Ben Black’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Ben Black (@benpblack). Ben is an Assistant Fiction Editor at AGNI magazine. He teaches English and writing in the Bay Area and you can find a list of his publications at benpblack.com.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port Marly, 1876

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

There’s nothing quite as entertaining as a memoir about a large family of eccentric characters. Here the author returns to his native Sri Lanka physically while psychically returning to his own memories and the collective family memory bank of wild stories about his father, mother, uncles and aunts, and especially his unique, independent grandmother. These short chapters in semi-chronological order cover a lot of ground, basically a whole century of family lore. They offer a tantalizing glimpse of Sri Lanka in the 20th century.

As with most family stories, it’s hard to tell what’s plain fact and what’s fantastic mythologizing, but what matters more to the author is the deeper truth beneath the stories, factual or not. He’s out to understand his place in the world, and to find a deeper connection to the distant outlandish trio of his father, his grandmother, and his native island. The very short chapters are entertaining, outrageous, and somehow sweet and moving. You’ll likely never meet characters like this again.

Soul by Andrey Platonov

A strange, dreamy, allegory by a Soviet writer taking place in the deserts of Turkmenistan. The main character’s job is to rescue a small, dying nation of people by guiding them through the desert to a new home. But the people he encounters are weak, listless, destitute, and utterly disconnected from the world of the living. As he works to feed them and keep them on the move, our hero falls in love with this pathetic group of lost souls. And slowly, they seem to wake from their walking slumber and learn to stand on their own.

This is truly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, filled with unusual characters and scenes. (I swear someone lies down and falls asleep in the sand on every page). Did I mention our hero is pursued by two huge demonic birds for much of the journey? [Ed. – No, no you did not!] Soul is weird, often funny, but more often heartfelt—like the main character, you fall in love with these misfits as the narrative moves along.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

I’ve read the title story many times (and have used it in my English and Creative Writing classes), but this is my first time reading the rest of the collection. [Ed. – “Bloodchild” teaches so well, doesn’t it?]

Remarkably, these stories deal not only with interesting sci-fi concepts (a virus that destroys the human capacity for speech, a self-harming disease that creates different social castes, the classic conundrum of bridging the communication gap between humans and aliens), but do so in a way that delves into social problems and helps us understand our own time better. This is true, of course, of all great sci-fi, and this is some of the greatest.

Even if this collection contained only the title story, it would probably still make my top ten list. It’s one of my favorite stories, maybe one of the best short stories of all time. Humans are enslaved by aliens who use a sinister coercive love bombing relationship to keep the humans docile and attached so they can be used for breeding. [Ed. – And yet the story takes  seriously the  possibility that there could be reciprocity with real otherness…] It’s creepy, gross, and unsettling because it reminds us of both our history of treating other humans and of our uneasy relationships with power throughout our lives, whatever they may be.

This collection also contains some brief essays about Butler’s writing craft that I find refreshing in their simplicity and clarity.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

The recent movie (which I loved and highly recommend) made me love this book even more. They’re both great in their own ways. This is classic noir, but it elevates itself past cliché. A story about an unscrupulous man’s rise through the world of carnival sideshows, spiritualism, and other dubious cons, this is definitely one of the darkest books I’ve read. No heroes here! But a fascinating look at the underworld nonetheless.

I loved the careful detail Greshman puts into the supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed somewhat sympathetically, no matter how shady they might be. The three main female characters are particularly unforgettable (especially the depraved psychiatrist who shows up in the last third of the book). The book has a lot to say about how people relate to each other, about the gray area between truth and lies, reality and illusion, manipulation and real feeling.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This wonderfully weird novel follows the lives of the eccentric Willoweed family as a strange plague causes death, insanity, and violence among the inhabitants of an English village. The chapters devoted to the plague are gripping and horrifying, but the real narrative momentum comes from watching each of the finely drawn characters come out the other side of the catastrophe changed (as per the title). It’s a very surprising book: I never quite knew what would happen next, and from the first page (featuring ducks swimming through a living room during a flood) to the last, unusual images show up on almost every page. [Ed. – But does anyone lie down and fall asleep on the sand?] Comyns writes with a light touch, so there is humor amid the terrible events, but a lot of deep emotion too. Lastly, Grandmother Willoweed is one of the most delightful and memorable villains I’ve encountered. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead gave me hope for what’s to come after our current catastrophe recedes. (A special shout out to the other Comyns novel I read this year, The Vet’s Daughter, which is even darker and stranger. I look forward to reading more from this neglected genius)

