Top Ten Tuesday – 10 Favorite “New to Me” Authors of 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish blog. Pay them a visit, or check out everybody’s lists at the home post for this week.

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Top Ten New to me Authors in 2014:

This is one of my favorite topics of the year. One of the best benefits of participating in the book blogging community is learning of new authors from your fellow bloggers. I’m happy to say that my reading the past five years has been greatly enriched by the addition of many authors who I only learned of through my fellow book bloggers. I heartily thank you all, and today I’ll share some of my favorite new-to-me authors of the year. The following are in a rough ascending order with my favorite being number 1…

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  1. Katherine Vaz – I’ve been reading through her collection of short stories, “Fado and Other Stories” this year and have just been blown away. I’ve posted about a couple of her stories, “Undressing the Vanity Dolls” and “Fado” if you’d like to hear more about her.
  2. Ernesto Sabato – His book, “The Tunnel,” was recommended to me by a co-worker. It was great! I even recommended it for the book club at Indy Reads Books when they were looking for a ‘short’ book before reading a longer one (I think the longer one was Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” – HE didn’t make this list) and they liked it too.
  3. Ralph Ellison – One of those “I’m embarrassed that I’ve never read” books for me has always been Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Fortunately, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club read it for Banned Books Month in September. Very deep and often brilliant.
  4. Jess Walter – Wow. His collection of short stories “We Live in Water” blew me away a couple months ago. It looks like another local book discussion group will also be reading his novel Beautiful Ruins next year, which I’m looking forward to. Top that off with an Indy visit by this author for “Vonnegut Fest” in November, and he’s certainly become one of my favorite new-to-me authors.
  5. Ben Winters – I read a couple short stories of his, then his Edgar Award-winning novel “The Last Policeman” as preparation for a launch party for the final book in that same trilogy. Met him in person at that event and have subsequently read another great short story of his (“Between the Lines”) in the hot-off-the-presses anthology of local writers, “Indy Writes Books”
  6. Roxane Gay – Her story “North Country” has been one of my favorites from my 2014 Deal Me In short story project. I read a couple others by her since – and have one on my radar for next year – and was looking forward to a scheduled visit of hers to the local Vonnegut Library, but it was unfortunately cancelled due to health reasons.
  7. Leonid AndreevHis story “Lazarus” may be my favorite short story read of the year. I had never even heard of this author before I made “stories by Russian writers” a suit in my annual Deal Me In challenge
  8. Ken Liu – I enjoyed his sci-fi flavored story “What I Assume You Shall Assume” in the “Weird Western” anthology “Dead Man’s Hand” which I completed recently. He’s an author I definitely want to explore further. I need to write a blog post about that anthology too. It was a lot of fun. 🙂
  9. Martin Amis – I just finished reading his book, “Time’s Arrow” and hope to write a blog post about it soon. Very enjoyable fresh narrative perspective – a novel written in reverse time. Now that’s ambitious.
  10. Salman Rushdie – I’d never read him until I read the exceptional short story “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella Consummate their Relationship” earlier this year. Of course I knew of him because of the infamous “fatwah” from back in the day, but this is the first I’ve read of him. I received some recommendations from others for subsequent reading which I hope to follow up on..

Okay, so those are ten of my favorite “New to Me” authors in 2014. Now I want to know who YOURS are… 🙂

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Jess Walter’s “We Live in Water”

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It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I enjoy short story collections. Even acknowledging that predilection, I found Jess Walter’s 2013 collection “We Live in Water” to be particularly good. The author is scheduled to visit Indy in November as part of the annual Vonnegut Fest (see copy of flyer below), and the book club (in which I am a regular participant) that meets at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in town had considered reading something by him but eventually felt there wouldn’t be time to include it in addition to our already scheduled monthly meetings. Being a rebel, and emboldened by a ringing endorsement from the library’s curator, Chris, I read a book of his anyway. I’m very glad I did.

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“He watched the fish come to the end of its blue world, invisible and impassible, turn, go around and turn again as he sensed another wall and another and on and on. It didn’t even look like water in there, so clear and blue. And the goddamn fish just swam in circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he would just sail off, into the open.”

The above passage is one of my favorites from the title story, “We Live in Water,” which in my opinion isn’t even the best, or second best story of the book.

