I've always been one of those readers who resist picking up a best-seller, worried that in spending my reading hours diving into what's popular, I might miss something revelatory, strange, new. Of course, many of this year's best-selling books were fantastic (Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes to mind, or Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad) — and I was happy to read them. But as the year comes to a close, I'm most thankful for the lesser-known gems I discovered and devoured. Many of these books experiment with literary forms or even change the basic idea of what a "book" looks like. They all changed the way I understand writing and writers.
By Anne Carson; hardcover, 192 pages; New Directions, list price: $35
Anne Carson has been one of my favorite poets for a long time, but she outdid herself this year with Nox, which is really more of an art object than a traditional book. The poem comes in its own box, with pages that fold out like an accordion. Opening Nox feels like breaking into a treasure chest; inside, there are old snapshots, paintings, chalk drawings, fictional encyclopedia entries and scribbled notes, all bound together by Carson's elegant, elegiac voice. The book is a celebration of Carson's late brother, whose life she captures with equal joy and grief. Peeking into Nox can feel like overhearing a private eulogy, but its themes are universal, providing a cathartic and deeply moving reading experience for anyone who has ever suffered a loss.
The Orange Eats Creeps
By Grace Krilanovich; paperback, 208 pages; Two Dollar Radio, list price: $16
Grace Krilanovich is a bright young writer for the Los Angeles Times and a MacDowell fellow. This year, she was selected as one of the "5 Under 35" novelists to watch by the National Book Foundation, an honor that has been bestowed upon many future literary heavyweights. And all of this for a novel about, in her own words, "slutty teenage hobo vampire junkies." Yes, Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, is about vampires — but it is about as far from Twilight as one can get. The novel is more of a horror story in free verse, with bloodthirsty teen punks roaming around the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s, drugging and boozing and taking in basement rock shows. The book feels written in a fever; it is breathless, scary and like nothing I've ever read before. As critic Steve Erickson wrote, "If a new literature is at hand then it might as well begin here." Krilanovich's work will make you believe that new ways of storytelling are still emerging from the margins.
By Shane Jones; paperback, 160 pages; Penguin, list price: $14
Shane Jones' Light Boxes is technically a novel, but it reads more like an extended fable. Jones, who suffers in real life from winter depression, decided to write a series of short vignettes about a fictional town in which February lasts all year long. The townspeople in Jones' conjured village are devastated about this perpetual darkness, caused by an omnipotent creature (also called "February"), who freezes the rivers and lakes and forbids all flight, including kites, balloons and birds.
February is conflicted about the pain and suffering he is causing, but he cannot stop himself from creating snow flurries and keeping the sky gray. Ultimately, the townspeople decide to wage an all-out war on snow, and don glorious masks to defend flight and the sun.
Jones writes in short bursts — some pages contain only one line, others a poem. Each page contains a mix of large and small fonts and different points of view; the story proceeds in a nonlinear way. And yet, everything comes together into a whole that not only makes sense but radiates redemption and understanding. Plus, some of the lines inside are delightful all on their own. Early in the book, Jones writes of the townspeople's longing for clear skies: "Last night everyone in town dreamed the clouds fell apart like wet paper in their hands."
Vanishing And Other Stories
By Deborah Willis; paperback, 320 pages; Harper Perennial, list price: $13.99
This year, I found myself devouring short stories like mad — perhaps the Internet has affected my attention span — so it was difficult to pick a standout collection. Still, I kept returning to Deborah Willis, a young Canadian bookseller whose first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, came out in Canada and then the States this year. Willis writes deceptively simple, haunting stories about women growing up, family secrets and marital strife. She is fascinated by absences (thus the title), and the reasons that people choose to leave or stay in any given situation.
In the title story, a woman's famous author father disappears when she is a little girl — he simply walks out one day, never to return — and she spends the rest of her life trying to recapture the magic of standing in his attic office with him as he worked. Willis writes about this loss with both sadness and amusement ("Anything could have happened. Maybe he turned into a shop and fell in love with the beautiful clerk. Maybe he stepped off the Bloor Viaduct."), never providing answers for the daughter or the reader. After I finished the story, only one thing was clear: Willis is a talent, and I anticipate her next effort, whatever it might be.
You Lost Me There
By Rosecrans Baldwin; hardcover, 304 pages; Riverhead Hardcover, list price: $25.95
Rosecrans Baldwin is the editor of the charming online magazine The Morning News (another great place to read about hidden-gem books), and this year he published his debut novel. You Lost Me There tells the story of Victor, a neuroscientist studying Alzheimer's, who discovers a stash of note cards left behind by his late wife, Sara. On the cards are details about the major moments in the pair's marriage (leftovers from a couple's therapy session), and Victor is suddenly forced to confront the fact that his memories of the relationship are different from those of his wife — a fact that, for a memory specialist, is jarring indeed.
There is nothing bizarre about Baldwin's novel; it reads quickly and contains eloquent, simple turns of phrase. But it did not quite get the recognition it deserved when it emerged in August, and I hope it continues to be discovered. We all grapple with our memories and how they evade us over time, especially when it comes to love, and Baldwin captures all the joy and sorrow of minds bent by age and experience.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace
By David Lipsky; paperback, 352 pages; Broadway, list price: $16.99
When David Foster Wallace ended his own life in 2008, the world lost one of its brightest literary talents — a loss that still reverberates, with publication of several national magazine profiles this year, high-profile biographies in the works and clubs devoted to tackling Wallace's 1,000-page opus, Infinite Jest. But one of the best tributes to Wallace's artistry came in the form of what is essentially a 350-page transcript of a conversation with the writer.
Journalist David Lipsky took a five-day road trip with Wallace in 1996, on assignment for Rolling Stone. The interview never ran, but after Wallace's death, Lipsky pieced together the pair's conversations from the road into a book. Lipsky weaves his own life into the transcript, providing context for Wallace's quotes and his own reactions to them. The result is part biography, part autobiography and part meditation on what it means to be a man in modern-day America.
The real "hidden gems" in the book are Wallace's many kernels of wisdom about life and living — these small moments of off-the-cuff, unprompted grace are worth the price of the book alone.
I'll leave you with one of my favorites from Wallace, as he and Lipsky glide down the highway: "I have this unbelievably like five-year-old's belief that art is just absolutely magic. And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise."