BY MIKE BEEMAN
[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their favorite books from the past 12 months and beyond.]
So it’s that time of the year again. “Best of” season. We all know that “Best of the Year” lists are completely subjective, a handful of famous writers are over-represented, the idea that anyone can read a broad enough range of books published in a given year to judge which is among the best is obviously ridiculous, etc. But, hey, they are also kind of fun. I read a lot of good books this year, the vast majority published before 2012, but here are three I read in and of this year that stand out (and one from a previous year for good measure):
May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks
It’s hard to believe this is Amber Sparks’ first book: most of the short stories in this collection have appeared in some of the indie lit world’s best-known magazines. With multiple publications in Annalemma, The Collagist, Unsaid, Pank, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and others, Sparks’ surreal and quirky stories were already ubiquitous both online and in print by the time this collection came out. It’s easy to see why. The stories in May We Shed pack a lot in their often few pages, forming mini-fables that combine timeless themes with modern sensibilities (see Death and the People, where a jaded Grim Reaper interrupts the all-powerful gods as they play Mario Kart). Sparks’ tales offer enough variety from story to story to avoid too much repetition. Reading this collection is like dipping into pockets of complete surreal-yet-recognizable worlds, and the only complaint I can think of is that sometimes Sparks lets us out too soon.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Fountain earned my undying fandom when I first came across his amazing short story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” in the 2005 O’Henry collection. In a very strong collection, this story was a stand-out. Although he made us wait for Billy Lynn, famously shelving a novel he struggled with for years, the wait was worth it. Billy Lynn follows the members of Bravo Company, soldiers recently made celebrities from a viral video of their action in Iraq, as they are treated to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game. Steeped in pop culture, fluidly switching between past and present as the nineteen-year-old soldier Billy Lynn muses on his life and sudden celebrity, Fountain digs deep into what it means to be returning from war and preparing to leave for war again. Although his extensive research shows on every page, what impressed me most was not Fountain’s accurate portrayal of the soldiers, which was spot-on, but the way he captures the non-soldiers, everyone else—i.e. you and me—as we approach the soldiers to mumble thanks and platitudes about honor and sacrifice. Aside from an annoying and unnecessary typography stunt, this book is pitch-perfect.
Fires of Our Own Choosing, by Eugene Cross
Unlike Sparks and Fountain, I had did not discover Eugene Cross until his book came out -an obvious oversight on my part. I heard him read half of a story from “Fires” at a reading in DC and immediately bought the book. The collection, largely set in and around Erie, Pennsylvania, chronicling disasters in the lives of Cross’ working-class characters, is a combination of Ron Rash and Bonnie Jo Campbell. Thanks to Cross’ experiments with different forms and points of view, this collection never comes off as repetitive even as he mines the similar themes in each story. I can’t wait to see what this writer has in store for us next. Read my full review here.