It’s almost 2014, and there are so many things I wanted to read this year that I haven’t read yet. As I’m making my to-read list (trying to figure out how to spend my Christmas money,) I’m looking back, too, letting what I loved rise to the top. My social sphere of writers and readers is absolutely inundated with year-end looks at the best things we all read in 2013– see Matt Bell’s list over at the Millions, Leesa Cross-Smith in Specter, and Eric Shonkwiler on his own flashy new website, to cite a few favorites. Despite this rash of lists, or maybe because of it, I’ve brewed up my own top ten, restricted to books published in 2013 (which one exception*). In no particular order, and without further ado:
1. Tenth of December
by George Saunders
I said no particular order, but this one’s first, because it’s the first book I loved this year. It’s not news to anyone that the stories are masterful, as the collection gained praise and nominations left and right. Saunders has set the precedent for satire, but what I find so compelling in his stories is their ability to extrapolate, to see all the darkest corners of society to their inevitable grim ends. He’s a crystal ball gypsy, and these stories are as unnerving as the Death card in your tarot reading, but they’re unnerving in a way that feels necessary, smart, and insightful. The stories hold the sort of terrifically specific details often lost in the wash of cultural landscape, until Saunders illuminates them, and you start seeing them everywhere (geodes, rusty car bumpers, clotheslines).
I listened to the audiobook, driving back and forth across the state of South Carolina. Saunders read it himself, and I doubt anyone could’ve done it better. He carries each story, gives unique voice to each character, no matter how unsettling the character, he doesn’t caricature them–either on the page, or with his reading.
(fun fact: shaking hands with George Saunders & Matt Bell in the same ten minutes at AWP 13 was one of the literary highlights of my year!)
2. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
by Matt Bell
Matt Bell has long been one of my favorite short story writers, editors, and literary commentators, and I adopted him years ago (technically without his permission) as a long-distance mentor of sorts. I was thrilled for this debut novel. The book itself is beautiful, and the story doesn’t disappoint. It’s mystical and metaphorical, as Bell chronicles a man’s struggle to keep his family intact. Deep in the wilderness, husband and wife have crafted an ethereal home where nothing is impossible—except their ability to grow a family. As wife suffers miscarriage after miscarriage, husband feels a progressive isolation. He carries the weight of their first failed son in his stomach, and when his wife presents a miracle baby, he can only call it “the foundling.” The distance between them continues to grow as the husband spends more time in increasingly violent interactions with the wilderness, while the wife retreats deeper their home, beyond the rooms her husband built into a hidden space she’s created.
As usual, Bell’s prose is inventive, lush in allegory. It’s also creepy, and if you live alone, you may not be in a rush to turn out the lights and face your own self in the dark. It’s a heavily thematic and abstract plot. But while readers in search of a gripping surface narrative may be disappointed, those up for a challenge will find that if this novel’s pace is glacial, then so is its power, as the sharp, heavy prose cuts deeply into the land it’s created to leave no stone unturned.
3. Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple
I have a terrible habit of not taking books seriously if they include questions for book clubs, or if too many of my facebook friends have Instagrammed pictures of them poolside. But I went to the store to buy The Great Lord Bird for a weekend trip to a wedding, I decided it was too heavy (figuratively & literally) for a plane trip and a weekend of celebratory frivolity. Bernadette, on the other hand, was just the ticket. I should’ve known Semple could deliver satire, character, humor, and zany plot structure as soon as I saw she was a writer for Arrested Development. Still, could she sustain it? My answer was yes. She tackles family, career and ambition, and insular communities with a keen eye and sharp wit. The plot explains its own strange structure, in a move that isn’t 100% convincing, but was interesting enough for me. Particularly strong is her parody of corporate speak, which made me laugh out loud, then made me deeply depressed that I’ve gotten myself so far into it that every little joke resonated. And if I’m honest, I’ve been envying that yellow hair scarf on the cover all year.
