The best books I read in 2013

Posted on January 5, 2014

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I’m always careful not to call this post “the best books” of the year, since I can’t claim to have read all of the great new fiction from the year or even most of it, and since many of my favorite books (usually) aren’t new. But this year, actually, I did read mostly new fiction, and most of my favorites were new.

I also found that I used my iPad (Kindle app) this year more than ever before. It still makes me feel a little dirty, and I still prefer a real paperback in my hands—I can bend it and beat it up and scribble in its margins—but the iPad is great for new fiction because I hate reading hardcover. They’re too bulky and unwieldy, but I like to read a lot of new stuff, so the tablet is often a lifesaver. Still not my ideal reading experience, though.

Some of my favorite books of the year I read right here on my iPad.

Some of my favorite books of the year I read right on my iPad.

I’ve been using this blog less and less often (I only posted twice in the last year; too much real work to do), but I’ll always make time to do this post. It’s a pleasure to recommend books. Here are my very favorite I read this year, in no particular order until the end.

& Sons, David Gilbert (2013)
There was a lot of big chatter and praise for this book when it first came out early in the year. Then it faded a little and didn’t end up on as many “best of” lists as I’d expect. It’s the kind of novel, though, that you do figure will be a favorite of writerly types because it’s about writers. And I love fiction that is about the making of fiction. I do not mean “meta” stuff per se, I simply mean novels about writers. A.N. Dyer, not the protagonist of this book but certainly the character around whom everything else revolves, can be a stand-in for any great, prolific, inflammatory novelist—he’s like a non-Jewish Roth, though I kept thinking of him as Tobias Wolff only because this novel reminds me so much of Old School, which I adore. And Dyer’s youngest son wants to write, and one of his elder sons is a screenwriter. And then there’s our unreliable, immature adult narrator, Philip Topping, whose father lived in A.N. Dyer’s shadow. Philip longs both to be a Dyer and to achieve the success of A.N. Dyer himself, and it’s clear he’ll never attain either. Add to that a fantastically real and raw relationship between Dyer’s youngest son and a sexy, bookish older girl, and there’s very little not to like. And while the flaws that the book has have to do with plot and plausibility, the writing cannot be knocked. One of the Dyers ruminates of his girlfriend that, “no matter how familiar, her body always seemed newly hatched.” Philip recalls a candid conversation with his mother, who ended it with a standard, affectionate joke, and then he suddenly disarms you: “How do we survive being so loved once?” Andy, the teenage son, catches the girl he loves in bed with someone else, and as guilty as she is, as much as she apologizes, his own anger and his self-doubting paranoia still color his impression of her: “Jeanie smiled—postcoitally, Andy thought.” Friends of mine who did not like this book had complaints about the convoluted story and the various point-of-view switching, but I liked all that. It’s a baggy monster in some ways, and it’s insanely ambitious, but it mostly delivers (although I vehemently did not like the tragic, unlikely accident toward the end). I’d bet that anyone who loves fiction, whether a writer or not, will enjoy this, plot holes and all.

The Best of Youth, Michael Dahlie (2013)
In stark contrast to a book like & Sons, Dahlie’s slim novel isn’t reaching for too much. It doesn’t have the same mega ambition or character scope, its pleasure is more simple and easy. I don’t think the writing is technically impressive. (I read Gilbert’s and this book on iPad; in the former I highlighted scores of passages and beautiful lines, in the latter I highlighted nothing.) The story, though, appealed to me for similar reasons: the main character, Henry, is a writer, or wishes to be one. He ends up coming into a huge amount of money that becomes more curse than gift. He uses it to fund a literary magazine in Brooklyn (of course) whose editors still don’t respect him, money or not. He stumbles in and out of flings with women and bungles things everywhere he goes, even though he has the very best intentions. Henry is a lovable fool, and I loved this novel even as things get darker and darker and more outlandishly unlucky for him.

