And so the world has turned a full reading cycle once again… We have reached the Catapult Notable List. And they rejoiced. Hallelujah.
Parts of this list – the 8th annual Catapult Notable List – were no-brainers for me. Most of the books here were obvious from the get-go that they would be included in this list of all lists. The Top 3 – no doubt. Interestingly enough, the bottom of the Ten was where I ran into more trouble – and not for lack of quality entrants. Quite the opposite – there were maybe six to ten titles that vied for inclusion at the back end of the list, but in the end, there could be only Ten.
We’ve got a slightly different format this year – mainly because I’m tired of the ten consecutive posts, unveiling the list over the course of ten days. We’re getting it all out in one gigantic list – as it should be, as it once was, back in the early Catapult days, if you recall.
Before the proper Top Ten gets going, here is the pile of books that almost made the cut, the also-rans, the eleventh man, the Notable Notables in no particular order:
Donnybrook by Frank Bill
My affinity for Donnybrook and Mr. Frank Bill are well documented here on the Book Catapult. (Frank was the focus of the very first Catapult event in the real world with a real-live human author in attendance.) While I didn’t think Bill’s first novel was quite as strong as his collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana – a 2011 Catapult Notable – it still packs one hell of a punch. His prose is raw and fierce, focused in its rage and crammed full with vernacular Americana.
Babayaga by Toby Barlow
Babayaga hits like… a Godard film on acid starring the cast of Mad Men and extras from The Witches of Eastwick, maybe? Occasionally murderous Russian witches (both alive and dead), CIA agents, jazz-band strongmen, naïve ad men from Detroit, and a Parisian detective who has been turned into a flea await you on the streets of late-1950’s Paris. Inventive, playful, and uproariously hilarious, Barlow mashes together dozens of genres to create something wholly original and impossible to classify – which makes it all the more appealing, engaging, crazy, and completely brilliant. I’m also still holding out hope that the Catapult can make an event with Toby happen in San Diego sometime in 2014. We’ll see.
Purgatory by Ken Bruen
I think this is Bruen’s best Jack Taylor novel since 2006’s The Dramatist. It certainly runs in the same vein as his original triptych of The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers, and The Magdalen Martyrs. There’s a shocker in the middle that left me open-mouthed and slobbering – much like the climactic scene in The Dramatist. Whew-oh.
Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman
Weisman’s 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us speculated just that – what would Earth be like if humanity disappeared overnight. (Not so bad, actually.) Countdown is less informed speculation and more terrifying fact: the planet can comfortably handle around 2 billion humans (the number of us around in 1930) but we are currently headed toward 10 billion human inhabitants by 2050. We’re pretty much fucked.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Eggers (founder of McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia) skewers our social-media, internet-dependent society in this latest novel. The Circle is Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google, eBay, Amazon, Redditt, Apple all rolled into one enormous, terrifying internet conglomerate that dictates and decides everything that happens in the internet-ready world. Will we rail against its control or be sucked into the vortex of all-seeing cameras, transparent government, customer satisfaction ratings, and an avalanche of “likes” and “frowns?” Scary ’cause it’s true.
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.
Here’s the longer bit I posted awhile back for your perusal. Fact and fiction blur in Currie’s button-pushing, semi-autobiographical follow up to 2009 Catapult Notable #1, Everything Matters!
#10. The Blue Fox by Sjón
I just gave this slim, 115-page Icelandic novella a second read, just to make sure. No doubt.
Up on the crest he cast about for the vixen’s tracks. He pinched one fox print between thumb and forefinger; it seemed a sizable beast. In the snowflake that lingered on his fingertip lay a gleaming hair – there was no mistaking the color: blue.
Vertical streaks of cloud in the west.
Maybe a storm on the way.
The vixen nowhere to be seen.
There’s a lyrical cadence to Sjón’s prose that somehow eases the mind and relaxes the soul. This book is almost folktale or an Icelandic myth, with an oral historian’s economy of phrase to it. The plot seems innocuous enough: when a mentally handicapped woman dies, her caretaker and father-figure arranges for her burial. The priest who presides over that burial then goes on a fox hunt. Okay. Right. But here’s the deal – Sjón doesn’t just hand over this neat, linear story to you & fade back over the misty tundra. The timeline is minced and chopped, presented in sections at the whim of its creator, offering just enough to engage, while keeping plot core opaque until the very last page. Kind of genius. And, like I said, I loved it enough to read it a second time.
FSG simultaneously published two other books by Sjón when The Blue Fox came out: The Whispering Muse (partly narrated by Caeneus, formerly a sailor on the Argo of Greek mythology, now, inexplicably, just a second mate on a boat in Norway in 1949) and From the Mouth of the Whale, which is currently sitting on my short stack.
