Category Archives: Tania James

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations on—Auslander is mocking the form of the reshaping, not the proximate cause of it.

Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages: Four short stories about anxiety, the internet, commodification, and sex, to various degrees. The best is “Emission,” about the impossibility connecting your online identity with your real one; the trickiest one is “Sent,” which is about pornography and finds a way to feel nightmarish without being sanctimonious.

Lucy Ferriss, The Lost Daughter: A domestic novel with a brutal opening: A teenage girl recruits her boyfriend to deliver a planned stillbirth, and it’s as painful to witness as you’d expect. But the child, they learn to their surprise 15 years on, has survived, and they have to make sense of that living. There’s a lot of melodrama here, but Ferriss earns most of her twists, and the Polish-immigrant family is treated with a degree of nuance and sensitivity that’s remarkable among a host of novels that treat immigrants as curiosities and sideshows.

Jeff Gomez, Beside Myself: This iPad-app novel is an Paul Auster-ish metafiction told three times over. Its three plot threads follow Gomez as a divorcee, a happily married family man, and husband whose life is going off the rails—each aware of their doppelgangers. The app allows you to jumble the narrative, which deliberately complicates the idea of which character we as readers tend to privilege. (Usually the first one, but there’s no “first one” here.) Smart and, unlike many such apps, disinclined to use every bell and whistle on offer.

Tania James, Aerogrammes: James’ second book is a collection of stories mainly focused on the lives if Indian-Americans, and her imagination is broad: “What to Do With Henry” tracks the strange bond between a chimpanzee and the humans he interacts with, and “Girl Marries Ghosts” is set in a world where dating ghosts is a real possibility. Throughout James gets a lot of mileage showing how much of ourselves we project onto others, human and nonhuman alike.

Lia Purpura, Rough Likeness: I admire Purpura’s range: A color, a word for a color, scavengers, Tuscaloosa. She’s stubbornly dedicated to the lyric essay as a place to experiment with form and topic; few books I read in 2012 had so many well-made sentences.

David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, eds., Fakes: Shields’ ongoing project to smash the support beams of conventional fiction (or maybe just expose them; hard to tell sometimes) clearly led him to help assemble this collection, which is largely made up of parodies of everyday forms of writing. (Jack Pendarvis’ “Our Spring Catalog” brilliantly sends up publishing-speak.) But fiction can’t survive on satire alone—one hopes—and the best stories here thrive on taking their artificial formats and making something sincere from them: Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self-Study,” Charles McLeod’s “National Treasures,” Caron A. Levis’ “Permission Slip.”

Patrick Somerville, This Bright River: The publication of D.T. Max’s biography and the posthumous collection Both Flesh and Not this year gave readers new opportunities to mourn David Foster Wallace anew and anew. Left relatively undiscussed was who might be Wallace’s inheritors. I’m not sure Somerville wants the gig—his first novel, The Cradle, was a trim fable, not an outsize, culture-hoovering epic. But this novel evokes what Wallace’s fans admired: Deep intelligence, a capacity to write in a a variety of modes, a fixation on the nature of compassion, and a recognition of how hard it can be to acquire.

Steve Stern, The Book of Mischief Like Steven Millhauser, Steve Stern enjoys exploring the fuzzy line between reality and fantasy, though Stern’s stories are more informed and inspired by traditional Jewish mysticism. It’s hard to call these often funny stories pious, though: Mostly set in enclaves in New York and Memphis, The Book of Mischief is a kind of extended study of the urge to transcend family and community, and how it’s harder than it looks.

Graham Swift, Wish You Were Here: We’re still a way’s away from a literature that faces the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan head-on—a 2012 novel I admired, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, is interesting mainly because it’s about how hard it is to articulate what happens in a war zone. So if we’re stuck with books about how dumbstruck we all are (or all our novelists are), let it be a novel like this one, about how the ceremonies we’ve devised for mourning soldiers aren’t nearly enough to help the survivors heal.

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”