One thing that most of the book’s thirteen stories have in common is that the protagonists are often quite flawed individuals, living on the fringes of ‘civilized’ society, or – if they’re not quite flawed – the world they navigate certainly is. Oren Dessens, e.g., in the title story is a habitual absentee parent who frequently “comes apart” in the face of challenging circumstances he is unequal to. While he is away trying to wriggle out of self-created messes, his young son Michael (who, not as flawed, tells part of the story from an outpost in time 34 years later) entertains himself by watching the fish in a large home aquarium. While watching, he stumbles upon perhaps a depressing truth about our lives, prompting him to later (seemingly out of the blue) ask his dad the mystifying question, “Do we live in water.”

I think my favorite story was “Don’t Eat Cat” which is set in a darkly amusingly constructed post-zombie-apocalyptic world where things are still surprisingly normal as the “zombie population” (“I know, we’re not supposed to call them zombies.” – an oft-repeated refrain in the story) has been incorporated into the structure of civilization. Some even hold down jobs, like at “Starbucks-Financial” for example. (In this future world, most major corporations are “food-service-bank” conglomerates, such as “Walmart-Schwab” and “KFC/B-of-A”). The people of this world who have become zombies have done so from an addiction to a drug, “Replexen,” and include the wife of the protagonist, Owen. Part of the story involves his obsessive searching for her, even though there’s really no way to “bring her back” in this end-times world.

The following passage explains Owen’s view fairly well:

“Everyone has an opinion of when it all went to hell: this war, that epidemic, the ten billion people threshold, the twelve, the environmental disaster, the repeated economic collapses, suicide pacts, anti-procreation laws, nuclear accidents, terrorist dirty bombs, polar thaws, rolling famines- blah blah blah… But here’s what I’ve come to believe. That maybe it’s no different now than it ever was. Maybe it’s ALWAYS the end of the world. Maybe you’re alive for awhile, and then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world must die with you.”

Pretty gloomy stuff, eh? Yet the story itself is not without a lot of humor. Admittedly rather dark humor, but still…

Another favorite story was “Thief“, where Wayne, a father of three – fourteen, eleven and nine year olds, notices that someone has been stealing quarters from a big glass jar of coins on the floor of his bedroom closet. The jar’s name in the house is The Vacation Fund, since, after about every two years it has filled up sufficiently enough to fund or at least subsidize a family vacation (“just like Wayne’s dad used to do it”). Wayne’s speculations about who might be the thief serve to illustrate how much his children have become strangers to him, each in varying ways and degrees of course. He contrives an elaborate ruse to catch the guilty party red-handed, and the reader is on the edge of his seat wondering what the impending confrontation will be like.

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Other entries include “Anything Helps” – kind of a day-in-the-life story of a panhandler/recovering alcoholic, who at one time when he falls off the wagon shares that he “…had a beer. In a tavern. Like a real person, leaned up against the wall watching baseball. And it was great. Hell, he didn’t even drink all of it; it was more about the bar than the beer.” I liked that.

Virgo” takes us into the mind of a man who has what you might call an “inclination for stalking.” When his world collapses around him due to his behavior he offers the following: “I suppose it’s what Tanya thinks of me too. Maybe everyone. That I’m crazy. And Maybe I am. But if you really want my side of the story, here it is: Who isn’t crazy sometimes? Who hasn’t driven around a block hoping a certain person will come out; who hasn’t haunted a certain coffee shop, or stared obsessively at an old picture; who hasn’t toiled over every word in a letter, taken four hours to write a two-sentence-mail, watched the phone praying that it will ring…” This is clearly another protagonist with a tortured soul.

I’ll mention one final story. “Whellbarrow Kings” is The Odyssey (I capitalized that on purpose) of two down-and-outers chasing a fool’s dream of getting some easy money by pawning a discarded big-screen projection TV. There’s humor in this story as well, as the two hapless men steal a wheelbarrow as part of their impossible quest. The two men on the wheelbarrow quest demonstrate another common theme: that most of these “flawed protagonists” still retain at their core a certain dignity, one that makes you root for them and certainly makes you want to read further.

Have you read anything by the Author Jess Walter? His novel, “Beautiful Ruins” was a best-seller and is on the short list of potential 2015 reads for yet another book club I participate in. I hope it’s selected, though I’ll proabbly read it either way. Like I said, I’m a rebel. 🙂

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