Day 20. The first day of Hanukkah. Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath. A winner of the Oregon Book Award for short fiction, the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, Nadelson teaches creative writing at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. His first book of nonfiction, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, will be published by Hawthorne Books in 2013. His favorite indie is Broadway Books in Portland.
He writes: “I read a lot of great stuff this year, but these five are the books that stick with me the most. You’ll notice that they’re all collections—stories, essays, poems—which is my favorite kind of gift: lots of small things contained in one bigger package.”
Black Cherries by Grace Stone Coates. This was a wonderfully unexpected find. I picked it up mostly because Bison Books, from the University of Nebraska Press, always publishes top-notch work. I’d never heard of Grace Stone Coates, and this book was out of print for nearly fifty years; but it turns out that she was one of our most celebrated short story writers, with a total of twenty stories cited in the back of the Best American Short Stories in the 1920s and 1930s. This book contains eighteen linked stories about a Kansas farming family. They are brief and quiet and mysterious, and capture as well as any stories I’ve read the odd perspective of a child looking at an adult world she only partially understands.
The Return by Roberto Bolaño. Like a lot of people over the past few years, since his books have begun to be translated into English, I can’t get enough of Bolaño, particularly his shorter works. This is the second published collection of the Chilean master’s stories, and like the previous one, the amazing Last Evenings on Earth, these stories are strange and haunting. But they’re also often funny as well, full of a mischievous wit that critics don’t often give Bolaño credit for. What I love about his work above all is that even the most seemingly casual, off-hand tale takes us to unexpected places, to the dark center of his characters’ fears and desires.
The Late Interiors by Marjorie Sandor. Not only is Marjorie a former teacher and a dear friend, but she’s also one of the best writers in the Northwest. Her latest book is a memoir made of smaller fragments—essays, lyrical meditations, journal entries—that cover five seasons during a transitional time in her life. The book is about a house, a garden, an illness, a legal battle with a neighboring institution, but above all it’s about the creative process, the way one constructs a life out of the messy raw material of daily existence. It’s also, sentence by sentence, the most beautiful thing I read all year.
The Professor by Terry Castle. Castle is a rare breed, a literary critic who turns the sharp lens of her scrutiny to include herself in the wide scope of her cultural investigations. These essays are a personal journey into the world of art, literature, and music, and what makes them most exciting is Castle’s exuberant, irreverent voice. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, including one that features a dinner party at Susan Sontag’s apartment. Others are devastating; my favorite essay in the collection, “My Heroin Christmas,” is an exploration of the life and work of the jazz great Art Pepper and his connection to Castle’s challenging California childhood.
Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz. I don’t read as much poetry as I used to—not nearly as much as I’d like—but this collection really knocked me out. De la Paz is another Northwest writer; he grew up in Ontario, Oregon, and the poems in this collection explore his native landscape in the voice of a speaker caught between hating the hometown he’s escaped and mourning its loss. The poems are elegant elegies to childhood, to former selves, to a changing world. Their images are so vivid they stick in your mind weeks after you’ve put the book down. It’s a testament to a poet’s skill when he can turn teenagers cruising small town streets into the most unusual, evocative ritual you’ve ever encountered.