We asked some of our very special friends and worker bees what their favorite story was this year, whether it be a book, a short story, a piece of journalism, a podcast, an email from their mom, anything. 2015 was a year of big stories. Please, if you can, support us in our year-end fundraiser and let’s tell some great stories together in 2016. And as we say farewell/good riddance to 2015, take a look at what our friends and staff came up with for their picks for the year. We love them and we love what they love:
(So Say We All’s Executive Director)
I discover and fawn over a load of artists in the course of a year. Good work seems like it’s being made from all corners of the creative spectrum on a near daily basis. Even television is good these days! But it’s the rare, notable occasion when I discover art that feels important, and when I do, it often has something to do with how it was made. That’s what it was like to be introduced to Scott Carrier this year, specifically his work in radio and podcasting. Imagine if Jack Kerouac was a Peabody-award winning journalist who railed at NPR for boiling the sound and style of their contributors into milquetoast homogeneity, and empowered normal people to talk about their lives and the issues that effect them in their own words. His newest work, ‘Home of the Brave”, can be found at homebrave.com and wherever fine podcasting is served.
I read a lot and listen to a ridiculous amount of audiobooks so I’m struggling trying to figure out what moved me. The most recent thing that made me bawl was the middle grade novel “The Thing About Jellyfish,” by Ali Benjamin, about a 12 year old girl whose former bestie dies in a drowning accident [editor’s note: not much of a spoiler]. The protagonist is trying to make sense of her friend’s death, the unraveling of their once-close friendship and adolescence. What made me ugly cry was my own inner 12 year old, nodding along and getting that ice-blood feeling of alienation. I was right there with the protagonist, wondering of the cool girls were laughing at me, not knowing the socially acceptable conversations and wardrobe choices, wanting to get the fuck out. To read a story that reminds you of a part of yourself you’d forgotten is pretty damn cool.
I also received an extraordinary email from the current lover of a former lover of mine, who google stalked me, found my writing and sent me an email telling me my writing had broken something open in her. We had a brief exchange. It was weird. And actually very cool. When I was deciding whether or not to respond to the email, I had to sit and consider the two faces I was making up in my head; was she a stalker, or the woman who took a risk to send a really vulnerable email? I chose the latter. I’ve made some brave-ish, strange choices before and it makes a world of difference when someone steps into your risk with you and says yes.
My favorite thing I read in 2015 was The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’d seen the movie, which I thought was okay, but kept hearing from friends about how extraordinary the book was. They were right. It’s a romance that doesn’t shy away from creepy obsession and the consequences of deifying the targets of our affection. The story is told from a collective narrator, which is a literary feat unto itself. I haven’t been as inspired by a piece of writing than this.
It’s a classic Cinderella story, but replace the girl with four overweight, awkward, blue-collar guys from Chicago and the prince’s ball with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Scraping by all year to live out their fantasy of fine dining, they arrive, homely and humble, to the snide regard of the wealthy patrons. And whose eye do they catch but the prince himself: the corpulent, unpredictable, and frankly genius chef, Charlie Trotter. Charlie remains a constant throughout their lives, giving motivation in the good times and the bad, bound together by a love of great food. It’s brilliantly written with a lot of passion, but more than that, it’s brilliant writing about food, an oft-ignored subject (besides in Lucky Peach, of course) in a lot of “literary” prose. It’s hard to imagine why – food is a universal constant for all of us, and like death and taxes, can be a thing that can bind us all together, particularly when divisiveness is so en vogue.
I’m going with the first thing that popped into my head: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/magazine/the-displaced-hana.html?_r=0
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. I have kids and I want to make sure I pack them full of feelings for other peoples’ feelings.
Technology connects, but also disconnects us from other humans and the world around us. My children, for example, are going to grow up in a world with virtual reality. The New York Times has already rolled out virtual reality stories that, in theory, have the possibility and promise of making readers connect and relate to content on a much deeper level.
I hope that’s the case, but this NYT story I picked about a young Syrian refugee girl reminded me that really well written and beautifully photographed “old-school” print or online stories can be incredibly powerful and moving on their own. Reading this story made the Syrian refugee crisis so real and seemingly close. It’s hard to read it without wanting to do something to help. It inspires a great deal of empathy by describing another person’s reality so carefully.
I hope stories like this don’t use virtual reality as a crutch in the future. A powerful narrative is all you need.
That’s easy. I can’t tell you what my favorite novel is because I’m a juror for the LA Times book prize and that’s top secret, but I can tell you the most special book I encountered that included both art and prose. AFFLICT THE COMFORTABLE. It’s a collaboration with “Salmagundi” the literary magazine and the Tang Art Museum. The art chosen to go with each piece of writing is meant to provoke and surprise.
