We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from John Domini, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
Ten, Anyway: reluctant but heartfelt, a list of a year’s good, obscure reading for The Quarterly Conversation
Lists are odious, brainless, even cruel—and also handy, irresistible, only natural. The depth and insight of actual criticism has always meant more to me than any Top Ten. I can’t deny, however, that even Walter Benjamin celebrated his own select few (Kafka and Proust both owe him a debt), and even Vladimir Nabokov, in his brief piece “On Inspiration,” trotted through an inventory of the colleagues he respected most (including a surprising name or two, like John Barth). So when TQC requested I tote up my year’s most rewarding reading and post the results, who was I to act the snob?
Rather than refusing, I’ve used a filter. I’ll grant that plenty of fine titles appeared on New York’s commercial presses. I’ve read McBride’s National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird, and here’s another glass of champagne (though didn’t anyone else feel that the novel returned too often to the same satiric note?). Still, granting that much, I don’t see how another list of the biggies on FSG and Knopf will add anything. Instead, I’ll offer a double-handful my favorite small- and independent-press reading over the past year. Small-press, everyone! Note, too, that a few of the titles aren’t exactly 2013. Caveat emptor.
1) George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Peter Dimock (Dalkey Archive, 2013). An impossible text, a set of instructions rather than a story, yet Dimock pierces the heart of the callousness and tragedy of America under Bush II.
2) Cataclysm Baby, Matt Bell (Mudluscious Press, 2012). Bell has gone on to bigger things, but this brutal and poetic abecedarium remains his key work, the one where he forged his apocalyptic redemption.
3) The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Archipelago Books, 2014). J.M Coetze translated, and this woman’s vision of slavery and escape, alive with the terrors of both, invites comparison to no less a book than Waiting for the Barbarians.
4) Mira Corpora, Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 2013). A miracle: a bildungsroman that leaves what it’s building in ruins, that trashes its hero’s metanarrative like a take-no-prisoners postmodern, and yet, in the reading, proves exciting, swift, and altogether a delight.
5) Cannonball, Joseph McElroy (Dzanc Books, 2013). The old dog, McElroy, performs a spectacular new trick, tracking how two SoCal youngsters are perverted by the country’s Iraq misadventure, and the Gospels along with them, all in challenging prose spirals.
6) Scouting the Reaper, Jacob M. Appel (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Sensational short stories, realism of rare imagination — zoo penguins and teen runaways, anyone? — distinguished throughout by a prodigious gift for rendering personality on a thumbnail.
7) Train Shots, Vanessa Blakeslee (Burrow Press, 2014). Our newly stunted America discovers itself in a trailer park, with connections damn close to surreal. Every one of these stories glistens some conversation teetering between cruelty and crying for mercy.
8) The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Gabriel Blackwell (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013). A Pale Fire prank, false lit cum false footnotes, and a brilliant collusion of Lovecraft’s monsters and the monstrous reality of life at poverty level.
9) Submergence, J.M. Ledgard (Coffee House Press, 2013). Sumptuous clash-of-culture material which, like Dimock’s, forages for a few incidences of the ethical and the good, even in ravaged Africa.
10) Jagannath: Stories, by Karin Tidbeck (Cheeky Frawg, 2012). Fantasy to set your back-hairs bristling, the dream-stuff close to terror even when the story’s a romance, and the best enact old myths with a jaundiced, up-to-the-minute awareness.