The Dinner, Herman Koch (2013)
When I first read reviews about this book, its premise—the entire novel is set at one fancy meal—did not sound like much fun to me. (Claire Messud called it “claustrophobic.”) But ‘fun’ is exactly how I’d describe this novel. That’s not to say it’s got a happy tone; it sure doesn’t. It is, though, a surprisingly quick, page-turning read, and its biggest asset is probably the narrator’s voice. Paul Lohman is angry, annoyed, caustic, critical of everyone around him. But he’s also critical of himself—Paul the narrator doesn’t spare Paul the character from his own resentment. The Dinner feels more like a play than a novel, with four main players: Paul, his wife Claire, Paul’s politician brother Serge, and Serge’s wife Babette. And that’s okay. Someone should and probably will go ahead and put it on as a play, but it works fine as a novel—funny, sometimes upsetting, engaging, and fierce. The whole thing is a ticking time-bomb, yes—halfway in you find out the true purpose for the dinner and the revelation eating away (sorry) at Paul. For me, the conceit worked, though, despite what Janet Maslin thinks. The critic wrote that the book is “executed with a joylessly heavy hand,” which I don’t agree with at all, and, in general, based on her complaints with the book I have to wonder if she simply didn’t like the narrator, to which I’d say that of course you aren’t meant to like him, or any of the main four, and that’s quite all right. Koch is, however, wise to add to the present setting of the dinner a humming little river of side plots about Paul’s son and Serge’s son, which gives us a needed break from the action unfolding in the restaurant. I have no reason not to recommend this book to everyone, foodie or not, lover of angry, judgmental narrators or not.

A Map of Tulsa, Benjamin Lytal (2013)
I sure made a lot of highlights in this one. Like The Best of Youth, it’s a bit more muted and chill. It’s got less going on than a bulky book like & Sons. But Lytal’s slim novel about a college kid returning home to Tulsa for the summer is really well-paced, vivid, and likable. Inevitably, it’s a love story, but it ends up being about the city, too. This novel has an extremely strong sense of place. I loved that the protagonist Jim heads right to a bar on his first day home, alone, with his sketchbook, and ends up just stumbling into a social group for the rest of the summer all because some kids he vaguely knew in high school invite him to a party. The book is filled with artful turns of phrase: “My enthusiasm pinged off the things I admired that I glimpsed in the whirl, the girls, their hair, their boots,” he says while dancing. And, while high and running through backyards, climbing over fences: “To be so athletic was a strange breakthrough, on top of everything else.” And, leaving a party: “I thought of that house I had been in as an intricate novel, one I had read too fast but could unwind, later, and rethink, in my notebooks.” That right there in many ways explains the entire joy of reading, doesn’t it, and in some ways even the joy of any memory, any experience? This whole book feels a lot like that well-worded statement.

Slow Getting Up, Nate Jackson (2013)
In the tradition of modern, bawdy sports memoirs like Mark Titus’s Don’t Put Me in, Coach, former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson’s is appropriately self-deprecating, fun, surprising, and brutally honest. But it’s also well-written. Did I say funny? It’s really funny. And most of the time it’s funny in a subtle, deadpan way, not a showy, trying-too-hard way. At times, yes, a silly way: After Jackson rides home with a girl from a Playboy party, the cab lets her out and he says, “I never see her again, but I smell her every time the wind whispers Mary.” Or here’s Jackson simply pointing out the quirky, strange little realities of NFL training camp: “Last night number 14 was a short black guy. Today he is a tall white guy.” Of course, that’s not to say the humor is never in-your-face crazy. In one scene, his training camp roommate comes back to the room drunk: “Ty is a funny man, even more so after too many tequila shots. After one of his jokes, he hiccups and reaches for the closest receptacle. It’s an empty water bottle. He attempts to vomit into it but instead creates a suction. It sprays out the sides of his mouth and all over the room.” That word there, suction, that’s the key. See, Jackson can write. He has a good sense of language. (Clinton Portis once flew in adult dancers for a dinner, Jackson writes, “to provide flexible, pink comic relief.”) He could probably go write for a smart sitcom. And the book isn’t just quick fun, it’s also interesting in surprising ways, like this nugget I guess may be obvious to some but that I never thought about: “The 49ers media didn’t care about the bottom of the roster. The Denver media, I’ll learn, care about the whole team.” You also come to feel like you know Jackson; his voice is clear and he repeatedly addresses you honestly: “I buy a new Denali. It’s a foolish purchase but I can’t help myself… I love the idea that I can buy a giant luxurious machine with only my football skills.” Overall, Jackson informs us, being in the NFL is far from glorious. It’s a slog, punctuated by sitting and waiting in physicians’ rooms, sitting and waiting in hotel rooms, sitting and waiting on the sidelines, and so on. In that way, Slow Getting Up is to the NFL what Jarhead was to war: surprise, it’s mostly boredom, not thrills. For its many pleasures, I had to give the dude an honorable mention in this roundup of football books for SI.com’s culture blog.

