Conversation: Best Unsung Books of 2010

BY Jeffrey Brown  December 21, 2010 at 1:51 PM EST

Books

Over the last year, as the publishing industry tried to grapple with the uncertainty brought on by monumental evolution in media and technology, publishers fell back on some sure-fire blockbusters. Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, the author’s first book in nine years, got so much attention that it received backlash for all its attention. Movie stars James Franco and Zack Galifianakis could be seen shilling for the novels Super Sad True Love Story and Lowboy in online book trailers. For the first time in a decade, the New Yorker published a list of twenty authors to watch under forty, many of them already well-known.

But it was also a year when the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award went to novels that came from very small independent publishers — Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, respectively. The New York Times had to admit that it had not yet reviewed the book that won the Pulitzer.

To discuss other excellent, lesser-known titles of 2010, we turn to author and editor Andrew Altschul. Altschul’s fiction has appeared in Esquire, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, and his latest novel, Deus Ex Machina, will be released next year. He directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University and is the books editor for The Rumpus, an online magazine with musings on culture, art, and literature.

I talked to him by phone last week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today from San Francisco on the phone is Andrew Altschul. He’s a writer, author of the novels “Lady Lazarus,” which came out in 2008, and the fourth coming “Deus Ex Machina.” He’s the director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University, and the main reason we’re talking to him today — he’s the book editor for the Rumpus. Welcome to you.

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me a little before we talk about books, in particular, just a little about your own life and work as a reader, writer and editor. What does it mean to be books editor at the Rumpus.

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: As books editor at the Rumpus I talk to editors and publicists and sort through the massive piles of books that come in the mail. We started the Rumpus just as the diminishing of book review outlets was really picking up speed, and so the fact that a website like the Rumpus has come into existence and gotten a pretty big following in the last couple of years means that we’re on every publicists’ Christmas list.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, so we’re trying to talk to some critics in different areas, particularly about books that you loved that the rest of us might not have heard about or heard enough about. So where do you want to start?

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: The thing about being a book editor is everyone thinks that you get to read everything, and actually you don’t get to read as much as you want to because you have to find a way to kind of sort through the volume and delegate most of the reviews to other writers. But I did read a bunch of books this year that I really enjoyed, and I know we’re focusing on books that maybe didn’t get the headline attention, but I want to start with two that did, not just because I liked them a lot but also as a way of introducing a book that I liked even more. There were two comical, or even satirical, novels that came out this year that got a lot of press: Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.” Shteyngart as a writer, he is really just getting better and better with each book. “Absurdistan” was very good, and I think this one was even better. And I think the same is true of Lipsyte’s “The Ask,” and I think it was a good year for black comedy or satire. At the same time, the novel that I think I most enjoyed this year was a novel called “Model Home” by Eric Puchner, which is also quite funny, even dark comedy at times. What it does that I think in the end I didn’t quite get as much from Lipsyte and Shteyngart’s novels is that it really loved all of its characters, and it really feels for them in ways that I think straight forwardly satirical novels often have a problem doing. This is a novel that’s set in the ’80s during the kind of go-go Reagan years and what contemporary readers would recognize as a housing bubble. It’s about a family in Los Angeles, the patriarch of the family, a man named Warren Ziller, makes some really terrible decisions in the real estate market. He tries to become kind of a small-scale developer and the whole thing blows up in his face. He’s so ashamed or in denial about that, he basically lies to his family. When his car gets repossessed, he tells them that he’s taken it to the shop, and he professes not to understand what happens, like when the furniture store comes and takes their furniture away. And in the midst of this you have three very disaffected children in the family who are not only trying to make sense of what’s happening to their family but they’re also recent transplants to California, and they are really trying to make sense of the popular culture of Los Angeles in the ’80s, and they have kind of wildly different reactions to it. And what Puchner does all the way through this book is he makes you believe in these characters so precisely, they are all so real and their perspectives are all so different, and they screw up really bad, all of them do, and they are all deeply flawed characters, but it’s impossible to laugh at them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Got another one?

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Yeah, to get off the comic track for a moment, a couple books that I read this year that I really enjoyed: Michael Sledge’s novel “The More I Owe You,” which is a novelized version of the relationship between the poet Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, her lover in Brazil for many years. It’s a fairly short novel, and we’re at some distance to the material; the author is a man writing in the 21st century about two women living in South America, you know, almost a half a century ago. It’s so vividly realized, not only the setting, the environment and the culture of the place that he’s writing about, but the lives of the two women, their minds, their emotions, their relationship is presented with such a palpable electricity. It’s the kind of novel that you go into, or I did, thinking, I’m interested, I don’t know if I’ll enjoy this and then, you know, 250 pages later you just can’t believe what a strong experience and reaction you’ve had with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll give you time for one more.

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Sure Lan Samantha Chang’s novel, “Always Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost ,” which again I went into curious but not necessarily thinking that I would find something I really loved. This is a novel set at least partly in a very prestigious and cloistered graduate writing program among young and ambitious poets. And while I tend to find writing about writers and writing about writing programs to be fairly tedious, I’ve spent too much time in these places myself, to want to read about them very often, but Chang’s novel really captures the emotional complexity and volatility and ambition of young writers and artists. The toll that this takes on their relationships to their friends, to their lovers and family but also their ideas about themselves, the kinds of compromises they have to confront in order to survive as artists in contemporary America. And Chang just nailed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well there’s a slew of some well-known and less-known books. Thanks for talking to us. Andrew Altschul is the books editor of the Rumpus, a novelist himself and director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. Thanks a lot.

ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Thanks Jeff, and good to talk to you.