Woodrell – mostly known these days as the author of Winter’s Bone – is truly a modern American master. By which I mean his books are all about a uniquely modern American experience in some way – whether traipsing across our methamphetamine-laced underbelly or suffering love and violence in the Ozarks or this, a tale of tragic death, suspicious circumstances, and love from the wrong side of the tracks. The Maid’s Version is a crime novel or a mystery, of a sort – it unfolds in nonlinear fashion, as Woodrell and his narrator see fit, allowing the reader to gradually put things together over the course. One night in 1929 in West Table, Missouri, a dance hall exploded in flame and smoke, taking forty-two carefree souls into the afterlife.
The story of what happened that fateful evening unfolds from the aging mind of Alma Dunahew, former maid to the wealthy Glencross family and sister to the vivacious, flirtatious Ruby, who died in the explosion. Alma has long had suspicions of the cause of the explosion, but has never been able to fully piece it all together. She decides to tell everything she knows to her grandson, Alek, in hopes that the puzzle will finally come together and the secrets of her family history can finally be revealed. (-from the earlier Catapult review)
The aging Alma – 30 years removed from that tragic night – is a mostly unreliable narrator, as she has spent the intervening years covering up the truth of what happened, obscuring facts, and grieving over the death of her sister. Woodrell gradually pries the story from Alma, coaxing it from her fading mind along its crooked timeline and delivering it to us as a thread raveling back onto its spool. Like I said, American master, folks.
#8. All That Is by James Salter
Sometimes, it’s just the simplicity of a story that is so compelling. James Salter’s first novel in almost 30 years is pretty simple on the surface – just the story of one man’s life – but he writes with such lyrical, effortless grace that the subtle intricacies of a life become something else entirely. The prose is sharp and concise, yet evocative and majestic. Salter, in his Paris Review interview from 1993:
I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy.
All That Is is the story of the life of one Philip Bowman – from his youth in the Navy during WWII, to a career in a New York city publishing house, through marriages, relationships, divorce, friendship, death. Like I said, it’s a life. Some may say, “Well what’s the point of that? I have my own life to live, why would I want to read about this Bowman dude?” Because this is like a writing course, a schooling of how to craft a story, a sentence, a plot. How to create a character so completely compelling and realistic that you swear you’ve met him somewhere or read about him in something or have seen him on the bus or on television or crossing the street. Bowman is a bit of a Don Draper asshole-type, but you live inside his skin for so long, you know him almost as you know yourself & you understand him and the way his mind works. At least, that’s what I found – and the reason this book has landed on this list. Think about how hard it would be to write of something so mundane and ordinary as one man’s life. His entire life arc. Could you do it with such beauty, economy, and grace as Mr. Salter?
This, one of the more hyped, anticipated novels of the year, delivers WAY more than I thought it would. This is Tartt’s first novel in almost a decade (after The Secret History and The Little Friend) and if this is truly what she was working on all that time, it was totally worth the wait.
At age 13, Theo Decker survives a bizarre accident in a New York museum that kills his mother (Spoiler alert! It’s on the jacket copy) and essentially orphans him after he is abandoned by his alcoholic asshole of a father. As he’s crawling his way through the gallery rubble, Theo meets a dying old man in the wreckage who implores him to “rescue” the tiny Carel Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch from the carnage, thus changing the course of Theo’s life for the next several decades. Emotionally unraveling, Theo makes his way from the fringes of New York high society, through drug-addled exile in the Las Vegas desert, and professional success in the back alleys of the art & antique world. All the while, the painting remains obscured in the shadows at his side, informing his every step, bending his will, driving every decision he makes. Why does he hang onto this object for so long? Why does he allow himself (and the reader) to be agonized by its presence? What is it that truly drives this complicated, fragile man?
I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there‘s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And – I would argue as well – all love.
A really amazing story about art, love, theft, and the folly of youth, I suppose. And, dang, bad decisions. Holy cow. Tartt’s prose has a smooth-flowing ease to it – before you know it, you’ve torn through 800 pages, are completely on board with Theo’s thought process, and are desperately waiting for more. Brilliance.
#6. The Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van Den Berg
All the stories within this lyrical, powerful collection are of transitional periods for the women protagonists – each are well aware that some major sea change is approaching, but the how, the why, the when are uncertain. One is starting a doomed marriage, while another’s reaches an inevitable end on the streets of Paris. One woman is grieving a brother’s strange death at the bottom of the world, while another tries to break free from a failing mother in seamy Florida. Wild kids rob their way across the Midwest. One twin is horribly betrayed by the other in spectacular fashion. Yet even the craziest of tales seems grounded in a grim reality, threaded with a witty, eyes-askance sense of humor.