American Dervish, Ayad Akhtar (2012)
I got wrapped up in this book about belief and culture clashes immediately. When it begins, you think the novel will be about Hayat, a young boy confused about his religion and how to be devout in the modern age. He is pulled between his father, who rejects the Koran and its strict teachings (and also, we learn, is having an affair) and his mother’s beautiful friend Mina, who schools him in the book and leads him to become even more devout, in some ways, than she is. But it’s not about Hayat—when Hayat’s father soon sets Mina up with his colleague Nathan, a Jew, we see that this is the core of the story. And Akhtar tells it well, making us understand and sympathize with every single character and the angle from which they come. The writing is beautiful and clear: “Since her troubles with food as a girl—she would stop eating when she was unhappy and ended up in the hospital more than once because of it—[Mina] didn’t fast. But she still found a way to be true to the intention of Ramadan as she saw it: She would deprive herself of things she loved, like reading, in order to feel that quickening of the will—and the deepening of one’s gratitude—that she said were the reasons Muslims fasted.” Explanations like this, about belief, often reminded me of Life of Pi, although this is a smarter and far better written book. And conversations between the characters are also very good, especially when one of the adults says something to Hayat that he either doesn’t agree with, doesn’t understand, or something that we the reader know to be wrong or far less simple than the adult is presenting it, like here: “I keep telling [Mina] the fact that Nathan’s Jewish is a good thing,” Hayat’s mother tells him. “they understand how to respect women… They understand how to let a woman be a woman, to let her take care of them. They understand how to give a woman attention… Muslim men are terrified of women… I’m bringing you up differently, so that you learn how to respect a woman… I’m bringing you up like a little Jew.” This book frequently moved me; I had to pause at times from reading so as not to be overwhelmed. What happens between Nathan and Mina is so complex and emotionally difficult, it’s a lot to take, and then in the end Akhtar still spares Mina from no misfortune. There are no easy answers here but this sad and gripping book will stay with you.

Lost Girls, Robert Kolker (2013)
I never read much nonfiction for pleasure (I write enough of it during the day as my job) but I’m coming to realize that the type of nonfiction I most enjoy is true crime: Columbine by Dave Cullen; Helter Skelter about Charles Manson, etc. This new, exhaustive look at a still-unsolved series of murders is fascinating and upsetting. It felt weird to enjoy this much a book about something so sad, but Kolker draws you in by giving each of the five murdered girls’ backstory in real (perhaps even excessive) detail. (The names get very confusing and you lose track of which woman is which victim’s family member, but it’s okay.) Yes, Kolker benefits from what is already, without needing any artful writing to sell it, a very compelling and weird story: a whole score of dead girls are all found buried along the same stretch of beach in Long Island, and all of them had been working as hookers on Craigslist. But they appear to have been murdered in some cases years and years apart, so was it all one killer, was it a group, was it mere coincidence? I love the way Dwight Garner ends his Times review of the book: “The final chapters and creepy cover remind us, too, that the killer or killers are still out there… perhaps imbibing this book review.” Indeed, the cover is great (it follows the lead of Columbine, which I mentioned and which used a very similar cover design: blank and empty up top; serene, spooky scene of the crime down at bottom) but Kolker deserves all the credit for his reporting and careful, structured storytelling.

