Five-and-Five: Okla Elliott’s 2012 List

I love lists. I make them for any number of reasons. They help me organize my thoughts or review events, among a dozen other things, so when I was asked to compile a 2012 list for Heavy Feather Review, I accepted immediately.

After I had compiled a little over half of this list, however, I realized it was a hybrid list, one-half being things I had read during 2012, despite when they originally appeared, and one-half being things I had read during 2012 which appeared in 2012. I considered redoing it to reflect only books that originally appeared this year, but that seemed overly artificial. These sorts of lists are always personal in nature, leaving out tons of great stuff and idiosyncratic to the list-maker, so I figured I’d leave it as is. And this is why I love making lists. They teach us a lot about the patterns in our lives. For example, I learned that I did not read many novels published in 2012, and those I did read didn’t impress me enough to make the list. I also learned that I’ve been doing more re-reading lately than ever before, which is intriguing even though I don’t fully understand why I’m doing it.

My goal in putting this together was two-part: 1) I merely wanted to share some of the things I enjoyed during 2012, and 2) I wanted to promote certain authors and presses that I think deserve more attention. I therefore encourage everyone to either order some of these books themselves or have their libraries order them, especially the ones from literary presses.

Side note: Publication date of books listed is for the edition linked to, not the original publication date. This is of particular importance for newly translated works or revised and reissued works.

I. Five Short Fiction Books I Read and Liked a Lot in 2012

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1. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell (Miami University Press, 2011)

I include this book for several reasons. The primary reason is that I think it is excellently written, which is always my primary criterion for liking or praising a piece of writing. I also think novellas deserve more attention, as I consider the novella such a wonderful genre—short enough to read at a leisurely pace over a weekend or in one sitting, if you so choose, yet meaty enough to allow a real delving into a subject. And my final reason is that I think we need more first-rate literary gay fiction out there. Greenwell’s novella would make a perfect text in a queer literature course, given its length and suitability to the topic, but it transcends identity politics by virtue of its literary merits. I recommend this one highly to fans of literary fiction, all academic libraries, and instructors looking for contemporary queer literature to teach.

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2. The Freak Chronicles, by Jennifer Spiegel (Dzanc Books, 2012)

Spiegel had two books come out in 2012, a novel and this collection. You should read both, but I especially recommend this collection. And I can cheat a bit on this one, since I blurbed the book. Here’s what I said then, and I still stand by it: The stories of The Freak Chronicles explore the margins of human behavior and psychology, thereby challenging what it might even mean to be normal or a freak. Spiegel’s fiction is hip and edgy, as the subject matter suggests, but never at the expense of her literary art. She makes use of pop culture and the gritty stuff of real lives to explore the theme of human alienation—and she does all this with a literary finesse that charms and impresses. I admire these stories greatly.

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3. Getting Lucky, by Thomas E. Kennedy (New American Press, 2012)

Thomas E. Kennedy has been among my pantheon of contemporary writers for years, but until recently, if anyone I knew had heard of him, it was because I had told them to read him. But with his recent international acclaim for his novels In the Company of Angels and Falling Sideways, which garnered feature pieces on him in Washington Post and The New Yorker, as well as glowing reviews in the NYT and Salon, among many other major newspapers here and abroad, he is getting his deserved acclaim. Getting Lucky is the capstone to a long career in short fiction and should be in every library and on every fiction writer’s bookshelf.

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4. May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2012)

A very strong debut collection. It’s been receiving strong reviews and was named a best of small press debuts of 2012 by Atlantic Wire. And Publisher’s Weekly had this to say: “Sparks’ debut story collection swirls with a Tim Burton-like whimsy…modern fables in which epiphanies replace moral lessons and tales unfold with Grimm-like wickedness.” I’d say that’s a pretty fair summation.

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5. Understories, by Tim Horvath (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)

Another solid debut. This one is especially recommended if you like more experimental work.

II. Five Novels I Read and Liked a Lot in 2012

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1. Dune, by Frank Herbert (Ace, 1990)

This book requires no endorsement from me, so I’ll merely offer you a fun publishing fact regarding the book. Herbert’s DUNE, which has now sold over 40 million copies worldwide, was rejected by every major publisher in NYC. It was finally picked up by a no-name press, Chilton Books, that had thus far mostly published car repair novels—yes, car repair novels, which were sort of how-to books with a plot (e.g., “Ralph grew frustrated with the carburetor until he realized a quick squirt of WD-40 would do the trick!”). These apparently existed in the 60s. Anyway, the book sold like crap for a year or so, though it did get some very nice reviews in sci-fi magazines and even the NYT, eventually growing an underground following that swelled above-ground to the point of making it perhaps the best-selling sci-fi novel in history and one of the most beloved works of fiction in any genre. If you’re looking for a novel that mixes compulsive readability while mixing together Buddhism, Catholic mysticism, ecology, existentialist philosophy, and Islamic mysticism, this is the book for you. Excellent for winter break entertainment.

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2. Fox Girl, by Nora Okja Keller (Penguin Books, 2003)

I have read this novel three times in the past four years. It is that good. The novel is set in South Korea, specifically in the ad hoc towns that grow up around the US military bases there. The main character is a child who ends up forced into a life of prostitution in the black market world she was born into. This novel is therefore that rare thing—a brilliantly written artwork with an important political backdrop. My only complaint is that the very ending seems a bit slight, especially after reading the other 98% of the novel, which borders on absolute perfection. Read this novel. Seriously. Go right now and buy this novel and read it immediately.

n171203. Steps, by Jerzy Kosinki (Grove Press, 1997)

Another 2012 re-read. This novel won the National Book Award in 1969, and David Foster Wallace has described it as a “collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever.” He also claimed that “[o]nly Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.” My own view is a little less extreme. There are moments of nearly perfect writing and moments of brilliant psychological observation. That said, there is also unnecessary repetition and a few scenes designed merely to shock or offend. But, that also said, it serves as a wonderful explication of the ubiquity of violence in the twentieth century, making use of the Holocaust and Stalinism—both of which Kosinski lived through. Clocking in at a breezy 148 pages, this is a book everyone should get around to at some point. It has rewarded two reads for me so far.

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4. Why Are We in Vietnam? by Norman Mailer (Picador, 2000)

This is Norman Mailer at his weirdest and best. The prose style is maximalist as anything out there. Interestingly, this book never takes the reader to Vietnam, but rather on a extremely manly-man kind of hunting trip with a few buddies, one of whom is about to be sent to Vietnam. It attempts to explain why, culturally and psychologically speaking, the United States is involved in Vietnam. It’s a tour-de-force in terms of prose style and pure readerly enjoyment, and I think it goes a long way toward explaining American militarism, albeit via indirect means.

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5. The Outsider, by Richard Wright (Harper Perennial, 2008)

This is Wright’s existentialist novel set in Chicago. He wrote it after spending time in Paris hanging out with Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, recent translations of Camus’s The Stranger have titled it The Outsider, which is perhaps more accurate, since the French title L’Etranger can mean either “foreigner” or “stranger,” thus making The Outsider a more accurate translation. But, of course, the connections go beyond the title. There is the bleakness of human despair, the existentialist awe at the world, the alienation from modern society, and violence—the basic existentialist themes. Wright offers his usual brilliant prose and plotting, making this 589-page novel a surprisingly fast read.

III. Five Poetry Collections I Read and Liked a Lot in 2012

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1. Hazard and Prospect, by Kelly Cherry (Louisiana State University Press, 2007)

Cherry has been one of our most interesting poets for years. This selection from roughly three decades of her work is a must-have for lovers of poetry and academic libraries everywhere.

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2. Piano Rats, by Franki Elliot (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2011)

There is something raw and unpolished about the poems in Piano Rats, sort of a more playful and hip version of Bukowski’s poems written by a female in her mid-twenties. Usually that description would turn me off, but in this case, there is also an underlying charm to the poems that keeps them from being part of this slowly fading wave of hip lit. Give this book a chance; you won’t be disappointed.

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3. My Father’s Kites, by Allison Joseph (Steel Toe Books, 2010)

This book is comprised of a sonnet sequence about the poet losing her father. The formal skill is apparent, as is the emotional depth. Joseph is one of my favorite poets out there in poetry-land, and this book is an excellent introduction to her work, especially if you have an affinity for formalist poetry.

