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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Desiderata: Our Favorite Short Fiction of 2013
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories (FSG, March 2013) was–hands down–my favorite story collection of 2013. It’s funny, sad, tender, and unforgettable. Not totally sold? If you read just one story, pick “Deniers,” (in my mind, the standout of the collection) a tale of unlikely love in a cardio ballet class in a New York Jewish Community Center. After reading, you won’t be able to put The Fun Parts down.
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): Amina Cain’s Creature. Dorothy, a publishing project, is one of the best-curated micor-presses going, and Amina Cain’s collection Creature is further proof. Clocking in at 144 pages, it looks like it’s going to be a quick read–the stories are slight on the white space of the page–until you start reading. And then re-reading. Not as strange as your Museum of the Weird (Amelia Gray) or your Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell), the stories here are shadowed and shadowy. As painfully close as you get to Cain’s characters, there are things they’re not going to say, things that won’t be revealed. They seem like people who have survived something sublime and retreated with it. cain’s prose is deft, and the sly, dry humor of the stories relieves the sense of suspense for an event that has already passed.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House): I’ve mentioned this book in this space before, but the Dorothy Project’s collection of three Manuela Draeger stories, In the Time of the Blue Ball, was the most exciting thing I read in 2013. Draeger is a French writer of children’s stories and is a fictional character in the novels of Antoine Volodine (pen name of an secretive but presumably French writer). The fact that this is fictional fiction would of course be inconsequential if the stories weren’t as good as they are, but once you know, it’s hard to forget that these beyond-surreal stories are meant to have been written by a librarian living in an already surreal world. Brian Evenson’s translation is bouncy, fun, and delirious.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): It’s been quite a while since I read You Only Get Letters from Jail and I still worry about the lost boys and girls within. Jodi Angel’s prose is sharp and true as she exposes the confusion, disappointment, and turmoil (The fucking turmoil.) of the adolescent badlands. Her words come at you like a ’71 Mach 1 with a stoned teenager behind the wheel. You’ll fare better than Elbow Ritchie’s victim in “Firm and Good,” but you’ll be different—different and better—for having read these stories.
Diane Chonette (Art Director, Tin House): Jodi Angel’s short stories have been entertaining me since we first published “A Good Deuce” in the Tin House summer reading issue back in 2011. Her writing is so gritty and real and you can’t help but be slightly knocked off balance to find that she is writing from the perspective of an adolescent he. You Only Get Letters From Jail is a collection that easily sits at the top of my list for 2013.
Holly Laycock (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): You Only Get Letters From Jail by Jodi Angel. Is it biased if I pick a Tin House book? At the risk of this sounding like a cheap plug, I’m championing Jodi Angel’s You Only Get Letters From Jail as my favorite of 2013 because, Tin House Book or not, it’s still the best I’ve read all year. The adolescent boys she writes about are boys that I grew up around–country kids with simple pleasures in that strange, murky inbetween of boyhood and manhood. Reading her stories, I was transported back to my teenage years–entire days out by the lake, drinking cheap beer in parking lots, and not really knowing what was next. Just like her characters, every page of this collection has a bristly, raw smack of reality to it that I just couldn’t put down.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Rebecca Lee’s debut story collection, Bobcat, is a perfect book. Within the first few pages, I knew I wasn’t going to want it to end, and so I limited myself to one story a day to stretch out the experience as long as possible. I won’t attempt to summarize the collection, but I will say that each story is equal in the beauty of its prose and the strength of its emotional wallop, each story memorable in its own original and haunting way. I know this is a collection I will return to again and again.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories, by Karen Russell. Russells short stories are strange and energetic, alive and peculiar and never stuck in some old model of rising action and falling action. Thank god!
Brandi Dawn Henderson (Intern, The Open Bar): This summer, I worked in a remote area of Alaska, and was gifted with a gorgeous amount of reading time. Mostly, I alternated between Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels and short story collections by Charles Baxter. Though, as the leaves began to drop and the wearing of gloves (indoors) made it more challenging to turn the pages, I finally dug out what would be the prize novel of my literary summer. It was magical like Marquez, and it dealt with “everyday folks” just like in Baxter’s stories. The difference, though, was that those ordinary people were actually former U.S. Presidents reborn as horses; or little girls sold into silkworm slavery, their bellies swollen with colored thread; or lemon-sucking vampires tired out by an immortal marriage. Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell, is not only the best collection I’ve read this year, it’s the best book I’ve ever read. I can’t count the times, since finishing it, that people have stared blankly at me as I try to convey how brilliant it is that Russell delivers the reader Rutherford B. Hayes living a second life as a horse in a stable, location unknown. It is impossible to communicate the delight of Russell’s ideas without having a personal experience with the razzle-dazzle of her imagery, without the ordinariness with which she presents magical notions. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so weird, so compassionate, so smart, and Karen Russell is my hero.
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): I can’t just pick one. George Saunders Tenth of December. Whew, what dark, disturbing book, inventively exposing the raw, weird failures of unfettered capitalism better than any nonfiction book ever could. Similarly, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water follows those on the economic margins, and does so with Walter’s trademark wit and playfulness. For pure imaginative flair with a deep emotional current, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove won me over.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): The first time I read “Anything Helps,” the opening story in We Live in Water, I was staying with my extended family on a trip. It was about one in the morning when I finished, and I remember reeling, emotionally gutted, on my bed for a few minutes, then wandering around the house, knocking on bedroom doors, looking for someone else to make read the story and share in the gutting I’d just received. This to me is the highest sign of a story well told: that feeling that what you’ve just read is too big to keep to yourself. All of Walter’s writing in this collection has this in spades. It’s not just that Walter is the most superb sort of narrative craftsman; it’s the faith Walter’s writing places in those who are down on their luck, in addicts and blue collar dads, that make his work so compelling and will make you want to press this book on loved ones and strangers alike.
Veronica Martin (Columnist, The Open Bar): Lydia Davis’ short “The Language Of Things In The House” in the Paris Review this past summer—one of the five shorts in Five Stories published in Issue No. 205—has sort of lodged itself in my head. The piece is a list of the sounds made by everyday actions, translated into a spoken language: “The wooden spoon in the bowl stirring the pancake mix: ‘What the hell, what the hell.’ … Cat jumping down onto bathroom tiles: ‘Va bene.’ … Water running into a glass jar: ‘Mohammad.’ … Rubber flip flop squeaking on a wooden floor: Echt.’ Those words become at times a mantra, a lullaby, a work song, a prayer. Perhaps they are words you need to hear before you even know it, or they are words you like, or maybe it’s just that you’ve heard them recently. I think of them as a given language and accent particular to their certain ceramic curve or grain of wood, a language with a million interpretations, a million translations, a million resonations.
Victoria Savanh (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg. This collection had a lingering effect on me, perhaps because of its determination to accept and subtly emphasize that often times there is no grand conclusion or epiphany. From “Acrobat,” one of my favorite lines is “I don’t believe in consequences. There’s just what happens and what doesn’t.” The stories revolve around women who are in between, seeking escape somehow, and navigating the results of their actions. It’s a deeply satisfying collection that I’m sure I’ll come back to again and again.