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Desiderata: 2011, Our Favorite Debuts
Kicking off a weeklong fascination with our own cultural tastes, we bring you our favorite debuts from 2011.
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): For debut novel, I’m going with Justin Torres’s We the Animals. Emma Straub’s Other People We Married takes it for short story collection. I love when the underdogs win. Torres, a scholarship student at the Tin House Summer Workshop, was an unlikely brake-out publishing sensation with his raw, hallucinatory, and fractured look at a mixed-race family under crisis. Straub’s charming yet fiercely-observed sleeper was published by indie Five Chapters Books, garnered a series of raves and is going to get the big publishing treatment next February by Riverhead, which is also going to be publishing her novel.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Leaving the Atocha Station. The poet Ben Lerner’s debut novel is 181 pages, and took me three weeks to finish. Not because of the density of language (it’s remarkably direct), or because it couldn’t keep my interest (I thought about the book constantly), or even because I was terribly busy (one day I watched four episodes in a row of Extreme Couponing). I kept having to put the book down because it made me feel uncomfortable—about my own insecurities, my own feelings of fraudulence, my own bullshit. Just when I was ready to write off Adam as a deplorable sad-sack character, I’d recognize something of myself in him, and I’d need to take a shower. But for all that fear of fraudulence, there’s an incredible honesty to Leaving Atocha Station, and it’s impossible not to wrestle with the questions of identity, language, art, and experience right alongside Adam.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): Swamplandia! is Karen Russells’ debut novel, if not her debut, but as Russell’s most extreme fangirl, I can’t help but give her the nod (I would wear an alligator costume and dance in the back row of her readings if I didn’t think I’d be escorted from the premises). Russell writes the stories I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to read; they’re wild, charmingly gangly things with as much heart as they have imagination. The novel is no exception. A full unpacking of my Swamplandia! love can be found here.
Lance Cleland (Associate Director, Writer’s Workshop): I am going with Donald Ray Pollock’s debut (novel) The Devil All the Time. Just good old-fashioned crackling storytelling. The kind that keeps you up late and passing the book to friends. Murder, haunted backroads, a crooked lawman; all topics featured in the novel which also happen to be dead center in my literary wheelhouse. And Pollock has just the right chops to keep the story from becoming a dimestore novel cliche. Jim Thompson would be proud.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints explored the straight-edge music scene through a crew of misfit teenagers and their families. It’s beautifully written, amazingly rich and confident for a debut, and direct but tender with its ragtag bunch of characters.
Elizabeth Pusack (Intern, Tin House Magazine): One Day I Will Write about This Place: A Memoir. One Day, which takes place in Kenya, South Africa and the U.S. at intervals, is one of the most nuanced portraits of “Africa” I’ve read. Wainaina carries readers all the way into 2010–where there are the corrupt elections we are accustomed to, but where Tupac T-Shirts, Obama-mania and Harry Potter also reign! As a reader of a lot of now decades-old post-colonial literature, the timeliness of this book feels really awesome, but “Africa” wasn’t even central to my love of One Day. The book is really about the evolution of an artist, the alternately deliberate and unwitting cultivation of voice. My favorite writing on writing this year.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Marcus Jackson’s Neighborhood Register. These are beautiful poems about places that often see little beauty. No matter where I was when I read Mr. Jackson’s poems I felt I was somewhere important, somewhere honest and celebrated.
Desiree Andrews (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Books): I’ve been inexplicably obsessed with all things that involve obsession lately and Sara Levine’s debut novel Treasure Island!!! fits that theme well. It’s funny–filled with humor that is sarcastic, subtle and unexpected. A sharp and original portrayal of suburban life that is extremely fun to read. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia is a close second.
Nanci McCloskey (Director of Publicity, Tin House Books): My favorite debut novel of the year, and perhaps my favorite book of the year full stop: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a novel. Her words are infused with uncommon power and emotional resonance. Everyone should read this book.
Drew Swenhaugen (Small Press Beat, The Open Bar): Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me by Mark Leidner. Best title, cover and favorite book of poetry I’ve read this year. Clever and witty, and downright touching.
Holly MacArthur (Deputy Publisher) Hooked by John Franc. I consider this book a debut because my tight-lipped colleagues at Tin House Books have refused to reveal who “John Franc” really is. What I do know is that “Franc” has written a book in which the mostly unlikable men are monotonously ruled by their basest desires and the women (or rather the madonnas-and-whores) are as deeply inked as a press-on tattoo. That said, Hooked is a book that I loved to hate–and one I could not put down.