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Monday, January 2, 2017

Best Books of (My) Year 2016

We're back! But before starting 2017 at the Blog we must end with the last best-of-the-year lists (promise)... with the favourite reads of 2016! Thanks to my duty at and the support given by many incredible publishers, the last twelve months have been an astonishing time for bookworms (like me). Besides, it's been a year that I'm particularly fond of, because it has been full of stunning short fiction collections. Obviously, it's been a tough rank to do, but here's my Top Ten (plus a trio of honorable mentions below). Go read them, you won't regret it! And don't forget to check our best of list of songs, records, EPs and concerts!

10. The bones of Louella Brown and other stories - Ann Petry (Palabrero Press)
Only five stories here, but what a superb small collection to introduce us into the masterful prose of Ann Petry. Give us the form. Hard in their content. Resonants in their draft. And, sadly, pertinent even today. Ann Petry reveals herself to be an extraordinary observer of the reality she had to live in the 'land of opportunity'... for whites (much better if they are also men and rich, of course) of the past mid-last century. A reality that, with the exception of the first, magic story, she presents us with daily facts and an amazing simplicity, Without moralizing or 'selling the drama' to impact the reader, in Petry's tales things speak for themselves. "Just” the exhibition of the tragedies, injustices and everyday tragic consequences of a world 'at two speeds' depending on skin color, gender or social class. It will be the reader's task whether or not to feel the pang of indignation or shame. Or recognize that annoying ringing in the ears: that of history repeating itself in all its cruelty in the XXI century... Major discovery.

9. Hellfire: the Jerry Lee Lewis story - Nick Tosches (Contra)
Way beyond the musical biography (as a matter of fact, just it’s alibi), ‘Fuego Eterno’ is pure literature, in big capital letters. Submerged in sulfur and looking face to face to the American myths, again, rooting us to the deep south… where 'The Killer' awaits. The story of Tosches naturally links together the facts and data about the musician with the literary miracle only the legends have, fabling about that brief impasse in the time in which the rock defied society, puritan and prudish, shaking its foundations, while they buried purely 'white' genres like big bands, ballads and swing. And Jerry Lee Lewis, along with Elvis and several 'secondary stars' like Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins, are the 'Riders of the Apocalypse', the adalides of a new world. Paladins with feet of clay and tremendous internal crossroads. Because Mephistopheles is a capricious and cruel master to serve… Unmissable.

8. Water music-  T.C.Boyle (Impedimenta)
This is not a novel, this is alchemy! How can you marry adventure and historic novel, epic, natural realism, darkest humour, scathing satire, baroque style... and create such an enjoyable literary artifact? Witchcraft it has to be! A sublime narrator, Boyle and his exuberant prose, full of impossible or arcane terms and, at the same time, truffled by vulgar expressions and colloquialisms, are capable of making us laugh and dazzle at the same time. He plays with the reader, 'entering and leaving' the 'historicist genre' to splash his story with obvious anachronisms, literary 'excursions' that undermine the structure of the novel where he wants to contextualize the time (with vitriol and caustic soda) and, in particular, English society. Summoning the spirits of Borges and García Márquez in pre-colonial England while visiting the unknown heart of the African continent. In short, a sumptuous feast of reading. Countless pleasures await those who enter this book, a phenomenal reading experience.

7. La rivière sans repos - Gabrielle Roy (Hoja de Lata)
Guided by the wisdom and the ever-flowing prose of Gabrielle Roy we are invited to witness the twilight of a civilization & a culture, the Inuit, practically unknown, distant, hidden, for us. It’s a fascinating and beautiful journey to a world of wild beauty, quietness, tremendous seasonal rigors and vital rhythms. A universe in dramatic opposition to the urban world, in a moment of transcendental transformation, dealing with the unstoppable advance of a modernity which calls into question their way of life. Combining the harshness of certain situations and the historical reality of the time (the Korean War, Vietnam) with a delicate narrative and a genuine humanity in portraying the characters in the midst of their contradictions, limitations and yearnings, Roy is able to tell us that the 'wheel will keep spinning'. That everything changes, everything happens ... but, at least, there will always be the river.

6. Novato en nota roja - Alberto Arce (Libros del K. O.)
Here comes Alberto Arce, a courageous and honest journalist living in a hell also known as Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. A country that lives in an undeclared war for years, with areas with homicide rates that surpass conflict zones like Baghdad or Kabul. Arce, on an extraordinary task taking in consideration the extremely dangerous circumstances in which he carries out his job, analyzes splendidly and with meticulous details the magnitude of the tragedy of what can be called a ‘criminal state’, sunk by corruption and violence. And he does that without heroism, barely revealing his logical regrets, frustration and fear. Without giving up to investigate, make the needed 'awkward questions'. Going from the ‘quotidian deaths’ to the exposition of a miserable system in all their dimensions in which militaries, police, politics and press show all their abject vileness. ‘Novato en nota roja’ is especially frightening, but is also one of the best homages I have read in a very long time to this courteous but seriously endangered profession that is journalism.