My Education, Susan Choi (2013)
The big “surprise” of this noel isn’t much of a secret by now, right, and it happens in the first 30 pages, but I guess etiquette dictates that I still refrain from talking about it, so: let’s just say that you think this will be a story about a young female grad student having an affair with her attractive male professor and something different happens, but not so different. Anyway, that ‘twist’ doesn’t provide the engine of this very good novel. What keeps it going, I’d argue, is the complicated friendship between the main character Regina and her roommate Dutra. The latter is also, in my mind, the finest character in the book, whereas the professor, Nicholas, is rather flat. (His wife, Martha, is anything but.) I did have a major problem with this book that almost kept it off this list: the entire second half—which takes us a decade into the future, long after Regina’s affair, when she has inevitably married a boring man and had a child and settled down—is extremely boring and sort of obviou and was unnecessary. The book thus could have simply been a novella and ended when Regina’s affair ends. But the writing is too good, and the plot too fun (for the first half) to overlook. Choi’s strength isn’t in quick little one-liners here and there but in long, vivid, delightful descriptions that are often both effective at painting an image and also funny: “Dutra, with his elaborate bongs and his heaps of ska records and his juvenile know-it-all-ness, had been my most recent lover; had fucked me on his orange Dacron couch and on his capsized king mattress amid a squalor of coffee-damp Styrofoam cups; had been fellated by me while a rerun of Star Trek illumined our nude, writhing limbs; or had pleasured me in our shared shower amid pads of hair and fallen gobbets of toothpaste overseen by a giant ashtray in the shape of a crab keeping laden precarious balance on the tank of the toilet.” Hoo, boy. Or this reflection of Martha’s about someone else, a character she has hurt, halfway through the book: “At that moment, I think we each genuinely believed ourselves to be the protagonist, and the other a naive and pardonable walk-on whose role might even have a tragic end.” My Education doesn’t have any tragic end, and in fact for two of the minor characters it has a very nice, happy surprise one, while for the main character it has a sort of obvious, unsatisfying, balloon-deflating type of end. But the getting there was very good. Oh, and this book introduced me to coffee-iced coffee.

Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks (2011)
While I was reading (and enjoying) this, every time I told a friend that it’s about a convicted sex offender, they would either give me a look of outright disgust or they’d go with a sarcastic approach and say something like, “Mmm, awesome!” Actually the book really is awesome. I liked it from the very first moments, when The Kid (we never get his name) slinks into a library to look himself up online, only to find what he’s looking for right in front of a librarian and flee out of shame. For pages and pages we don’t find out what he actually did, and I was sure we never would—perhaps it would have been even more powerful that way—but then Banks does tell us, and even though we were already sympathizing with The Kid it’s hard not to really feel bad for him once you read about the situation he fell into, even though, yes, he is certainly to blame and can’t argue that he was innocent. The only other Russell Banks I’ve read was The Rule of the Bone, back in high school, and I loved it, recommended it to all my friends, we all loved it. That book was also narrated by a young kid, but the voice was completely different. It shows Banks’s range. His writing, as always, is strong in a utilitarian way—he impresses you with clarity and succinctly worded phrases, not overly done technical prose or dime-words. For example, writing about The Kid’s mother and the many men she brings home: “Adele needs men to want her bur she doesn’t want men to need her.” Nice little construction there. Banks’s writing is also often gritty or to-the-point, it can have a justifiably angry tone: “They should have a different word than ‘father’ for someone who just happened to fuck your mother and she got pregnant from it,” The Kid muses about his father who abandoned them. Although the book isn’t perfect (The Kid isn’t the only one who gets a generic name—there’s The Professor, The Writer, and so on, and it gets annoying), it is both well written, surprisingly exciting, and deals with extremely difficult moral and political issues, and for these reasons I’m surprised it didn’t win more awards. (Janet Maslin even called it a “a major new work… destined to be a canonical novel of its time.”) Its strength all rests on its protagonist, which is fine by me. His often-innocent, fresh-eyed observations about the world have a sort of stilted charm to them, like this reflection toward the end: “The Writer is showing him something he never thought of before: that when you decide to kill yourself you also get to choose the method and therefore how you kill yourself in a sense can reveal who you really are. You don’t get to find that out for yourself of course because you’re dead by then but it is like a form of self-expression, your true last words after you’ve already seen what were supposedly your last words.” Of course none of that is any brand new revelation to the reader but it’s something new to The Kid, an interesting little thought. It’s also very sad, of course, but there’s real truth to it, and that’s what much of Russell Banks’s subjects are like: sad, raw, real.