It’s rare that I sit down and read a collection of short stories in one gulp – I usually spread them out across several weeks, wedged between other books. Not so The Isle of Youth. None of these stories stumble or falter or harm the whole – they beg to be read as one solid piece, all in one shot. Even though all these characters and their lives are so vastly different from one another, they inform upon each other to form one larger picture. And it’s awesome.
#5. Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
If ever there was a book that truly lived up to all the hype, it would be this one from long ignored (by the critics & the award-givers, but not the indie booksellers & their customers, thank you very much) George Saunders. This is another on this list that I’ve been rereading of late – mostly because I read these in February, loved them, but couldn’t remember specifically why when I went to include it here. Every one of these ten stories is pretty freakin’ solid, but my stand-out favorites are Home and Al Roosten.
“Home” reminded me of Wells Tower or Frank Bill or Donald Ray Pollack. With splashes of Kevin Powers or Karl Marlantes. Or maybe they all remind me of Saunders? Mike has just returned from a stint in the Army – possibly Iraq? Afghanistan? He did something horrible over there that he can’t yet talk about – and which directs his every move upon his return home. While he was away, his wife left him and is raising their 2 children with another man. His sister will barely speak to him, mostly out of fear, it would seem. His mother is hilarious trash who gets evicted from her house on Mike’s second day back. “‘Eighteen years you have been my dear home,’ Ma said, possibly imitating some Sioux from a movie.” Disarming in it’s dark humor, it’s ultimately heartbreaking in its truthful nature. Through the absurdity of Mike’s interactions with the people in his life, you know that the reality of this broken psyche is at the core. Many of our soldiers have suffered the same fate, living in that limbo between the battleground and home life. Finding that balance is sometimes nearly impossible. Will Mike bend or break?
“Al Roosten” is the proprietor of a small town vintage collectibles shop called Bygone Daze and is taking part in a local celebrity auction for the anti-drug campaign, LaffKidsOffCrack. The narration is pretty much all Al’s stream of consciousness as he prepares to take the stage – following Larry Donfrey of Larry Donfrey Realty, who “stood nearby in a swimsuit.”
Donfrey was a good guy. Good but flawed. Not that bright. Always tan. Was Donfrey attractive? Cute? Would the bidders consider Donfrey cuter than him, Al Roosten? Oh, how should he know? Did he like guys? Was he some kind of expert judge on the cuteness of guys?
No, he didn’t like guys and never had.
There had been that period in junior high, yes, when he had been somewhat worried that he might perhaps like guys, and had constantly lost in wrestling…
You get the idea. It’s a kind of hilarious, fairly pathetic controlled madness. Al’s an endearing, sad sack everyman – which is hard to deny. He’s far from perfect, but so are you, friend. As his hypothetical slogan reads, Al Roosten: The Best Among Us.
#4. Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine
The sole nonfiction title on my list for this year – and a memoir to boot. Huh. Here’s the full Catapult review.
I think what stunned me the most about this book was the fact that I had never heard of Poe Ballantine before. How is this possible? How could a writer this great be out there, not being read by everyone? (George Saunders has a little bit of that going on as well. Or he did, at least.) Part of me wants to shout Ballantine’s praises from the mountain tops while the other part thinks he should be kept as a closely guarded secret to be shared only among other appreciative readers. Fuck it, let’s shout.
Is this a memoir? True crime? Essays? Who cares. It’s brilliant – and that’s all you need to know. Ballantine’s prose positively shines – like a beam of sun breaking through thunderclouds on the Nebraska prairie.
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun.
In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
Poe tells the story of the disappearance and mysterious death of Stephen Haataja – his neighbor and fellow resident of tiny Chadron, NE – through his own eyes, through his own story. Being such a part of this small community, Poe finds himself drawn to uncovering the truth to what happened to this acquaintance, digging through the detritus left by a lackluster police investigation. I think he tells himself that he’s just searching for answers to satisfy his own curiosity, but a journalist lies within his bones, whether he knows it or not. His sharp, incisive prose, unwavering wit, and brutal honesty drive this book forward – even though we realize, at some point, that there may not be a clean, clear resolution to this awful case. Poe’s writing is almost conversational, friendly, as if we’re hearing things unfold while bellied up to the bartop on a cold winter’s night. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Haava woke from dreams of sea anemones.
Where do I begin with this? A National Book Award finalist, a NYT Notable, a #1 Indie Next pick. This debut novel – I still can’t quite believe that – left me stunned, like I had been punched in the face, pushed down in the muddy snow, and left out in the cold. Just floored. Set in modern wartorn Chechnya – an area of the world and a conflict that I admittedly knew pretty much nothing about – over the course of five pivotal days in the lives of three people, Constellation shows us what it means to be human and how the subtlest connective threads between us can have profound effect.
