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Desiderata: 2011, Our Favorite Reads
Concluding our weeklong look in the mirror, we bring you the titles that gave us the most pleasure in 2011.
Tony Perez (Editor, TH Books): If you just flipped through Yannick Murphey’s The Call, it’d be easy to believe it is, at best, some interesting structural experiment (or at worst, some cheap gimmick). The book is formatted as the field notes of a rural veterinarian:
CALL: A cow with her dead calf half-born.
ACTION: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
RESULT: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.
THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME WHILE PASSING RED AND GOLD LEAVES ON MAPLE TREES: Is there a nicer place to live?
But it’s not long before the “actions” start revealing a rich interior, and the formal elements fade into the reader’s subconscious until Murphy feels the urge to grab our attention again (WHAT JANE EYRE HAD: A really sad life). The Call’s structure allows Murphy to explore the terrain of a quiet, domestic novel without for a moment crossing into the staid, tired, derivative territory that “quiet, domestic novel” might suggest. Instead, it had me itching to read on and, several times, near tears—not the least of which was when I learned another press had outbid us for the manuscript. God damn you, Harper Perennial! And god bless you for publishing such a brilliant, innovative, and moving book.
Desiree Andrews (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Books): I also really loved The Call by Yannick Murphy. The structure drew me in immediately but I was skeptical that the sincere yet simple voice of the protagonist would stay interesting throughout the book. It did, and through that sincerity, and the delicate off-kilter moments that pepper the narrative, The Call held up as a gentle yet powerful read.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Of Lamb by Matthea Harvey, paintings by Amy Jean Porter. This collaboration made me feel human, again, during a time when I felt less than anything with a working heart and lungs! We are all of lamb.
Elizabeth Pusack (Intern, Tin House Magazine): Heather Christle’s The Trees the Trees. I just read a review likening these poems to little mazes! The reviewer was talking about shape and staging, but Heather Christle’s writing does feel like very offbeat problem solving. So many riddles like this one with strange particulars, but particularly familiar cores: “I lost my phone I am using the baby monitor / instead it’s in the flowers nobody’s calling / but I know that someday you will it’s just plan math.” She does this awesome thing which is to offer sweetness and jokes and the sinister all at once! It was so good to hear these in her own voice a couple of times this fall. If she’s ever reading in your town, Go Listen!
Meg Story (Editor, Tin House Books): Given that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favorite plays and Chris Adrian is one of my favorite authors, it’s no surprise that Adrian’s The Great Night is my favorite book of 2011. A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s work, The Great Night reminds us hapless mortal readers that we are lucky in our limitless abilities to love and to grieve–and to find redemption in our midst.
Lance Cleland (Associate Director, Tin House Workshop): Our own greatness aside, there was not a publishing house whose titles I devoured more this year than Europa Editions. Besides publishing one of my favorite debuts (Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing), they also provided me with my favorite read of the year, Patrick Hamilton’s viciously melancholic Hangover Square. Combining the best of Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith, Hamilton takes the classic guy falls for the wrong gal trope and drops it a vat of booze, stirs it with some murderous thoughts, and produces one of the most riveting character studies I have ever read. Set in the London underworld just before the start of WWII, Hangover Square tells a story of desolation, not just of a city, but of the sad spirits who inhabitant its most grime-filled quarters. As bleak as all this sounds, it is as invigorating a read as you will find.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): This year, I read a number of great books I meant to read long ago–The Painted Veil, The Member of the Wedding, Into the Wild, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings–but the one that surprised me most was Treasure Island. I started reading it as part of conscious project of studying action-driven plot, but was taken in instead by the subtle drawing of its characters and their misdeeds. There’s something Austen-y about Stevenson’s pirate society, but drunk and with guns.