4. Liliane’s Balcony
by Kelcey Parker
If I were still a bookseller, this is the book I’d have insisted we order so I could do my best to handsell the heck out of it to anyone who walked through the door. I’m not entirely sure who I think its target audience is, beyond anyone who likes language, architecture, history, characters, the ephemeral, the supernatural, experimental forms, or quick, addictive reads. Following the story of the wife of the man who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, it’s as masterfully cantilevered as its setting. A multi-voiced novella in flash, it kept me up all night, thinking “she can’t do this, can she?” But she can. I gave it a starred review at Publisher’s Weekly.
5. Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter
An epic love story that spans generations, Walter’s novel boasts well-developed characters, luscious landscapes, historical research, and well-timed plot twists, in a parallel structure that alternates between a 1960s Italian coastline and contemporary LA boardrooms and bedrooms. At first, I wasn’t sold on this novel (apparently, lots of my favorite novels this year started in resistance). The alternating felt like whiplash, the contemporary storyline cold in comparison to the historical love story, but as the disparate plot lines begin to fold back in on themselves, they trade effects where they intersect, the one becoming cold and still as the other starts to glow. One tangent into Edinborough still sticks out to me as not seamless enough (having come too late in the story to carry as much weight as it does), but I can’t say it wasn’t one of the story’s more memorable plot lines. Still, Walter has set almost all the lynchpins just right, for a balance story that runs the emotional gambit, while offering pretty meaningful commentary on art and legacy.
6. Useless Landscape, or, A Guide for Boys
by DA Powell
I read a lot of poetry, but I don’t always read contemporary, out-this-year poetry. I don’t talk about half as much as a I read. I’m not a good supporter of, not a good advocate for, the genre at the heart of my heart. This is a book for poetry lovers, for landscape lovers, for lovers of boys, lovers of men, lovers of the Midwest, of struggle, of love. Powell maintains an unpretentious elegance across the work– as poems turn crass, turn metaphysical, turn personal, philosophical, natural, cynical. The book turns and turns, and if it’s a guidebook, the poems are Socratic in their instruction. It’s never didactic or reductive, it blasts rules and stereotypes into pieces, or it embraces the expected, shines it to glossy indulgence. The poems are unique in form, each building its own framework for meaning, but the voice is Powell’s throughout– muscular, confident, with a squinting eye for the details you forgot to notice. Anyone can love these poems; everyone should try.
7. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
by Ayana Mathis
*Okay, this one’s a cheat. I just found out it’s from December of 2012. Still, I’m keeping it.
I read it in a day. A long day of travel. But this is maybe the best way to read a dense and cumulative book that sings louder and louder as all its parts start to resonate in harmony. Hattie’s kids are a mess. Her life is a mess. The south is a mess. The north is a mess too, for a poor black family. Mathis plums the depths of racial tensions across generations of a family gone from Georgia to Philadelphia in the Great Migration. It is a heavy book, sad and true, and even happiness has a weight to it. It’s a novel in stories, the stories of each of Hattie’s kids, and it doesn’t work chronologically, nor does it fit together like a puzzle. There are gaps and lacunae, questions left unanswered as the story leaves one character and follows another; these are siblings who don’t resolve each other’s endings, though sometimes they try to. I didn’t love it as much as I love its editor (Jordan Pavlin, be mine!), its press (hello, Knopf!), but it packs the kind of hard punch a debut needs to make waves. It’s dense, expertly woven, warming, and affecting.
8. The Peripatetic Coffin, and Other Stories
by Ethan Rutherford
Not only is the first story set in Charleston, my own home base, but I worked with Ethan during a publishing internship in Minneapolis a few years ago. He’s an absolutely generous and kind guy and a rockstar (legit: check Pennyroyal, particulary “Record Machine) with a quick smile and impeccable taste– in everything from shoes to music to literature. Do I sound like a fan? I’m a fan. I can’t explain the relief of not being disappointed by the book I was ready to love no matter what. (It’s the worst when people you’d claim as friends create work that’s a major letdown.)