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4. Berkeley Prelude, by Mark Smith-Soto (Unicorn Press, 2012)

An excellent collection. Instead of offering you my opinion here, I will instead merely link to the review I wrote of it this past summer.

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5. Bye-and-Bye, by Charles Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Charles Wright is one of our finest poets. I have read most of these poems before, but having them collected here in one volume is very nice. I read it this past summer, and not only was it hugely rewarding as a reader, it also jump-started an intense phase of writing poems.

IV. Five Philosophy Books I Read and Liked a Lot in 2012

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1. Being and Event, by Alain Badiou (Continuum, 2007)

Badiou’s magnum opus and the third in an ad hoc trilogy of philosophical tomes on the nature of Being (including Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). Badiou is fast becoming the preeminent French philosopher and is gaining international credibility by the day. This book attempts to bridge the divide between analytic and continental philosophy, a task I find near and dear to my heart, since my undergrad degree in philosophy was all analytic and these days I work almost exclusively in the continental tradition.

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2. The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (Vintage, 2011)

I read this book as part of a philosophical foundations of critical theory reading group I created here at the University of Illinois. I find that many people have read excerpts of this seminal text, but very few bother to read it in its entirety anymore. I definitely suggest reading the entire thing. And, even though this book was not published in 2012, a new translation did come out in 2011 with the paperback going on the market in 2012. I also think that given all the GOP attacks on women’s rights and the various attempts to dismiss the severity of rape, 2012 proved to us that it is time to return to this foundational feminist text.

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3. Existence and Existents, by Emmanuel Levinas (Duquesne University Press, 2011)

This was written while Levinas was in a Nazi POW camp. It is his attempt to bring forward the thinking of Martin Heidegger, under whom he had studied. It is his first major philosophical treatise and sets up many of his ideas that he develops in later books. Clocking in at only 115 pages, this is a great intro to one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.

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4. Critique of Dialectical Reason, by Jean-Paul Sartre (Verso, 2010)

This is Sartre’s second major philosophical text, and it is his attempt to meld his later Marxist thought with the existentialist philosophy of his first major philosophical text, Being and Nothingness. I read this as part of the aforementioned reading group I organized here at the University of Illinois, which I find a wonderful way to read these massive tomes of infinitely dense philosophy (CDR clocks in at 800+ pages).

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5. Less Than Nothing, by Slavoj Žižek (Verso, 2012)

This is Žižek’s first major book since The Parallax View. He is up to his usual games of mixing Lacan, Hegel, and Marx—which was to be expected—but this time he is throwing Fichte into the mix. This isn’t his first foray into the so-called German Idealists. He wrote a book on Schelling several years ago, helping to revive interest in him, and of course Hegel is counted among the group. Žižek also makes several insightful asides concerning trauma studies and Holocaust studies, which are my particular research interests, so I found the book excellent, up there with The Ticklish Subject and For They Know Not What They Do, which I previously considered his best work (and perhaps still do, though now I have a third to put on my list of Žižek’s best).

V. Five Literary Presses to Watch in 2013

The presses below are doing outstanding work in publishing literary prose and poetry. Check out their various books and journals, and consider purchasing them or even assigning them in classes if you happen to teach. We need to support our literary presses if we want them to be healthy and vibrant.

Side note: I am noticing publishing conglomerates, like the first two on my list here, emerging among the literary presses. I wonder if this is the future of literary publishing. It takes the NYC publishing model and applies it to the literary press world. I predict this will be the way of the future, with various presses binding together to support and promote each other.

1. Curbside Splendor Publishing / Concepcion Books / Another Chicago Magazine / Artifice Magazine

2. Dzanc Books / Black Lawrence Press / The Collagist / The Adirondack Review

3. Miami University Press

4. Press 53 / Prime Number Magazine

5. Red Hen Press / Los Angeles Review

***

Okla Elliott is currently the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois, where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His drama, nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, A Public Space, among others. He is the author of a full-length collection of short fiction, From the Crooked Timber (Press 53, 2011), and three poetry chapbooks. He also co-edited (with Kyle Minor) The Other Chekhov (New American Press, 2008).

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