5. A manual for cleaning women - Lucia Berlin (Alfaguara)
As Lydia Davis (another illustrious writer) points out with the stories of Lucia Berlin 'we never know very well what comes next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is extremely natural, plausible, true to our psychological and emotional expectations.' The balance between her sense of humor and the relentlessness of what she tells us is fascinating. The drama and the tragedy are well present: deaths, defeats, immense disappointments, terrifying decisions, devastating mistakes and missteps. But Berlin flees away from fatalism and always manages to convey to the reader that there is "one more chapter". Like the amazing Grace Paley, she also brings empathy, curiosity, eagerness to observe and to establish links between human beings. Both can inject you with an unexplained 'joy of living' while you read them. What a discovery.

4. Preparation for the next life - Atticus Lish (Sexto Piso)
The son of legendary editor Gordon Lish 'squares the circle' with (another impressive) debut novel, impeccably intertwining the coordinates and mythology of American literature, but managing to renew its focus and reach at the same time, dissecting with overwhelming precision the desolate, and very current, situation of illegal migration in the United States (valid to half of the world). An impossible love story in the midst of a catastrophe, a unique portray of a New York utterly devoid of glamor, suffocating and cruel. A place that tries to hide the roaring lament of the rotten and violent ghettos, where racism and violence are cultivated. An iconic location that crushes angry, exhausted, anguished and paranoid people, that tend to accuse the weakest to justify both the lack of hope and, above all, their own pettiness. And a memorable, gigantic literary creation named Zou Lei, indefatigable, unshakable despite extreme difficulties. Hope despite the times.

3. Glanbeigh - Colin Barrett (Sajalín) 
Another stunning collection of short stories penned by a mesmerizing, really young debuting author. Dark yet transparent. Raw and yet singularly poetic. Reading ‘Glanbeigh’ feels like getting knocked out by the unexpected social analysis behind singing, half funeral half sardonic, of ‘No Future’ by the Sex Pistols. Like absorbing Owen Jones’s works about the the humiliation of the working class by the real scum that presides the world. Like following the cameras of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, hard, dignified and honest, putting faces and places to the defeat. Forget the green, sumptuous meadows, vertiginous cliffs, epic seas enraged of dearest Ireland. No, ‘Glanbeigh’ is gray, leaden, sullen, depressing, oppressive... and perfectly recognizable. A dungeon for his young people, the desperate protagonists of these seven stories of heavyweight punch, but also an elegiac lyricism. A soul behind the gloomy realistic imprint.

2. Cutter and Bone - Newton Thornburg (Sajalín)
What happens when the Great American Dream shows its true face? What happens when reveals is all a big lie? American literature has been trying to answer that question for years, and now, thanks to the rescue of this unique ‘Cutter and Bone’, a thriller, a buddy novel and a road novel, we might have the answers. From Santa Barbara, California, to Rockhill, in the Ozarks, Missouri, always with the presence of the Vietnam‘s ghost, Thornburg’s work is a partial map of a country in demolition, placing at one end a Hollywood stripped off any glamor and, in the other, The American Gothic of Grant Wood's painting. A snowball of Nietzschean dimensions that ends up becoming ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ without casinos or a binge of hallucinogens. Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ without gasoline or romanticism. Because there’s only one destiny when everything has been lost.

1. Volt - Alan Heathcock (Dirty Works)
'The blues tells a story. Every verse of the blues has a meaning'. I think it was John Lee Hooker who said it. But, well, that's what Alan Heathcock does in the stories gathered in ‘Volt’. Tell you stories you can’t skip. That you can’t forget. Heartbreaking truths spitting out in what seems the simplest way, when in fact that’s the most complicated, demolishing, authentic and personal way. Stories that are painful and redemptive. That are honest, transparent, stoic, not infrequently distressing... and yet curative. A vehicle to transmit, exorcise and share the most buried feelings. Like the best literature. Like the best blues. Raw. Pure. Impressive and awe-inspiring.Volt’ is a masterpiece of a debut, penned by an incredible, Robert Johnson caliber’s, bluesman turned writer.

Three honorable mentions I MUST ADD to the list before ending the post (I told you it has been a great year for short stories): the phenomenal blending of jazz, journalism and myth of “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say”, included in 'Kill all your darlings' by Luc Sante (Libros del K.O.); the mind blowing 'Killing and dying' (Sapristi Comic), which is not only the title of Adrian Tomine's latest work, but probably the best short story read within the whole year; and, finally, the classy 'Joe Gould's secret' by Joseph Mitchell (Anagrama), an absorbing hybrid between journalism and fiction. Three masterpieces.

Want to check last year's books list? Click here
Or do you prefer checking 2014?
And 2013'? Then click here
And 2012's? Check here
Or 2011's? Click here

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