This year has been marked by a number of high-profile book releases. Jonathan Franzen’s epic suburban opus Freedom was heralded as “the last great American novel,” Jay-Z fought to have hip-hop lyrics acknowledged by poetry aficionados in Decoded, Patti Smith’s emotional and brilliant Just Kids won a National Book Award, Stephen King returned to the art of taut, disturbing short stories, and a whole slew of celebrities released tripe we’d rather not get into here.
Smaller presses, meanwhile, have also had a banner year, but with the rush of media directing the average book buyer’s attention, it’s easy for lower profile publishers to get lost in the shuffle. To help spotlight these lesser known but equally deserving publishing houses, here are five small-press titles that stand out among the best books released in 2010. Please share any other recommendations from the past year in the comments.
Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel, Last Night In Montreal , was a quiet stroke of genius painted in swaths of lush prose. Her follow-up, The Singer’s Gun, is an examination of the depths of family bonds, a study of compulsively interesting characters, and a page-turning mystery to boot. From the book’s opening crack of a sentence — “In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation” — the reader becomes wrapped up in the slow downward spiral of Anton Walker, a businessman whose life falls apart like glass splintering from the inside out. Mandel also wages a sort of psychological warfare on the reader, as the majority of the book’s most horrific moments happen off-camera or are merely implied, tossed off in a way that gives the violence that much more impact. Where Last Night In Montreal felt like a fever dream, often hallucinatory, The Singer’s Gun is a breathless race to the finish, a slow-motion car crash of the highest order.
Speaking of literary fever dreams, there’s none quite as compelling this year as Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Set in the fictitious arctic city of New Venice in the early 1900s, it’d be a mistake to write the novel’s world of airships and magic off as east steam punk. Reading Aurorarama is a fully immersive experience that crackles with the wonderment of great fantasy — aided, no doubt, by Valtat’s day job as a comparative literature professor. From chapter to chapter, readers will find teacher/student lust, drugs (“snowcaine”), political intrigue, and religious allegory, all deftly packaged in a fantasy world fleshed out to a near-Tolkienesque proportions. And in case you can’t help but judge a book by its cover, Aurorarama‘s gorgeous dust jacket is a piece of frame-worthy art that we’d purchase as a print in a heartbeat.
Published by seminal Brooklyn indie publisher Akashic Books, Mark Gluth’s debut novel The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis is a book steeped in death and loss. Through a series of vignettes that hold no alliance with the flow of linear time, we learn about the quietly sad final days of the titular author, her beloved dog, a band’s lead singer, and a photographer. The cycle of grief in Margaret Kroftis is all-encompassing, and while it’s often difficult to track the various reoccurring characters in any rational way, the work holds together as a stunningly emotional panorama. Gluth has written a small, quietly incisive book that peels back layer after layer to reveal the inevitability of loss.
When we named Heidi Durrow as one of the 10 women writers we love, we said she “deftly navigates the fluidity of racial identity and cultural connections in her honest, absorbing debut.” We weren’t the only ones to think so, as The Girl Who Fell From the Sky won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, an award to promote literature for social change. Rachel, Durrow’s protagonist, is a character who comes along too infrequently in literature: stunning, strong, and honest. In fact, Durrow is nothing but honest — at times brutally so — as Rachel, a child of mixed race raised by her Danish mother to consider herself white, is forced to “act black” upon her mother’s death and her subsequent relocation to the care of her African-American grandmother. “This book could not be more timely,” remarked Kingsolver. And we agree: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is both timely and timeless.
As a publisher, Graywolf doesn’t shy away from risky titles — they do publish Stephen Elliott, after all. Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is a an atmospheric mood piece, a sort of Finnish Wuthering Heights that wisps and haunts into your presence, that settles and creeps, that creates an intractable sense of unease and anxiety. A novel such as this is indeed a risk, but Chapman’s tale of Julia, an ex-dancer now residing in a Finnish convalescent home during a tuberculosis outbreak, unfolds in crystalline and panoramic detail — just like the landscape where it’s set.