Roth Unbound, Claudia Roth Pierpont (2013)
I loved this strong work of reporting and analysis, which is more a biography of Philip Roth’s books than of the man himself (Blake Bailey will give us that volume soon enough and I imagine it’ll be exhaustive and terrific). Pierpont begins with his very first short story publication and tracks Roth right up to what we now know will be (he claims) his final works of fiction. (I feel compelled, as has every single review and essay about this book, to mention she has no relation to Roth; part of me wonders why she didn’t drop her middle name for this book, but I guess what can she do, she’s been using the three names as her byline for years, it’s just an unfortunate coincidence, but one that has confused some, made some think she’s his daughter or a niece). I believe she truly got to know both Roth and his work (even though this won’t prove to be a definitive biography of the man’s life, she did get access to him, which is rare from Roth) and she sounds like a true expert, if also perhaps too much of a fan. I especially like her succinct and accurate explanation of how Roth felt and responded to criticisms from Jews of Jewish characters that looked bad in his work: “He noted that people read Anna Karenina without concluding that adultery was a Russian trait; Madame Bovary did not lead readers to condemn the morals of French provincial women en masse. He was writing literature, not sociology or—Bellow’s helpful phrase—public relations.” My only caveat would be that while some biographies of authors can be interesting for even those who have not read much by the author (for example, I loved the V.S. Naipaul biography The World Is What It Is even though I had only read A House for Mr. Biswas) but this is truly a book for Roth fanatics and I would not recommend it to anyone until they have read a large portion of his books. At some points, even I felt unschooled/unfamiliar and I’ve read 18 of the guy’s 29 books!