(Science teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista and one of the leaders of the recent storytelling and writing collaboration between HTHCV and SSWA)
I’m one of a million nerds who listens to NPR while driving to work. On 11/23/15 I turned up the volume to listen to a piece on recommended podcasts and heard writer Domingo Martinez recommend the podcast CryBabies. He was struck by comedian Guy Branum’s tear-jerk reaction to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song I belted out several times as a teen with classmates on the back of the school bus and continue to join in when my students burst into song during project work time. This piece made me think of the tough relationship I had with my mom and how powerful I used to feel singing that song as a teenager.
Genuine moments are hard to find on the Internet. Or rather, there is so much dark noise, when light shines it can almost be unrecognizable. When an African American rapper named Killer Mike steps to a podium and eloquently, passionately, and whole heartedly endorses an old white Jewish man for president, something happy tickled the inside of my chest. I wasn’t even a huge fan of either before I saw this clip. However, anytime I see more evidence that despite physical and economical differences, a true commitment to the greater good can allow us to coexist, well then I know it was a good day. So because of that I am thankful, very thankful for this moment.
Another one: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Is it cliche to like Sir Stephen King? (In my head he is knighted). Sometimes when someone asks me who are some of my favorite authors are and Mr. King comes to mind, I can already see people rolling their eyes thinking I went for the easy answer. But the man can write. Period. I have no problem naming him the Michael Jackson of literature, he just comes out with hit after hit. In whatever genre you wish. And guess what Mr. King…detective stories are my jam. Thank you sir, thank you…
As a writer, I often read other writers and figure out what I can steal from them to add to my own writing. Leena Krohn is a Finnish writer that mixes detail with a philosophical take on the natural world. Her writing is this grotesque and wonderful level of body horror that makes us keenly aware of human mortality but what I want to steal from her writing is that she also combines this with the environment (the bugs, the plants, the soil) that makes me realize the ecosystem of which we’re all part. http://electricliterature.com/lucilia-illustris-by-leena-krohn-recommended-by-jeff-vandermeer/
Right now you can also buy her collected fiction at Story Bundle
(pay what you can).
“Corpus Hermeticum: On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres.”
Dressed in a porkpie hat, a shabby coat and with ACAB tattooed on his knuckles, I knew I would like Sean Bonney right away. The English poet, who now lives in Berlin, read at the Vermin on the Mount/VLAK collaboration held in the basement of Power Lunches Arts Café in Hackney. Bonney read a piece called “Corpus Hermeticum: On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres.” It’s an electric piece of writing that I haven’t stopped thinking about. The piece begins in language that is borderline apocalyptic—cryptic with a bit of humor—before delving into incidents of state-sponsored violence in the city of London from the building of the debtor’s prison Newgate in 1188 to Robert Peel who created and organized the modern British police.
Bonney delivery was angry and deliberate, punctuated with reminders that “This really happened.” The poem culminates in an incredible rant against police oppression that hasn’t left me since I heard it eight months ago:
don’t say “tall skinny latté” say fuck the police, for
“the earth’s gravitational pull” say fuck the police, for
“make it new” say fuck the police
don’t say “spare change”
say fuck the police, don’t say “happy new year” say fuck the police
perhaps say “rewrite the calendar” but after that, immediately
after that say fuck the police
Bonney’s poem serves as both a reminder and a wake-up call. The problems we’re having here with police aggression in the United States aren’t due to a bad cop in Cleveland or New York or a few bad cops in Ferguson or Baltimore but with our institutions that prey on society’s weakest and most vulnerable members: the poor, the uneducated, the unsheltered. And if you don’t share the same class, skin color, or belief system as the people in power, you’re fucked. This story, in all of its many shapes—class warfare, gender violence, racial injustice, religious intolerance—is the story of 2015 and one we cannot ignore in 2016 and going forward.
You can read the poem here or listen to him perform the piece (highly recommended). Bonney’s new book Letters Against the Firmament is available here.
(So Say We All’s Program Coordinator)
While I would like to say that my favorite book this year was Black Candies, it was published by SSWA and edited by one of my best friends which feels like total nepotism. So I’m going to cheat by mentioning it anyway before my official answer, which is: The thing that hit me below the belt the hardest this year was this piece by Elizabeth Ellen on Hobart: A REVIEW OF BY THE SEA, OR, HOW TO BE AN ARTIST AND FEMALE, I.E. HOW TO BE UNLIKABLE, OR, HOW TO (NOT) PANDER
At first you think it might be a review of By The Sea, an Angelina Jolie movie you haven’t seen, and then you think it’s a review of Angelina As A Person, but before you know it you realize the story is about you, it’s about your own writing, your own art, and your own marriage, it’s about your own experience as a woman trying to make art, your own unlikableness, and you’ve never even cared about Angelina Jolie before anyway. It’s a beautiful, fractured read, vulnerable and raw, and it comes on the heels of a year that was very difficult — and very transformative — for women in art. In particular, for women in writing. Also the title is killer.