The stories are quiet, thoughtful, textured, with unique voices but a unifying mastery of compression and detail. They resonate with and against each other, thematically related; they actually belong together without feeling redundant. Favorite stories include “John, for Christmas,” as a couple waits for their struggling son to arrive home for Christmas, meanwhile finding ways to open new hurts and seek mercy, and the title story, which follows the doomed crew of a Civil War submarine off the coast of the beach where I sat and read the book. (Much more engrossing than the Hunley museum, I guarantee it).
9. Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. YA books aren’t afraid to get real; they’re afraid not to. It’s almost an expectation of the genre that a solid YA book will tackle an issue, will be a veritable machete for a young reader trying to navigate whatever jungle. This one tackles race, abuse (of all sorts), body image, bullying, shame and sexuality. But that said, Eleanor & Park isn’t really an “issues” book in any way that feels remotely gratuitous. It’s a love story, in a way that makes you ache for first loves and first kisses. It alternates between Eleanor’s and Park’s voices, viewing every challenge from a particular perspective, and it illuminated the spaces between– where there’s grating and friction, where there’s bridging and understanding. Rowell tackles the alternating viewpoint with grace, illuminating different characters and their histories from all angles, and it’s the characters who carry the books. I met Rowell briefly at Charleston’s YALLFest this fall, and while her refusal to rush through her signing line was maddening from an event-coordination standpoint, hat tip to her for valuing those conversations with young readers, for treating their admiration gently and generously (another common YA-writer attitude I think writers-at-large might learn from).
10. The Strangers
by Eugene Lim
This book is weird. It’s a meta, self-reflexive maze, somewhere between a Celtic knot and a Chinese finger trap. The great literary loves of my life have tended to be straightforward, chronological first-person narratives, so it’s an extra delight when something so patently not that steals my heart. I was resistant at first, to the cleverness and stream-of-consciousness-ness, the fact that you can hardly turn a corner without seeing the author at work. Honestly, it’s borderline smug. But the treasure hunt that stems from the search for the through-lines that connect disparate pieces into a breathing body of narrative is absolutely engrossing. I reviewed it for Publisher’s Weekly here.
And honorable mention to:
The Book I Almost Loved the Most
The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud
Messud grinned off the cover of the Kirkus Review sitting on my desk for the better part of a month before I got myself a copy of The Woman Upstairs. I’ve consciously upped the number of books by women I read this year, trying to figure out how to situate my own identity into the legacy of mostly male favorite writers, and I was interested to see one tackling gender stereotypes in such an overt and self aware way (although, I will say it’s one of those covers they only make for books by women). The no-nonsense narrator borders on bitchy, but at least she’s honest, and her story is compelling, as she edges closer and closer into the family she desires in every possible way a woman could desire a young boy, a woman, and the woman’s husband. Her perspective is sharp and precise, her experience particular despite the universality the book gestures at conveying. But the ending. If, as a reader, I guess at the ending, see it coming, and reject it as not good enough, I’m always going to be disappointed if the author doesn’t come to the same conclusion.
The Book I Loved to Hate
by Alissa Nutting
I wanted to love this book. I read so many good reviews by people and publications I respected. I’ve long respected Alissa Nutting herself. I love debuts. I love risky books. This one was risky enough to have a velvet slip cover, and I really wanted to love it, and I did not. It isn’t that I’m such a prude I won’t read or can’t like smut. I do read it (full disclosure: usually for work and against my preference, but my point still stands). Sometimes I do like it. It isn’t that I don’t think aberrant and sexually deviant behaviors and desires in particular have a place in literature. I think they do. Lolita is my favorite book, and the comparisons drawn between the two boil my blood. I didn’t find anything sympathetic or challenging in Tampa, just well-written sentences and a seamless plot that embody all the same things I knew and felt going into it. Still, there was something scandalously exciting about taking it out as my beach read, and I’ll give anyone some respect for debuting with a title that polarizes and mobilizes, straight out of the gate.
Some of this year’s titles still on my to-read list include:
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Thomas Pynchon’s The Bleeding Edge
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers
Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Colum McCann’s Transatlantic
Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife
And a few things I’m psyched for in 2014:
Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California
Courtney Stevens’s Faking Normal
Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad?
What’d I miss?