Wool, Hugh Howey (2013)
This book comes very close to being my favorite thing I read this year, but loses out simply because it was so upsetting sometimes. In fact it gave me nightmares. Not because it’s scary or anything, it’s not that it’s scary—well, yes, it is very scary, actually, but a different kind of scary, not scary like a horror movie, going for cheap thrills, but scary in a long-term way, because of its premise, because you think about it as you’re falling asleep. It was certainly the most exciting book I read this year. Okay, let me explain. What turned me on to Wool when I am otherwise not much of a sci-fi guy was the amazing publishing story behind it: the author, Hugh Howey, had already self-published the book online. He made Wool available as a $5.99 Kindle e-book. It achieved so much success and rapid popularity that Simon & Schuster came along and gave him a big fat contract to let them print a hardcover—all for something hat had already been out in the world for months! That’s extremely rare. But the story is that original: a dystopia set in the future when all humans live underground in giant structures called “silos,” essentially whole skyscrapers that are completely inside the earth. No one ever goes outside, and not only that, but you’re not even supposed to talk about the outside, where something has left the air toxic and unbreathable for long (“It was impossible sometimes to know what could and couldn’t be said about the outside”). However, they can see the outside: a single view of it, looped into the Silo via one outdoor sensor, feeding the entire building a steady view of the same lifeless hillside. The punishment for voicing a desire to go outside, or for any crime, is “going to cleaning,” in which you get sent out of the Silo to clean grime off the sensor lens for everyone else; you wear a suit that only keeps the toxic air at bay for so long until you die. One single giant spiral staircase runs up the middle of the Silo (no elevator!) and it takes days to journey up or down it far, so visiting a floor that is 30 levels away from yours is a serious climb (or descent) and thus most people don’t often leave their area. And in the current setting of Wool, the Silo isn’t new, but is status quo and has been for hundreds of years, so entire generations are born and grow up and die all within the Silo—an extremely claustrophobic premise. (In nightmares I had while reading this, I live in the Silo and desperately want out.) But of course, the entire structure and system is founded on secrets and lies, and a young woman, Juliet, seeks to get them exposed. I loved the many winking moments when a character wonders about the way humans lived before the Silo—it’s like Howey is nudging the reader in the ribs, and these moments, while funny, are also obviously sad because these characters are truly in the dark about so much of mankind’s history. “Pretend, just as a hypothetical, mind you,” one character tells another, “that people lived in those ancient aboveground silos poking up over the hillside. You don’t think they would move around so little, do you? Like stay in the same silo? Never wander over here or up and down a hundred flights of stairs?” Similarly, there are normal, everyday elements of our society that those in the Silo world simply can’t understand. For example, there are dogs but not many, and only some people keep them as pets; one character, Knox, doesn’t see the point of keeping around an animal you aren’t going to eat: “He always shook his head at those who spent hard-earned chits on food that would fatten an animal that would never repay the favor.” Anyway, I whipped through Wool in four days on my iPad. There are two additional books already in the Silo series—Shift and then Dust—but I don’t yet feel compelled to read those. Wool was pretty satisfying to me for now. But do know what you’re getting into.

…And my very favorite book I read in 2013 was an oldie:

Good Faith, Jane Smiley (2003)

I stumbled on this at a used bookstore and did what we’re not supposed to do: judged by the cover. I loved the 80s-style pop-art image of the hearty handshake. (I notice the book has since been reissued with an absolutely terrible stock-image cover of a man and woman shown only from the waist down, standing together at a wedding or something; simply awful change.)

I knew of Jane Smiley but had never read her. Good Faith is certainly not one of her more famous books—that would be A Thousand Acres, a retelling of “King Lear,” and after that probably Moo—but boy is it fun. You must ease into it. The story, on its face, doesn’t sound like much: a real-estate agent and bachelor in his thirties in a small town, plodding along, drumming up business here and there. But “when a stranger comes to town…” etc., and so on. That setup sounds cliche but Good Faith becomes a thumping business story as well as a character study and, at the same time, one of many old stories about the life of a town.

Smiley wins with her characters, who are real and nuanced and not always likable (as Claire Messud preached all year, that’s never a good author’s concern anyway). Her writing and the setting reminded me repeatedly of Richard Russo (especially Nobody’s Fool) and, like with Russo, you have to be patient at the beginning and get through some place-setting and introductions. Then the plot starts humming and I couldn’t put it down. There’s even a twist you never quite see coming. More than any other book I read this year, every moment of this one was a delight and I can’t make a single complaint or criticism.

REVIEWS from 2013:

In this space I always like to share whatever book reviews I wrote this year outside of this blog. I didn’t write so many in 2013, but below are quick links to the reviews and, in some cases, roundups I did. I’m particularly proud of the first post, a long essay that looks at novels about money.

“Wealth: a novel idea” (How to Get Rich in Rising Asia; Crazy Rich Asians)

How to make it in China” (Five Star Billionaire)

Fictional fears of an all-powerful tech giant” (The Circle)

Baseball books for SI.com Extra Mustard (Great American Novel; Francona; Faithful; more)

Football books for SI.com Extra Mustard (Education of a Coach; Where Men Win Glory; more)

Posted in: DBR Blog