Amelia Gray’s Favorite Reads from 2011

Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She lives in Los Angeles. THREATS (FSG, March 2012) is her first novel.

I’m going to do this the selfish way and write about books I discovered this year, and so they might as well have been published in 2011 because that’s when I found them and I’m the boss, applesauce.

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.”

The stories in this collection were sickening, hilarious, and riveting throughout. Where else on your bookshelf are you going to find a man who eats a whole chicken raw, guts and all, and tells the story while smoking a block of mildewed Lebanese hash? This is the kind of collection that folks mimic when they’re looking for an authentic voice.

If ’n Oof by Brian Chippendale
“HAH! I would be Lost without you dear Water!”

I like to read a handful of graphic novels every year. It tickles a different part of the brain and is a good palate cleanser to get back to writing, particularly after some of the amazing voice-driven books on this list. This one is a brick of a book, a collection of intertwined travels featuring the eponymous main characters. It’s sweet and terrifying, like a candy apple full of rat poison.

Paris Trance: A Romance by Geoff Dyer
“Luke arrived in Paris at one of the worst possible times, in mid-July, when the city was preparing to close down for August.”

Dyer makes a little Fitzgerald reference at the opening of this book and I think Gatsby is an apt comparison for the wandering tone of friends and lovers in Paris. This one’s great for its unique shifting point of view that made me think about how to control a narrator’s voice.

The Weather Stations by Ryan Call
“Finally the weather withdrew its hostile presence, and we emerged from the damp caves and tunnels of our age of refuge to celebrate the miracle above our heads.”

Quiet and restrained and very pretty, but dangerous. I think of this one as a fine tablecloth covering an anthill. Call’s prose is spot-on in this indie release from Caketrain. He’s one to watch, and this collection is one to read, savor, and gift to your coolest friend.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
“I don’t know what I should talk about—about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about?”

A devastating book. I group this one with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on the short-list of Books That Ruined Me for a Number of Months. The fact that this one is a personal oral history (translated beautifully by Gessen) gives it even more of a gut-punch. This book gut-punches you in the back alley behind an industrial history museum.

Ghosts by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews
“Perched on their high heels, the ladies were climbing the dusty stairs scattered with pieces of rubble; since the banisters had not yet been fitted, they had to be especially careful.”

The passage above captures how I felt about this whole short book—precarious, balanced on the edge of a precipice. This is a fine-tuned novella that follows a handful of families into their new apartment building as they interact casually with the ghosts who already live there.

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver
“It doesn’t matter what you know about a famous object—being in its presence is altogether a different story.”

A few genre-mixers on my list this year! Here’s another one, mixing a healthy dose of sci-fi into the literary novella. This is the funnier companion to Ghosts (though Ghosts has some funny bits too). Makes me think of Don Quixote as a matter modulator. Seriously though, what do I need to do to make you start your Aira collection? Do I need to do a backflip? Because that will kill me, friend.

New York Tyrant 8 (Vol. 3, No. 2), Various
“He got out and watched as she drove away. Then he went inside the house and put his hands to his face.”

Too much good stuff to detail from this great issue of NYT. (The above is from Brandon Hobson’s “Downtown,” maybe my favorite in the issue.) Excellent work also from Luke Goebel, Ken Baumann, Czar Gutierrez, Noy Holland, Sean Kilpatrick, and more.

All Authors’ and Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2011

The Introduction