“Self-portrait of Mr. Bib?” I hear you asking. “Local OC book club leader”? You-Know-Who, who we like to keep in Christmas or one of those “READ” posters from the American Library Association? A “selfie” taken by Dad, with the equally invisible Holy Ghost looking over his nephew's shoulder? Whichever, whatever, His reading seems pretty predictable, even provincial, and self-serving if we judge by this rare photo of JC. It's the Good Book, or good enough, sure, but you'd think He might be reading something new, maybe a sequel or a prequel at least. And, finally, is it just me or is Clip-Art Jesus enjoying his own autobiography just a little too much? Looking for the sexy bits and the miracles? Or is he only proof-reading for typos and what we lay scholars like to call inconsistencies?
Here's another public figure you don't see reading too often. Does he have any kind of inner life, an intellectual or political critique, a worldview beyond the funny suit and extremely occupying career of surveillance and taking work away from UPS? Or is he doomed to a life of keeping endless lists and damning or rewarding little children based on some strange Victorian expectations of children? I mean, who does “naughty”? What is Mr. Claus's position on Wal-Mart, on so-called economic globalization, on a raise in the minimum wage? Or is he really a subversive, benevolent trickster god-man? Arlo Guthrie: “Santa wears a red suit, must be a communist.” Mr. Claus redistributes wealth,you might say, were you in a jolly mood.
Which I am, as you can see. Giddy, nearly at the end of a long teaching quarter, and so very much anticipating a couple of weeks away, friends and bibliophiles, mostly on a quiet beach in Baja. To help out the believers and nonbelievers — in whomever! — and readers and those who'd like to be readers or those who are buying books (try indie stores or Powell's first, please) for smart loved ones who do in fact read and who perhaps even occasionally take a gander here at the almost-weekly action-packed literary musings of your favorite OC blogger The Bibliofella, here's my own end-of-year list, a review of some of the best (sez me) for your consideration, provocation or giftification, in no particular order except that a few of these might not have gotten the attention they deserve, which I am trying to make up for. An asterisk indicates I've already blogged on the book this year, and that the review appears in OC Weekly archives. Don't say I never gave you nothin'. Oh, and Merry Xmas.
A Reader's Book of Days, Tom Nissley, Norton, 464 pgs., 24.95.
Okay, obvious choice, and for all kinds of reasons. Mostly this is just plain fun, in addition to being smart and esteeming of readers, including writers and scholars and historical figures and fictional characters — all, readers — in a day book or almanac of something more than trivia if less than boring scholarship. A pleasure to read in its digressive and yet usefully comprehensive homage to all things readerly by the big-time Jeopardy! winner, English PhD, writer and reviewer.
* If I'd Known You Were Coming, Kate Milliken, University of Iowa Press, 134 pgs., $17.00
Some excited, moved, impressed and delighted reviewer wrote that the twelve short stories in the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award were perfect. I think it was me. I meant it. So beautifully composed that you may not even understand Milliken's use of mojo while you are reading. But you will when you reread.
A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian, Pitchstone Publishing, 280 pgs., $14.95
The title says it all. Just in time for the holidays, not only a book arguing for skepticism, reason and critical thinking as against superstition, spiritual chauvinism, irrationality and prejudice but, yes, a book which instructs, step by step by dialogue by footnote, how you can argue somebody out of religion. Really.
* Middle Men, Jim Gavin, Simon N Schuster, 240 pgs., $23.00
Probably on everybody's list, which is a good thing. Hard to sell short fiction, they say. Let's all buy at least two copies, okay? Gavin writes about the Southland with the totally trustworthy and sharp imagination of somebody who has replayed scenes in his head while driving the freeway. Gavin is the real deal, a son of So Cal who encourages empathy for our benighted region even as he reminds us of all the grime on the palm trees. Now out in paperback.
* Bad Habitats, Alisa Slaughter, Gold Line Press, 69 pgs.,$10.00
Slaughter's little chapbook is thematically and narratively connected short stories built on and conspiring with a discourse between and among humans and animals, counterparts and rivals and alter egos, from the beach to the Salton Sea to the foothills. This collection is environmentally insensitive, meaning that the despoiled and yet gorgeous ecosystem is dying for the animals and for us, too, and yet we keep on fucking things up. Think Ovid meets Joan Didion. Cougar, heron, coyote and crow show up at the liquor store and at the bus stop, and nobody seems to notice or care, except when they do. Bring your cat and small dog in at night.
* Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker, Blue Rider Press, 304 pgs., $26.95
What to say about the author of The Mezzanine, and the prequel to this new novel on the adventures, such as they are, of poet Paul Chowder in the acclaimed first book, The Anthologist? Damn funny, with those long, gorgeous sentences of digression and examination and meditation and elevation that work as both deadpan and sincere. One of our greatest prose stylists, as they say.
* We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler, Putnam, 320 pgs., $21.00
This book should be favorably compared to the best of Atwood and Kingsolver, the sly, politically provocative, idiom-inspired and historically evocative story of, well, you probably know by now, a girl who is raised with a different kind of primate whom she believed was a member of the family. Now, all (nearly) grown up, the removal of her “sister” wreaks gentle, instructive havoc.
Brother and the Dancer, Keenan Norris, Heyday, 280 pgs., $15.00
People talk a lot about the weather. Keenan Norris does something about it in this dual coming-of-age debut novel, winner of the James D. Houston Award from Heyday. Two African-American kids from intemperate Highland, California, in the Inland Empire, are persuasive stand-ins for all kinds of political, family, cultural analysis offered in the high-temperature American climate, with fevers and dreams. Best of all, the novel's premise is choosing which college they should go to, that life decision becoming a contrapuntal Bildungsroman with idiom, humor and the kind of writing which brings readers to care about two young people, regardless of their own ages or experiences.
* Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Jerry Stahl, Harper, 272 pgs., $14.99
Nathaneal West meets Terry Southern, if you like. And who doesn't? Everybody's favorite literary junkie does his wicked-funny sardonic thing, in this book with a political critique of, you guessed it, Big Pharma by way of a copywriter for those weird warning “side effects” labels and Christian Swingles, a Jesus-centered dating service. There's a kinky femme fatale, adorable or at least crazy.. Not to be confused with Unhappy Mutant Baby Pills.
* Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk, Ben Fountain, Ecco, 340 pgs., $14.9 (paper)
I know, this novel came out in November of last year. I am all about breaking the rules, which seem to include never, ever mentioning the three or four illegal and stupid wars we are in, if by we you mean (and I do) the Congress and the President. Meanwhile, this hilarious, grim, urgent novel is all about a group of combat vets who confront the hypocrisy, Spectacle, organized dumb-assery being fought in the war at home at the Superbowl. Too funny, and just dark enough, with sex and every kind of Heller or Vonnegut-style brilliant sarcastic slap-down you'd want, any time of year, all year.
Bonus gift-giving (or receiving) recommendation: Check out this year's offerings from the “Best American” series, including Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Comics, all worth reading, sharing, arguing about, including perhaps why Mr. Bib's own work was chosen for inclusion in one of 'em. No accounting for taste, I guess.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Support your local bookseller, and give good books as presents. Oh, and let's all remember to keep the “is” in Christmas.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.