January 9, 2014

The Year in Books: Travis Fortney's "Next Nine"

Since we all already picked our top three books of the year for Monday's Best of the Best list, and since the three books I picked for that list (Jeff Jackson's Mira Corpora, Kevin Powers' Yellow Birds and Diana Wagman's Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets) represent a fairly high percentage of the books that I absolutely fell head over heals for in 2013, I thought I would use this list to highlight the next nine books on my list. I don't mean to recommend these books to absolutely everyone. Rather, these are novels (and one book of short stories) that I personally liked, that conformed well to my sometimes very specific tastes. But without further adieu:

Schroeder by Amity Gaige. The story of Ericy Kennedy, born Eric Schroeder, who kidnaps his daughter and takes her on a memorable road trip just as his life is falling apart. Heavy echoes of Lolita, strong plotting, and quite a few scenes that are icky but propulsive make Schroeder one of 2013's most satisfying reads.

All That Is by James Salter. The award for most memorable image of the year goes to James Salter. It's funny what sticks with us long after we've read, but there's a line or two in this book equating class with bags of dog food swaying in the back of a station wagon. That line has crept into my mind during several trips to Petsmart this year. Which, if I'm somehow equating trips to Petsmart in my beat up Mitsubishi with life in the aristocratic Virginia countryside, then that probably means that the dog food I am buying at Petsmart too expensive. Well, that's undeniable. But the aforementioned image is one of many in All That Is that stuck with me. And Salter is also to be commended for his use of craft and technique.

Canada by Richard Ford. Richard Ford is probably my favorite living novelist, and though his most recent book doesn't feature a protagonist as charming and knowable as Frank Bascombe, and the writing doesn't seem as energized as it does in those novels, Canada still has to count as one of the best novels I read this year. The reason why is the sentences, plain and simple. The number of working American authors that are putting this much care into sentences can be counted on one hand, and you wouldn't need all of your fingers. Canada is the story of Dell Parsons, who is fifteen when his parents rob a bank, then flees to Canada to escape foster care, where he falls under the care of an American named Arthur Remlinger, whom he sees murder two people. But the plot isn't the point. The writing here wants you to slow down in just the same way that almost every other modern novel wants you to speed up.

The Fainting Room by Sarah Pemberton Strong. One of the things I love about reading is that you can never predict which novels are going to stick with you. Who ever would have thought that a novel featuring lesbian sex between a teenager and a thirty year old woman would would end up being one of my favorite novels of the year? But I've always loved a novel that goes off the rails in the final act and becomes a new book entirely. I've also long admired authors who aren't afraid to tread where others might not go. No one could accuse Ms. Strong of fearful writing, and her ear for ecstatic and even worshipful language in the erotic scenes is undeniable. This one comes highly recommended, especially for readers who don't mind a little hot, hot lesbian sex.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik. For me, 2013 was the year of the short, meditative novel. Maybe that's just the kind of novel I chose to read again and again this year. Short and meditative isn't necessarily a recipe for fun, but it can make for a satisfying reading experience. In A Marker to Measure Drift we're introduced to Jacqueline, a young, graceful black woman who is living in a cave on an island in the Aegean Sea. Eventually, the narrative is punctuated by shards of memory. The gray cashmere coat her mother sent her for Christmas, the wide green lawns of her English boarding school. Mr. Maksik uses the simplest of plots, and the sparest methods. We learn that Jacqueline is a refugee from Liberia. The resolution will come when Jacqueline gives voice to her traumas and tell us the details of her story. It all makes for uncomfortable and sometimes gruesome reading, but this is a very effective and contained book.

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee. The best book of short stories I read this year.

A Nearly Perfect Copy by Alison Amend. If you're like me, when a book's description promises an affecting novel about family, and the author has an MFA from Iowa, you feel like you know what you're going to get before you've even cracked it open and read the first sentence. This is going to be a quiet novel. It's going to have pretty sentences, well-drawn characters, not a lot of plot. It might prove to be touching in the end, but it will likely be boring in places, too. It takes Ms. Amend exactly one chapter to defy those low expectations, and less than a hundred pages to lay them to waste completely. A Nearly Perfect Copy combines the art world and cloning with a plot that moves at a thriller-like pace. In my opinion this is one of the most underrated books of 2013, and from an author who has Chicago connections. What's not to love?

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon. The premise of Familiar is simple: a middle-aged woman named Elisa inexplicably enters a parallel universe in which her dead son is alive. If this idea sounds a little, well, familiar, then I am happy to report that Mr. Lennon handles it with style, crafting a narrative that is frightening, compelling, tense and unique. The pages fly by, but there are uncomfortable questions lurking below the surface. Has Elisa gone mad? Is her old life or new life the real one? Is happiness available to her in either version? Familiar was my first introduction to J. Robert Lennon's work, and I'm happy to report that this is definitely a novelist that deserves a larger audience.

(Stop by tomorrow for Karl Wolff's best-of list; or click here for Madeleine Maccar's list and here for our collected "Best of the Best" list.)

Filed by Travis Fortney at 6:51 AM, January 9, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |