As I look back over 2011‚ and my office, piled high with books‚ I realize that there are so many titles I just can’t let go of, even if I couldn’t get them reviewed. And I also can’t let go of the idea of doing a Best Short Stories list, inspired by LJ book review queen Heather McCormack. Herewith, then, ten top story collections from 2011 (plus an honorable mention), five core poetry collections I didn’t want to miss, eight collections from younger poets you’ll be hearing from again, and 14 fiction-in-translation titles that should intrigue a wide range of readers. In addition, don’t miss Angelina Benedetti’s second Best YA crossover list, touting some great books in unusual categories.
Best Short Stories 2011
Barnes, Julian. Pulse. Knopf. ISBN 9780307595263. $25.
Before you grab Barnes’s Booker Prize‚ winning The Sense of an Ending, read his delicious collection of stories, which are ineffably witty yet never condescending to the characters, which come across as brave, aching, and real.
Beach, Lou. 420 Characters: Stories. Houghton Harcourt. ISBN 9780547617930. $22.
Originally posted on illustrator Beach’s Facebook page (which initially limited each entry to no more than 420 characters), these stories aren’t gimmicks but quirky and deeply felt views of the world.
Doctorow. E.L. All the Time in the World: New and Selected Short Stories. Random. ISBN 9781400069637. $26.
The Pulitzer Prize winner collects stories new and familiar and groups them not by character or setting but by their similar mental light‚ an approach that is an enjoyable as it is illuminating.
Hrbek, Greg. Destroy All Monsters: And Other Stories. Bison: Univ. of Nebraska. ISBN 9780803236448. pap. $14.95.
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Hrbek’s brutally forthright and forthrightly beautiful first collection (after the award-winning novel The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly) studies the monster in us all.
Latiolais, Michelle. Widow: Stories. Bellevue Literary. ISBN 9781934137307. pap. $14.95.
Quietly, unflinchingly, Latiolais‚ an award-winning novelist and codirector of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine‚ explores the raw, aching terrain of the newly widowed.
Millhauser, Steven. We Others: New and Selected Stories. Knopf. ISBN 9780307595904. $27.95.
Encompassing three decades of work and ranging from ghosts to teenage boys to Thomas Edison in his laboratory, this collection from the Pulitzer Prize winner is, not unexpectedly, dark, magical, and wickedly beautiful.
Pearlman, Edith. Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories. Lookout Books. ISBN 9780982338292 $18.95.
Winner of Pen/Malamud Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and finalist for the National Book Award, Pearlman’s collection is this year’s stunner, bringing a writer we should all have known better to the fore. Every story is a surprise.
Shepard, Jim. You Think That’s Bad: Stories. Knopf. ISBN 9780307594822. $24.95.
Shepard takes chances, as do his characters, and here he ranges widely in fiercely beautiful prose, proving that his National Book Award nomination for Like You’d Understand, Anyway was no fluke.
Thon, Melanie Rae. In This Light: New and Selected Stories. Graywolf. ISBN 9781555975852. pap. $15.
Thon, named one of Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists (check out this year’s amazing The Voice of the River), offers troubled characters in hard environments yet never abandons them to their fate.
Woodrell, Daniel. The Outlaw Album. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316057561. $24.99.
Purveyor of such terrific novels as Winter’s Bone, Woodrell here offers a first collection that similarly explores folks on the edge in dark, bracing language.
Honorable mention: Don’t forget Bruce Machart’s astonishing Men in the Making (Houghton Harcourt. ISBN 978015603449. $24), tough-minded stories of working men and down-and-outers that are not for the faint of heart. It’s as absorbing as the author’s fiction debut, The Wake of Forgiveness, a little relentless but satisfying for everyone.
Five Core Poetry Collections I Nearly Missed
Cruz, Victor Hernández. In the Shadow of Al-Andalus. Coffee House, dist. by Consortium. ISBN 978156689277. pap. $16.
Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and winner of the Louis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award, Cruz writes bright, vigorous poetry that dances lightly across the surface. Here, he brings his talents to bear on how the cultures of Spain, North Africa, and Puerto Rico have been influenced by Islamic culture. Sprinkled with the right words (Coast to coast sailors wrapped in djellebas, Sahara is the thought of my word), the poems create a vivid sense of visitation. Is that enough? Maybe; lots of readers will engage.
Mackey, Nathaniel. Nod House. New Directions, dist. by Norton. ISBN 9780811219464. pap. $15.95.
Mackey picks up right where Splay Anthem, his 2006 National Book Award winner left off, sending us on one long and exciting journey (There we stood leaning forward, one/ hand gripping the balcony rail, the/ other an Asafo flag). This is rich, jangly, and atmospheric, maybe too densely packed for modest readers (Risen waft, anabatic/ whiff./ Buried our heads in/ Erzulie’s loin-musk). But serious poetry readers and all those interested in African American verse will want.
Morgan, Robert. Terroir. Penguin Poets. ISBN 9780143120193. pap. $18.
A best-selling novelist (Gap Creek) as well as a noteworthy poet (with honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters). Morgan is a little too fiercely no-nonsense to be seen as a nature poet, notwithstanding the title. Here he gets right down there in the dirt (Soft Mountains, Poison Oak), then goes back to brightness (November light is like a dream), and spars with death and great poets (Was only when I watched my dad/ approach his end I understood/ how little Dylan Thomas knew/ of death and dying ). Plain-spoken, well-crafted work with, dare one say, old-fashioned charm.
Stobb, William. Absentia. Penguin Poets. ISBN 9780143120186. $18.
Winner of the National Poetry Series for Nervous Systems, Stobb writes deft, sure poetry straddling the territory where the physical and imagination, nature and history meet (What sound there is‚ whisper of wind/ across the land’s sand skin‚Ä¶.//Stake the imaginary tent/ on imaginary lake bottom). Accomplished.
Wright, Franz. Kindertotenwald. Knopf. ISBN 9780307272805. $26.
Prose poems can be a poor excuse for fine writing (read: convoluted, flowery stuff that is supposed to create a mood‚Ä¶or something). But this Pulitzer Prize winner writes clear, muscular verse one can really bite into‚ and come away hungry for more. From the weather forecast to the forecaster, from a mauled trip home to Nietzsche, Messiaen, and two saints, these are wide-ranging and erudite yet utterly approachable poems. Don’t miss.
Eight Young Poets To Watch: Collections I Couldn’t Pass Up
Burwick, Kimberly. Horses in the Cathedral. Anhinga. ISBN 9781934695241. pap. $17.
Each animal is the abstraction that goes through me: so Burwick says of those horses. Burwick, who won the Robert Dana Prize for Poetry with this book, writes spare, lyric verse that does plumb abstraction‚ but only by working through pitch pine and yellowwood, hands/ clayey with milk and magnolia. A fresh new sense of the pastoral.
Chang, Tina. Of Gods & Strangers. Four Way Bks. ISBN 9781935536178. pap. $17.
Brooklyn’s poet laureate does not write gentle odes. Whether she’s revisiting the last empress of China (Once the guards sprayed me down unclothed/ I left my veil in a pool of my own waking), contemporary violence (Fever in the white stone garden:/ By 7 p.m., stray dogs have the run of Jaffna’s streets), or more intimate darkness (I dream I am whipping a donkey), Chang is as bold as she is affecting. Pretty much a definite purchase.
Crews, James. The Book of What Stays. Bison: Univ. of Nebraska. ISBN 9780803236356. pap. $17.95.
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, this is a forthright, engrossing collection of portraits, places, and events (a damaged palomino, a couple stranded in a deadly blizzard, a bridge covered with some arresting graffiti) that should attract readers who enjoy poetry grounded in the everyday and informed by a sure sense of narrative.
Griffiths, Rachel Eliza. Mule & Pear. New Issues: Western Michigan Univ. ISBN 9781936970018. pap. $15.
Bearing a title from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, this gutsy, bitterly lyric collection (I’m honeysuckle./ A girl child crying/ holy seven sins) takes in the entire African American experience in lines that just spin out over the page, leaving you breathless to catch up and keep reading. Wow; do get this one.
Legault, Paul. The Other Poems. Fence. ISBN 9781934200506. pap. $15.95.
Every once in a while one must go for wacky, acerbic wit, and Legault’s second collection (after The Madeleine Poems) fits the bill (EVERYBODY: Everybody shut up./ MONDAY: It’s happening again.). The point: get used to life’s absurdities. Fun for risk-taking readers.
Oshiro, Janine. Pier. Alice James. ISBN 9781882295883. pap. $15.95.
This is a first collection by a poet who really is about to dive off that pier, exploring love, loss, and the way she manages as she locates herself gracefully (I want outside./ In the wrist is a bone like a boat.// I have been a long time out of water. Yet she doesn’t dwell tiringly on the self, the I that can overwhelm a poem. This is an open world mixing ghosts and violets. Try it.
Rosal, Patrick. Boneshepherds. Persea Bks, dist. by Norton. ISBN 9780892553860. pap. $15.
It’s not every poet who can move deftly from the Japanese occupation of his father’s homeland to cousins shush[ing] the goats before they kill them to a sex shop and a Bible shop/ two doors down. But Rosal, who has won honors from the Asian American Writer’s Workshop and the Association of Asian American Studies, can do it. We have to sing/ just to figure out/ what we can’t say. A keeper.
Shaheen, Glenn. Predatory. Univ. of Pittsburgh. ISBN 9780822961628. pap. $14.95.
This collection, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, is meditative but grounded in the tangible (In the heat the glue has melted away and nothing will remain fastened.// Sometimes I wish it would all suddenly and gently end). For the down-to-earth poetry reader.
Fourteen Fiction-in-Translation Titles from 2011 You Should Definitely Consider
Best European Fiction 2012. Dalkey Archive. ed. by Aleksandar Hemon. ISBN 9781564786807. pap. $15.95.
The third edition of this excellent series is the strongest yet, with the 34 stories from 26 countries organized by theme (e.g., Love, War, Family). Some of the best: Augustín Fernández Paz’s This Strange Lucidity, a dog’s-eye view of his master’s serial relationships; Gabriel Rosenstock’s ‚Ä¶everything emptying into white, about a hapless folklorist’s introduction to the real world at a conference in Slovenia; Rui Zink’s disaffected traveler in Travel Destination; and the rebellious teenagers in Bjarte Breiteig’s Down There They Don’t Mourn. Wonderful for anyone interested in world fiction.
Can Xue. Vertical Motion: Stories. Open Letter. tr. from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping. ISBN 9781934824375. pap. $13.95.
The stories in this collection from a noted Chinese novelist (Five Spice Street) feel realist (The thing I love watching most is the swirling cotton candy) but go dreamy and slant, not exactly surreal but heightened (I belong to the moonlight; the lion belongs to the darkness). That the author has written on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante and has chosen a pseudonym that means dirty snow (her real name is Deng Xiaohua) attests to her wit and protean taste, as reflected in her writing. Important for world collections.
Glissant, √âdouard. The Overseer’s Cabin. Univ. of Nebraska. tr. from French by Betsy Wing. ISBN 9780803234796. $19.95.
Leading Caribbean author Glissant captures the history of 20th-century Martinique with this story of Mycea, born in 1928 and released from an asylum in 1978 at novel’s end. More quietly focused than similar works by Toni Morrison, Marlon James, and Isabel Allende, this work is just as harrowing and will appeal to readers of these authors.
Gonçalo, M. Tavares. Learning To Pray in the Age of Technique. Dalkey Archive. tr. from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. ISBN 9781564786272. pap. $15.95.
A distant surgeon, who considered himself an observer of the world, is upended by a cancer diagnosis. The time and place aren’t specific, and the plot has universal appeal, though noted Portuguese author Gonçalo (winner of the Saramago Prize) won’t likely appeal to casual readers. For those interested in world fiction.
Le Clézio, J.M. G. Mondo & Other Stories. Univ. of Nebraska. tr. from French by Alison Anderson. ISBN 9780803230002. $19.95.
He’s a Nobel prize winner and French, so some readers probably suspect that Le Clézio is difficult. But in fact his quiet explorations of beauty and culture are freshly, conversationally written. A nice introduction if needed, as the stories range widely.
Le Tellier, Hervé. The Sextine Chapel. Dalkey Archive. tr. from French by Ian Monk. ISBN 9781564785756. pap. $14.95.
Associated with the cutting-edge writing group Oulipo, Le Tellier is a daring writer; in this first collection of linked short-short stories, he introduces telling and isolated moments in a series of relationships (Anna and Ben. Ben and Chloe. Chloe and Dennis.), each in a single page. Occasionally precious, often brilliant, more successful than you might think; for nervy readers.
Meddeb, Abdelwahab. Talismano. Dalkey Archive. tr. from French by Jane Kuntz. ISBN 9781564786296. pap. $14.95.
Down stairs leading to the sloped street that ends in the school’s cul-de-sac, I find I’m fully medina-minded, medinating: shaded passages zigzag, footsteps oddly resonant. Vaulted portions of alleyways ringing with cymbal and echo. This work by Tunis-born, Paris-based Meddeb is less story than meditation on memory, place, and the cross-currents of Arab and Western culture. Not for those who want traditional narrative but gorgeous and atmospheric; I kept returning with interest.
Rodoreda, Mercè. The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda. Open Letter. tr. from Catalan by Martha Tennent. ISBN 9781934824313. pap. $15.95.
A leading Catalan writer of the 20th century who lived in exile in France and Switzerland during the Spanish Civil War, Rodoreda doesn’t have a lot of exposure in English translation. This collection of 30 stories, from the meditative Happiness to the moody, autumnal Carnival, reveal carefully observed moments in the characters’ lives and would serve as a good introduction for interested readers.
Rosero, Evelio. Good Offices. New Directions, dist. by Norton. tr. from Spanish by Anne McLean & Anna Milsom. ISBN 9780811219303. pap. $13.95.
Award-winning Colombian author Rosero gets his second chance in English (after The Armies) with this story of earnest hunchback Tancredo, who helps Father Almida serve the town’s charity lunches. When a new priest must substitute, he dangerously charms both Tancredo and his helpers. A direct hit on the Catholic Church and a good read for a wide range of readers.
Scliar, Moacyr. Kafka’s Leopards. Texas Tech Univ. (The Americas). tr. from Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebe. ISBN 9780896726963. $26.95.
Asked to deliver a message, Benjamin Kantarovitch fancies that he is under direct orders from Trotsky (the time is the Russian Revolution) and leaves the shtetl for Prague, where he loses the message but encounters Franz Kafka. What results is a witty, twisty, literate yet accessible tale of semi-intrigue that opens with a deadpan police report. Just deceased, prolific Brazilian author Scliar is noted for his fable-like work and triumphs here.
Sorokin, Vladimir. The Ice Trilogy. New York Review Books. tr. from Russian by Jamey Gambrell. ISBN 9781590173862. pap. $19.95.
Outstanding contemporary Russian author Sorokin is making a name for himself; his tart and daring Day of the Oprichnik was published here last year to good reviews. This trilogy, about a brotherhood intent on global destruction, should appeal to a wide range of readers; Ice, the second volume, originally appeared as a standalone in 2007 and described by LJ‘s reviewer as truly thrilling postmodern thriller.
Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. The Truth About Marie. Dalkey Archive. tr. from French by Matthew B. Smith. ISBN 9781564783677. pap. $12.98.
Toussaint has been called a Camus for the 21st century, and that seems apt. He’s got a cool, acute way of describing human emotion. Here, having realized that we made love at the same time, Marie and I, but not with each other, the narrator chronicles their uncertain relationship, starting with the death of Marie’s paramour of the moment and moving back to the narrator’s intuition of that death, then forward again. A racehorse that figures in the plot (aware of nothing but the certainty of being then and there) signifies an urgent presence in the novel, something the narrator is reaching for, always. Francophiles and other interested readers will want.
Urban, Milo≈ü. The Seven Churches: A Gothic Novel of Prague. tr. from Czech by Robert Russell. Trafalgar Sq. ISBN 9780720613117. pap. $13.95.
A Prague policeman fascinated with the Middle Ages is fascinated by a group trying to reconstruct the city’s golden era even as he chases a murderer drawing inspiration from the past. Billed as a literary thriller, a best seller in the Czech Republic and Spain, and sold to many more countries, this absorbing and readable work will appeal to anyone who like the works of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Iain Pears, medieval mystery writers, and the more upscale Scandinavian scare-folks.