Akhmed wakes one wintry morning to find that his best friend Dokka has been informed upon by a neighbor, taken by government forces and had his home burned to the ground. Not knowing what else to do, Akhmed takes Dokka’s 8-year-old daughter Haava to the closest hospital in the hopes that someone will take her in. Sonja is the last doctor standing in this bombed-out, half-destroyed hospital and claims to have no room or patience for a little girl. But over the course of the next five days, the world views of these three people shift in dramatic fashion and the tiny connective filaments between them is gradually revealed.
So much of this story needs to be revealed in Marra-time – there’s no easy way to sum up the emotional layers of this novel to do it justice here. The connections between the characters are slow to be unveiled – to do so quicker would be an injustice to the gravity it all holds back. Peel back the layers and all shall be revealed. I can tell you this much though – if you’re not crying by the end, you’re a heartless monster. Beautiful, majestic, epic, and lyrical – the road that Marra is on as a burgeoning novelist is definitely one I can’t wait to travel further down.
Here’s my surprise addition to this list – a book weirdly ignored by the literary establishment, for the most part. It did receive a starred review from PW and a solid review from the Boston Globe, but that’s pretty much it. I, however, not being part of anything “literary” nor “established,” loved the weird, Gothic, sea-faring world within this. I debated and debated where on the Top Ten The Rathbones would fall – in all honesty, there’s not much of a difference between numbers 2-5, as far as how much I enjoyed them all. All four are fantastic books and could easily be tied for second – but that’s not how it’s done, folks. What set this novel by Janice Clark apart, for me, was that I felt completely and absolutely transported while I was adrift in its pages. I mean, totally. The walls around me faded away, I stopped stressing about work, worrying about life, and I found myself on the rooftop deck of an old, salt-sprayed, wind-worn house on the Connecticut coast, looking for the whaling ships to return.
Yeah, yeah, a whale book. My ONE weakness, okay? But a whale book set on the coastline of my youth? Fuhgettaboutit.
#1. The Son by Philipp Meyer
The top spot this year was never in doubt for me – when I read The Son in February, I knew that it would take a phenomenal book to knock it from the #1 spot for the rest of the year. It was never even threatened. Here’s the earlier Catapult bit.
I hate it when people say stupid shit like, “We’ll still be talking about this book in 100 years,” because there’s no way to predict such a ridiculous statement. Maybe we will, but chances are, we won’t even remember the title. But The Son… man. I truly believe that this will stand the test. It just pulsates, breathes like a timeless American epic in the truest sense.
The Son has three distinct voices: that of Colonel Eli McCullough, 100 years old and recording his story for WPA posterity in 1936; the diary entries of Eli’s estranged son, Peter in 1915; and the memories of Eli’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough in 2012. Think about that span of American history: from Eli’s birth in 1836 to Jeanne’s life in 2012. Eli’s lifespan alone – 1836 to 1936 – allowed him to be kidnapped by Comanches as a teenager, survive the Civil War, see Prohibition come and go, and watch the Great Depression unfold. Martin Van Buren to FDR. Dang.
Here’s NPR’s story on Meyer from earlier this year. “I wanted to think about our creation myth; you know, what is the fundamental story that defines America. And it certainly is the West.”
The truly remarkable thing about The Son is the way my perceptions about these three protagonists changed as I read. It wasn’t that Eli was a different person by the time his story wrapped up – I just didn’t know him well enough at the beginning to have an informed opinion of what made him tick. Was he a bloodthirsty, greedy cattleman? Or was something else driving him along? Turns out, he wasn’t changing over the course of the book – I was. Oh, I thought I had Peter figured out from the get-go, that weak, foolish man – but I had no inkling of what was really going on in his head. And Jeanne… Innocent, naïve Jeanne… she really had me duped. Her being a 1970’s Texas oil baron is the least of her sins, believe me. All of this unfolds so smoothly, so gradually, it’s really incredible. Really, it’s the way it all would be revealed if you really and truly spent time around these actual people. Hard to pull off – but Meyer does so expertly and with some serious narrative chops.
As I said, it was never really a doubt that this was the best book of 2013 for me. It’s one of those novels that I know I will return to again and again over the years, revisiting the epic saga of the fabled, flawed McCulloughs. It really is a Great American Novel in every sense of the phrase. The scope is epic, but there’s no romanticism here, no feel-good Americana – it’s filled with the grim reality of Blood Meridian or the painful truth of James Welch’s Fools Crow. The American West was conquered and soaked in blood – and it was ruthless, cutthroat families like the McCulloughs that wielded the knife and stepped over the bodies to reach the top. Hence, number one, with a smile, no doubt about it.