Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Best of 2013, Part Two

See also Part One.
July: Twilight of the Godlings

Novelist Jason Hough certainly didn’t invent the idea that humanity is in an evolutionary bottleneck. But his debut novel, The Darwin Elevator, dramatizes this concept literally: due to incomprehensible alien influences, humanity can only survive in a narrow radius around Darwin, Australia. As resources become scarce, and humanity’s survival teeters, survival hangs on bands of scavengers, while zombies besiege humanity’s last redoubt.

Hough distills several post-9/11 motifs into one trilogy. Science fantasy fans will recognize shades of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and The Walking Dead, among others. In so doing, he epitomizes much of America’s current plight. Clinton-era malaise, of the X-Files variety, no longer suffices; we’ve transitioned to active, blood-spitting desperation. Thankfully, in these critical times, emergent heroes refuse to embrace the easy numbness of despair.

August: Slow Death as the Son Becomes the Father

Jonathan Gillman grew under his powerful father’s disapproving gaze. An accomplished pianist and mathematician, Gillman’s father had worldwide acclaim. He also had incipient Alzheimer’s disease. My Father, Humming, Gillman’s first collection of verse describes the turmoil his family underwent as this former genius descended into ignominious senility. Refusing contemporary poetry’s often opaque flourishes, Gillman uses verse to strip his experience to its rawest, most heartfelt honesty, free from self-seeking airs.

September: If Life's a Stage, Then All School is Acting Class

Trained as an English teacher, Lou Volpe never anticipated a life in theatre. But when Levittown, Pennsylvania, crumpled during the 1970s, Volpe took a chance on a struggling school’s drama program. While everything else collapsed, lacking outside help or funds, Volpe turned Truman High’s theatre into his town’s hope for the future. Children of the Rust Belt believed, sometimes for the first time, that their lives could truly matter.

Volpe’s former student Michael Sokolove returns to his alma mater in Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater. Sokolove pitches a powerful counter-narrative to current jeremiads of school decline, demonstrating that dedicated teachers, bolstered by supportive communities, can give youth direction even in the poorest hometowns. And he proves that, amid today’s math-and-science mania, fine arts mean something greater.

October: Proving Personal Writing Still Matters

Michael Sokolove, above, openly mocks the impersonal, test-driven education system that obtains in America today. He’d appreciate The Best American Essays 2013, a collection of personal writing in which twenty authors struggle with today’s widespread problems and joys. This collection challenges audiences to step outside themselves, understanding that only the intensely personal is ever truly universal. I’ve used prior Best American collections in writing classes, and will surely do so again.

November: Snowpacked Mystic

Former New Hampshire Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli didn’t publish her first book until she was 62 years old. Since then, she’s won numerous awards, been feted by poetry’s elite, and received generous recognition at home and away as one of today’s great unrecognized poets. No wonder: her verse reflects decades of experience, but lacks the hip cynicism burdening too many seasoned poets. This makes her prime reading for non-poetry audiences.

Fargnoli’s sixth collection, Winter: Poems, examines active life from isolation’s enforced leisure. (New England regularly gets snowed in.) Her panoply of love lyrics, agnostic prayers, and solemn laments melds across pages, and years, to create a landscape of joy and loss. I couldn’t put it better than to quote myself: “Fargnoli’s Winter is bleak, ghostly, and alone. Yet it brims with life, because humans inject themselves into the vacuum.”

December: Eternity Runs in the Blood

If American society has a new frontier, it must surely be the human genome. Our growing knowledge of biological inheritance threatens to transform medicine, childbearing, marriage, and other keys to human community. While scientists have written copious data-driven studies, the human story remains appallingly unheard. Editor Amy Boesky aims to change that with The Story Within: Personal Essays on Genetics and Identity.

Cable news and populist politicians have presented genetic research as inhumane, eugenicist, and possibly Nazi. These essays, by ordinary but eloquent genetic illness sufferers and their families, reframe the debate in ways that will hopefully move important discussions into the Twenty-First Century. Because genetic illnesses, fundamentally, aren’t about genes; they’re about how humans live in a scientific era.

2013 was a literary mixed bag. January sucked so bad that I actually apologized for the entire month. Yet highlights like these remind me that books and reading remain vitally important. Here’s wishing you a smart, literate, satisfying 2014.

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