Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from books editor Andrea Battleground: What’s your favorite book so far this year?
Perhaps the sheen of newness is making me a bit biased, but I think the best book I read this year, certainly the book I’ve enjoyed the most, may be the one I just finished. During a weekend when I had approximately one thousand other things I was supposed to be doing, Tiphanie Yanique’s Land Of Love And Drowning had me spellbound, refusing to let go until I had finished. It manages to be so many distinct things simultaneously—U.S. Virgin Islands history lesson, three generations’ worth of family saga, delicate magical realism, a single love story told about five different ways, an outsider (yet insider) perspective on the rigors of classism as well as its close cousin: racism—yet it never once seems to be overstuffed or reaching outside the parameters of its own world. Yanique’s prose sings, so much so that I found myself repeating full sentences aloud as if they were song lyrics. It’s just an astounding story, well told. All that said, I really hope no one decides to try to adapt this into a movie.
I’ve already written about this book a few times for the site, but I don’t think it’s possible to over-plug Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. He knew it would be his final book—he died just four days before its publication date—and it’s an overwhelmingly beautiful bookend to a life that included spying for the CIA, founding The Paris Review, and undergoing expeditions in the Himalayan Mountains and East Africa. In Paradise is about a spiritual retreat at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, but it’s still accessible to the non-spiritually bent. It’s as bewildering and difficult as you’d expect, but Matthiessen, himself a Zen master, is an able guide through the evils of humanity, and our attempts at redemption and atonement.
This might be cheating in a tiny way, but I’m going with it: My favorite book of the year is likely Saga’s volume three, released in March. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are now releasing issues for the fourth volume, but it’s easy and incredibly enjoyable to catch up—and volume three indicates that the series is becoming more and more confident. The primary thrust of the volume centers around the young, star-crossed family’s trip to a distant planet to meet the man who wrote the trashy romance novel that brought them together—in a fantasy universe where some people have wings, others horns, others TVs for heads. It’s a total trip, and wonderfully executed.
When Lucius Shepard died on March 18 at the age of 70, science fiction and fantasy lost a great—if not greatly known—visionary. Before his death, he finished a novel that he’d started writing, sort of, back in 1984. Beautiful Blood comes out later this month, and it completes a cycle of interwoven tales that began with his 1984 short story “The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule.” It’s set in a mythical, pseudo-industrial town that’s built against the body of Griaule, a vast, sleeping dragon. Shepard’s Griaule stories overlap in oblique ways; in that sense, Beautiful Blood is no different. But being the series’ only novel, it ties together some earlier character arcs while giving its own protagonist, a dragon-obsessed doctor, enough room to morph from morbid experimenter to veritable philosopher. It’s a vague, layered, and poetic swan song for Shepard’s Griaule mythos—and his under-appreciated career.
This year saw the publication of a Slate article claiming young adult books are stupid and stupid people who read young adult books should be ashamed of themselves and their stupidity (or something). So it’s appropriate that the best book I read this year is a YA book. As many of the arguments that rang out in rebuttal to that article have already said, YA is an amorphous category having little to do with content or quality, and true to form, Frank Portman’s King Dork Approximately is only arbitrarily YA. One of the book’s many virtues is how “real” the characters seem, but this realness hits home not because it deals in conflicts that are all that particular to any age. The book’s main character and the titular King Dork, Tom Henderson, has young-people problems, sure. He’s concerned with girls and his band and figuring out a crime conspiracy that closed the doors of his high school and might have claimed his dad’s life—you know, normal kid stuff. King Dork Approximately has humor, mystery, romance, and one of the best narrative voices I’ve read in a long while. It won’t be out until December 9, but that gives you ample time to check out the first, equally good outing in the King Dork series.
It’s rare to read science fiction so well grounded in real science that it reads like non-fiction from 20 years in the future. But first-time author Andrew Weir doesn’t just do that, he writes a smart, science-heavy book that also serves as a ripping adventure tale. The Martian manages to do all that and more, putting suspense, wry humor, and scientific curiosity into the story of an astronaut abandoned on Mars without enough supplies to last until the next mission arrives. It’s a classic man-against-the-elements story (with an unprecedented set of elements) that doubles as a credible glimpse into what our spacefaring future might look like. Naturally, there’s a movie version underway, so read the book now, so you can complain about all the stuff they change later.
Most of my possible responses to this question feel like a cheat. I’m not great about keeping current on books; even the newest fiction I read tends to be at least six to eight months old. So I could cheat and say the first volume of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, even though it feels dishonest to claim as a 2014 “book” a collection of five comic-book issues I read individually starting in 2013. Or I could double-cheat and choose John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van, which has the unfair advantage of coming from one of my favorite musicians, and also isn’t out yet. But I think I’ll go with nepotism-style cheating because I absolutely loved 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, a novel about Philadelphia, a mean little girl who sings jazz, and Christmas Eve Eve. I loved it in its most nascent form a decade ago when Marie first brought pieces to our old writing group; I loved reading it in full this year; and I love that lots of other people will be able to read it when it comes out in a few short weeks. I swear I also read non-comic books by people who aren’t popular musicians or my friends. Sometimes.
The best books of the year are yet to come, but since we don’t all want to be teases, here’s the best release I’ve come across in the first six months of 2014: Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern. Yes, I am well aware these are two books instead of one, but this is a special case. Dybek released these two collections of short stories on the same day, and they’re inextricably linked, sharing themes, images, and are almost all set in Chicago. While Paper Lantern has longer stories, Ecstatic Cahoots mostly trades in flash fiction, and it’s a little frustrating as a writer to see one person create so many beautiful pieces of varying length. (I mean, really, does he have to do everything so well?) Dybek has been long known as a kind of cult figure, loved by literati and few others, and that’s too bad, because this double release proves he’s one of the greatest short story writers of his generation.
As someone who’s read And Here’s The Kicker probably half a dozen times, it was always going to be a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel situation for me to fall in love with Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, by Mike Sacks, but this was well worth the wait and everything I wanted it to be. I don’t suppose it’s terribly hard to believe that, as an interviewer, I enjoy reading other interviewers’ work, and Sacks is great at what he does, clearly doing a tremendous level of research in advance of these conversations in order to make the absolute most of his occasionally-brief windows of time with his subjects. It’s always the sign of a good Q&A when you’re left wanting more at the end, and that’s the effect of every piece in this book. If there isn’t another volume in the works, I’ll be seriously bummed.
I picked up my favorite book of this year, Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts, because NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour compared it to my favorite book of last year, George Saunders’ Tenth Of December. Both are acidic, melancholy short story collections, but where Saunders is relatively cerebral, Lipsyte is more immediate. I laughed as soon as I opened the book: “He possessed such a wry and gentle soul, except for the times he railed at her for being an evil dwarf witch who meant to stew his heart in bat broth (he’d majored in world folklore).” Tenth Of December comfortably overshadows The Fun Parts, a book full of characters and rotating perspectives all with the same attitude, but the latter’s still a blast. Its stories are about a woman trying to have it all, a sadistic Dungeons And Dragons D.M. in dangerous tension with his friends, a briefly sentient drone missile. Don’t go in expecting Saunders, though. Lipsyte’s so funny he deserves the chance to crash on his own.