January 10, 2013

The Year in Books: Highlights from Locals and Friends

The Year in Books 2012

(For all the lists in the 2012 "Year in Books" series, please click here.)

For ethical reasons, CCLaP does not give scores to books written or published by our personal friends, which makes them ineligible for the rest of these end-of-year best-of lists; but there was just such an amazing explosion in fantastic books here this year that I wanted to dedicate an entire special day this week just to them. This is not nearly a complete list of all the books put out by friends of ours in 2012, but it's a good sampler that shows just how exciting it is to be involved in the Chicago literary arts these days.

American Gangbang: A Love Story, by Sam Benjamin

American Gangbang: A Love Story, by Sam Benjamin. When I first knew Sam Benjamin a decade ago, he was the owner of the funny and sexy alt-porn production company Jewish Cheerleaders, and was picking up occasional camera work in the traditional porn industry to make ends meet; but by a decade later, he found himself now embroiled full-time in this most cash-flush yet most disturbing of professions, including now living in one of the Los Angeles mansions owned by his employers specifically so they could shoot new titles there on a 24/7 basis. His titillating yet heartbreaking new memoir basically details what happened in those ensuing years, a mesmerizing story of decreased expectations and failed Postmodernist dreams that will intensely appeal to anyone who was a fan of Nerve.com or Suicide Girls at the turn of the century, and wonders how things in the alt-porn industry could've gone so wrong so fast.

Chicago Stories, by Michael Czyzniejewski

May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks

Chicago Stories, by Michael Czyzniejewski and May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks. Of the literally dozens of small and basement presses in Chicago these days pumping out work, easily my favorite is Victor David Giron's Curbside Splendor, for a number of factors -- because they pick such smart writers and manuscripts, because they put out such great looking books, and especially because they seem to have their behind-the-scenes stuff so under control, which has let them accomplish things that no other small press in Chicago is managing right now to do, like get their books featured in such national venues as PBS and the Huffington Post. They put out a bunch of books in 2012, but these were two of my favorites, both of them story collections with unusual bents and super-high quality, by two mid-level writers who both desperately deserved this shot in the arm to their careers. You literally cannot go wrong with any of Curbside's books, so I encourage you to become a fan soon.

Code for Failure, by Ryan W. Bradley

Code for Failure, by Ryan W. Bradley. Oregonian Ryan Bradley is the owner of the small press Artistically Declined (although more on that in a minute); but he's also a creative writer himself, and I have to say one of my most surprisingly enjoyable reads last year was his latest, a deceptively complex mini-story collection about his time as a gas pumper in his early twenties, out of school but not yet a writer, lost in a mental wilderness like so many of us are at that age, and subjected to the Sam-Shepard redneck shenanigans going on around him. A simple book that becomes deeper as you continue, I wish all story collections packed this much of a punch.

The Damnation of Memory, by Mark R. Brand

The Damnation of Memory, by Mark R. Brand. A number of CCLaP's authors were quite busy in 2012 when they weren't dealing with us; take Mark R. Brand, for example, whose latest science-fiction novel finally came out through our friends at Silverthought after a long delay. A gritty post-apocalyptic tale, this sees Mark continuing to evolve and mature as a writer, which fans will be able to see even more of later this year when CCLaP publishes his brand-new story collection Long Live Us.

We Only Know So Much, by Elizabeth Crane

We Only Know So Much, by Elizabeth Crane. She lives in Texas now, but longtime Chicagoan Elizabeth Crane continues to crank out her trademark funny and revealing looks at the small events of big people (or is that the big events of small people?). Her latest, a highly enjoyable Franzen-like dysfunctional-family story, turned in 2012 into the biggest book now of her career, and I'm happy to say that we're going to have a fuller write-up of it here at the blog in just another week or two.

Lucky Man: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Ben Tanzer

Lucky Man: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Ben Tanzer. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business continued his phenomenal working schedule in 2012; and among his other projects, he was lucky enough to have had Ryan Bradley at Artistically Declined Press do a major re-release of his first-ever novel, originally put out by a basement press that is now defunct and with the title having gone out of print long ago. And I'm extremely happy that this happened, because I still consider this the best book so far of Ben's career, a bleakly dark "S.E. Hinton on crack" coming-of-age tale with a kind of gravitas that is often missing from his newer, more popular but certainly more light-hearted romantic comedies.

Snowball's Chance: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by John Reed

Snowball's Chance: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by John Reed. One of the biggest personal highlights of 2012 for me was the chance to become better friends with New York author and Brooklyn Rail editor John Reed, a writer I'm convinced will one day become part of the 21st-century historical canon and who has just had such a fascinating life in general away from his writing. (If you ever get the chance, ask him about his youthful days in the '80s running around from one art gallery to the next in lower Manhattan, essentially acting as a "cool hunter" for upper-class collectors looking for work they could quickly flip for a profit.) I'm going to be doing a critical overview of his entire career later this spring, but in the meanwhile he also had a tenth-anniversary reprint out in 2012, for this Animal-Farm-inspired what-if tale put out for the second time by the amazing Melville House.

Solace in So Many Words, by Ellen Wade Beals

Solace in So Many Words, by Ellen Wade Beals. So who's the most tireless worker currently in the world of basement presses? Well, a good candidate would be one-woman machine Ellen Wade Beals, whose impressive anthology about seeking peace in troubled times seemed to show up at every book show and art fair in the entire Midwest last year. A great collection that deserves all the attention it's gotten, that wouldn't be nearly as much as it is if not for the unwavering belief Beals has displayed for it, and it's this kind of blood, sweat and tears that precisely shows what's so exciting about the world of underground literature, and why you will never see such dedication merely from a series of salaried employees at a major press.

Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski

Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski. I'm proud to say that writer and visual artist Laura Szumowski has a long history with CCLaP -- she not only illustrated Ben Tanzer's The New York Stories and did the front cover of Kevin Haworth's Famous Drownings in Literary History, but designed our "angry girl" logo that's now been distributed via hipster sticker in the thousands to the general public. But Laura runs her own basement press as well, which among other things publishes funny yet informative guides to female health issues; and the latest in this line is a newly updated guide to that most special of "lady buttons" out there (er, the clitoris, I'm talking about the clitoris), a frank but highly enjoyable volume that speaks plainly about a topic that many people find difficult to speak plainly about.

And that's it for today, but make sure to stop by again tomorrow for the last part of this report, when for the sixth year in a row we proudly give out the CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:26 AM, January 10, 2013. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles | Reviews |