I’ve been keeping a reading log for over a decade. What began as an effort to boost the number of books I read per year, as well as to avoid accidental rereads, has morphed into an enriching exercise of reading discipline. Along with the log itself, I keep a journal that details the magic of the writing I love best and pulls apart the writing that perplexes me, all in a writerly effort to reckon with how literature works. The log itself is straightforward: I write each book onto a list as soon as I finish it. When I like it particularly, I star it. One star is really good. Two, better. Three, I’m gobsmacked.
For this reader’s year in review, I’m sharing some of my favorite gobsmacks of 2016:
I lucked into Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, story collections by Edward P. Jones, by way of assigned reading for both 2016 semesters of my low-residency fiction MFA program at Lesley University. Jones is to Washington, DC’s historically Black communities what Joyce was for his era of Dublin – the voice of a rich and compelling historical and geographical moment. Jones fashions long and elegantly complicated sentences. Many of his protagonists are women and lots of his other characters are children. He provides insight into what makes people care about each other and what holds them back or takes them down with a narrative voice that is epic in its authority and sweep.
After Disaster, Viet Dinh‘s debut novel, follows four men involved in different aspects of disaster relief after a particular earthquake in India – fire fighters, doctors, volunteers escaping soul-erasing corporate work – all in the context of their already blown-apart lives. It walks us through the grueling torments of their work with fluency and tugs us backward in time to offer glimpses of their personal struggles, exacerbated by the toll of such difficult, often death-defying work. A web of personal and sexual relationships loosely connects them and further complicates and deepens our understanding of the loves and losses of these men. The result is a beautifully heartbreaking and compassionate work. I had the great pleasure of spending time at an art colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, with Viet Dinh last summer, before his novel came out, and I am especially delighted to recommend it as a favorite of the year.
VCCA is a fertile meeting place for writers, artists, and composers. Many of my favorite reads arise from the writers themselves, as was the case with Dinh’s amazing novel, or from work fellow artists recommend, as is the case with my next discovery. Another VCCA writer claimed Shirley Jackson as his muse. Yes, the same one who wrote that creepy enigmatic modern fable “The Lottery,” where a village congregates for its annual ritual of stoning to death the townsperson whose name is drawn at random. The story skewers the notion of following social norms for their own sake, exposes the hypocrisies of group think, and leaves you with a chill through your entire insides from all the times you’ve stood idly by and gone along with some crappy idea just because someone told you that was how things worked. After my stint at VCCA, I ordered a book of Jackson’s stories only to find that “The Lottery” isn’t even her best work.
Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories was my most revelatory read of 2016. She joins the ranks of women writers whose work astonished, inspired, and changed me, but somehow remains excluded from the American literary cannon: Harriette Simpson Arnow, Dawn Powell, Anais Nin, to name a few others. Like the universally revered Raymond Carver, Jackson is also a master of word economy. With her spareness, she fashions murmurous horror out of daily domestic moments and spotlights disingenuous liberal open-mindedness. She dissects the social order in search of its beating heart. Her main characters are women, and class and race feature prominently and satirically.
Nearly every craft lecturer at nearly every writing conference I’ve ever attended and at my low-res MFA program preaches Raymond Carver with the conviction and fervor of a true evangelist. And, yes, he was a master of word economy. He made an emblem of 1950s angst and alienation. His stories are evocative and sometimes cutting and often mysterious. He’s great.
But, at the close of 2016, what I want to know is, Shirley Jackson, where have you been all my life?
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Georgia Review, Sequestrum, [PANK], Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah (VOX Press), Charlottesville Family Magazine, and several regional prize anthologies and other publications. She has been a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and, currently, she is an MFA candidate at Lesley University. You can find out more about her writing at jodyhobbshesler.com.
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