ideal place to spend the nights and mornings. If Kirsten and I ever have free time in the morning, we tend to watch an episode of the Japanese Moomin cartoon while eating breakfast and having coffee. Someday, I hope we can move to Moomin Valley permanently.
There are eight books in the series. If you’re looking for a jumping off point, start with the first one, Comet in Moominland. Just watch out for the Hemulen, collector of plants and stamps.
Books and movies rarely make me cry, but by the end of Alan M. Clark’s Of Thimble and Threat, I was bawling. In terms of scope and power, this novel feels more akin to Dostoevsky and other heavyweights of Russian literature than any contemporary novel I’ve encountered. Clark draws you into the life and plight of Catherine Eddowes, the third Jack the Ripper victim. However, this is not a novel about Jack the Ripper. This is a novel about one woman and her life in bleak-ass Victorian London. Following Catherine Eddowes from childhood to death, you will fall in love with her even as she plummets down a dark path that inevitably results in self-destruction and unbearable pain for her loved ones. This book swells with so much emotion and is so brilliantly constructed that all I can really say is this: Read it, folks. Read it for good writing. Read it for entertainment. Read it to be a better person. Read it for any reason at all. Whatever your motives, do not miss this book. It’s important.
One of my great joys in life is discovering a wonderful short story writer who I was previously unfamiliar with. This year, my favorite new discovery was Alissa Nutting. Rarely do I find a collection that fills me with as much joy as her debut, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. If you’re a fan of Kelly Link or the sweeter side of Carlton Mellick III, or if you simply enjoy well-written stories that are as weird and funny as they are thoughtful and emotionally engaging, Alissa Nutting just might be your new favorite writer.
I’ve been a fan of Douglas Lain since I was in high school, so it’s incredibly surreal for me to now be his editor. In my humble opinion, he’s the greatest science fiction writer alive and the most deserving torchbearer to Philip K. Dick. In person and on paper, Douglas Lain is brilliant. He enlightens as he entertains, and you never know quite where he’ll take you next. His first book, the collection Last Week’s Apocalypse, caused a little revolutionary uprising inside my seventeen-year-old brain. Now, with Wave of Mutilation, Douglas Lain has become the revolution. This book will only take you an hour or two to read, but I’m willing to bet that it will change your life.
Sam Pink is an indomitable force in modern fiction. He’s like an early Mike Tyson with the spirit of Evander Holyfield. I’ve probably laughed out loud more while reading his work than I have any other living writer, period. You’ll feel comforted and somewhat disturbed as you find yourself relating to the eccentric characters and disembodied voices that occupy his fiction and poetry. And he writes such perfect, tight sentences. I’ve read this book too many times to count, and I’ll probably read it countless more times in the next year or so.
Bottom line is this:
1. Sam Pink is the best writer writing about young people in America today.
2. The No Hellos Diet is the best book ever written about working in a department store.
Geek Love, written by Portland author Katherine Dunn, sat near the top of my TBR mountain for years. When Kirsten and I were selecting books to bring along on our honeymoon at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, I chose Geek Love among a handful of other titles. Kirsten’s first choice was Swamplandia by Karen Russell, also a ‘sideshow novel.’
During my last semester at Evergreen College before moving to Portland on an internship with Eraserhead Press, I was part of a program that allowed me to basically construct my own curriculum. I decided to study freaks in literature. There are some great books that tackle the subject, notably Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body and Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Image. Also on my reading list were Nobel Prize winners Gunter Grass and Par Lagerkvist, Carson McCullers, and other great writers, but somehow I never got around to Geek Love. Perhaps it was for the best, because when I finally did read it, I was doing so during some of the happiest days in my life. There’s no better time to discover a great book.
I’m just gonna come out and say it. Amos Tutuola knocked me on my ass. Reading The Palm-Wine Drinkard rekindled the brain explosion of discovering a completely original voice for the first time. I’ll always remember the first time I read Kafka. I’ll never forget my experience with Tutuola either. If you aspire to write bizarro or any other form of strange fiction, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a must-read.
This is the only book on the list that I haven’t finished yet, partially because I don’t want it to end and also because every section is so devastating. Fiction this perfect doesn’t come around very often. When it does, treat it like gold. While you’re at it, check out everything else that Penguin put out under their Writers from Another Europe series.
James Ellroy fans, prepare to shoot me. When I’m in the mood for crime fiction, Jim Thompson and Tom Piccirilli stand alone at the top of my list. The more I read of these guys, the more I want to read them — and write what they’re writing (or in Thompson’s case, what he wrote). Just thinking about Every Shallow Cut makes me want to drop all my plans this evening and burn through the novella again. That’s because Tom Piccirilli writes like a man on fire. His sentences bob and weave like classic pugilists. His characters are desperate in all the right ways. Every Shallow Cut demonstrates a master of gritty poetics at the top of his game. Read everything by him, starting with this book and his southern gothic, A Choir of Ill Children.
Nobody can take a tired formula and transform it into an original, hilarious, awesomely weird book quite like Carlton Mellick III. In I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter, Mellick takes on the romantic comedy formula. Remaining totally faithful to one of the most overused story arcs in Hollywood, he transforms it into a heartfelt masterpiece that couldn’t possibly have been written by anyone else. As a bonus, the main character lives in a LEGO house. That alone would have earned it a spot on this list.
Ben Loory’s stories are a delight. They’re magical and simply told, with a peculiar sadness creeping in around the edges. Perfect fairy tales for the twenty-first century. Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day contains some of the finest really-short short stories that I’ve encountered in a long time. If you write any flash fiction at all, I recommend studying these stories.
Six years after the release of the cult hit Angel Dust Apocalypse, Jeremy Robert Johnson’s new collection has finally dropped. From the body-horror freakout “When Susurrus Stirs” to the larger-than-life, awesomely touching “Persistence Running,” We Live Inside You contains Jeremy’s best work and the most diverse range of dark fiction you’re likely to find in a single author collection. It’s a triumphant return of one of today’s top short story writers. I’m amazed.