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

This one is somewhat hard to explain. It’s a slippery little novel of stories within stories, and one of the funniest I read this year.

As a young man, the philosopher Leibniz visits a blind astronomer who promises to tell the story of how he lost his sight in the few hours before the solar eclipse he’s predicted occurs. But his telling takes many strange delightful turns as it wanders around Europe and through the courts of the Hapsburgs. The writing style sends up philosophical tracts, full of recursions and repetitions, leaving you and Liebniz wondering where the story’s headed or if it will ever arrive. The ending is totally unexpected.

At the heart of the tale is the theme Sachs explored in his earlier collection of short stories, Inherited Disorders: fathers and sons, the unknowability of another person’s heart and soul, the chaos of the cosmos (with its sometimes startling insinuations of order). All told with a light comic touch.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Andrew Martin: “a madcap blend of philosophical malpractice and byzantine palace intrigue. It’s like what might happen…if W. G. Sebald had gone insane. In other words, there’s nothing else like it.”

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

A powerful short novel from Afghanistan.

After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a long journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand what’s happened to him.

This is a story about multiple griefs all happening at once. The main character has barely any time to mourn the rest of his family; instead, he spends most of the journey agonizing over how he will tell his son this devastating news and how he will keep his grandson alive until they reach the mine. Interwoven with the grandfather’s thoughts are snippets from the boy’s perspective: newly deaf, he simply thinks everyone around him has decided to stop speaking to him. Sounds depressing, right? But the writing is so good and the characters so well-drawn; it’s an amazing, intense, immersive experience.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

No list from me is complete without an Argentine.

This collection of fantastic, gothic tales will give you shivers and leave you with food for thought on social issues.

The stories at once feel old (their subjects and style remind me of creepy/horror stories of the last century and before), and new (they deal with modern issues like homelessness, urban blight, and the recent crimes of the dictatorship in Argentina). In other words, the supernatural horrors are rooted in real issues. Above all, they are gripping and fun to read.

The women of an anxious family suffer a curse tied to a witch and a well…a woman is haunted by the rotting corpse of a baby…a neighborhood is full of expats who hate the city but can never leave…a rock star’s suicide inspires a horrific response from his fans…a woman joins an online community of weirdos obsessed with the human heartbeat…children who disappeared decades before start reappearing, but there’s something not quite right about them…

I hope you’re intrigued enough to give this amazing writer a try.

Pieter Beugel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind a.k.a. The Parable of the Blind, 1568

The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hofmann

Oh boy another weird book rec from Ben! [Ed. – Bring em on!]

This short novel tells the story of a group of blind men hired to pose for the painting by Pieter Breugel that gives the book its title. Told in the first-person plural, most of the action concerns their confusing journey to the village where Bruegel lives, culminating in their absurdly hilarious yet profoundly sad act of falling into a ditch over and over for the artist. The group narration is memorable: sweet, funny, cautious, hopeful, demanding, repetitive, and relatable. The other characters they meet are hilariously unhelpful as our heroes make their way to the end of their small but epic quest.

A brief, weird, amusing tale, but what earns it a spot on this list is what’s lurking underneath the surface, what it left me thinking about: the uneasy relationship between art and life, inspiration and execution, ugliness and beauty, the commonplace and the divine.

7 thoughts on “Ben Black’s Year in Reading, 2021

  1. Pingback: Scott Lambridis’s Year in Reading, 2021 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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