I “get” list fatigue—sometimes, around this time of year, lists feel too neat, too easy, too predictable. This is especially true of lists of books. As independent publishing house Two Dollar Radio tweeted, “There’s gotta be a better way than everyone circle-jerking over the same blasé dreck. I mean. It’s tedious. And boring.”
That’s definitely the feeling I had last year. Writing “best of” lists of my own favorite books of 2010 and 2011 had been a fun exercise, but when 2012 drew to a close, I didn’t bother to draw up a top ten. It felt like my reading for the year had been dominated by pretty-good-but-not-exactly-amazing books, and well, what’s the point in a list like that?
This December is another story altogether. Looking back at 2013’s book releases, there are some real standouts—books I loved and savored and couldn’t stop talking about. I’m happy for an excuse to sing their praises some more! Without further ado, here are the ten best new books I read in 2013:
The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons (Goli Taraghi) Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sonsare hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop for the profound transformations—emotional, psychological, intellectual, and even supernatural—of her characters, young and old.
Equilateral (Ken Kalfus) It is the spring of 1894, and Professor Sanford Thayer is somewhere between Egypt and Libya, deep in the Bahr ar Rimal al ’Azim, the “Great Sand Sea.” He is directing a workforce of 900,000 men on the construction of a project Thayer is certain marks man’s greatest achievement: The creation of a dug-out equilateral triangle 306 miles long on each side. On June 17, when Thayer calculates the Earth will be closest to Mars, 22 million barrels of petroleum pooled into the three sides’ five-mile trenches will be set aflame, sending out a burning geometric greeting to Martian observers, a historic “petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.” Thayer is a romantic—he has chosen the equilateral triangle for its poetic qualities (it is the “most visually satisfying, most inspiring” shape, he is convinced), but the logistics of the project are ugly and grueling. Kalfus has crafted a powerful, mesmerizing story about ambition—and its limitations.
The Watch Tower (Elizabeth Harrower) It’s hard to find a book like The Watch Tower these days. First published by Macmillan in 1966, Elizabeth Harrower’s fantastically incisive portrait of domestic cruelty follows the fates of two sisters, Laura and Clare, in 1940s Australia. For all the psychological torment Harrower subjects her protagonists to, Clare’s defiance brings a delectably feminist streak to The Watch Tower. Laura grew up reading books with “rainbow-colored” endings but Clare prefers books about distant lands and lives entirely unlike hers. They support her conviction that there is a way out of her domestic captivity, and arm her to act: “Nothing is this small,” she thinks. She is sure of it.
The Stories of Frederick Busch (edited by Elizabeth Strout) I picked up this book having no idea what was in store; somehow, I’d never encountered Busch’s writing before. I was completely floored. These stories are masterful, compassionate, accessible, and exceedingly well-crafted. Busch been has been pegged as a “writer’s writer,”—someone who “seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience,” as The New York Times put it. This is a shame. These stories are just plain good. (Side note: Busch’s son Benjamin Busch was one of the authors The Takeaway featured in the panels on love and death I produced in Miami last year. Here him speaking about his father—and many other things—here.)
A Fort of Nine Towers (Qais Akbar Omar) In 1992, when the mujahedeen arrived in Kabul, young Qais Akbar Omar “expected to see heroes in uniforms and shiny boots.” Instead, the Holy Warriors had “beards, mustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet.” Mind-boggling yet matter-of-fact, A Fort of Nine Towers is the memoir of a childhood in ’90s Afghanistan—a riveting story of war as seen through a child’s eyes and summoned from an adult’s memory.
Lost Girls (Robert Kolker) On the morning of May 1, 2010, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert went missing in the secluded community of Oak Beach, Long Island. By the time police found her remains (a year and a half later), the bodies of four other 20-something women—all Craigslist “escorts”—had also been discovered in the vicinity. Serial killer stories are all kind of the same. But the absence of an identifiable killer in this story puts the focus instead on the victims themselves. Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber all came from struggling middle- to lower-middle-class families in cities with few employment opportunities. They tried working at Applebee’s, doing secretarial work, selling pizzas, and telemarketing. None of these jobs paid the way selling sex did, though. Part of the tragedy of their stories is the extent to which prostitution appeared to be their best option.
Dissident Gardens (Jonathan Lethem) I stopped reading Jonathan Lethem for a few years because I knew that there was no way another book of his was going to make me feel the way Fortress of Solitude did. But when I heard he was writing about my beloved Queens, I couldn’t help get a little bit excited. In the end, Dissident Gardens was exactly the book I wanted to read: An acerbicly funny, chaotic and somewhat depressing (but ultimately heartfelt) love letter to Queens.
Middle Men (Jim Gavin) Crisscrossing along the highways of Southern California is a legion of men, mostly young, mostly lost. Middle Men, Jim Gavin’s soberly perceptive debut short-story collection, follows these men between jobs, relationships, and friends. There’s Berkeley dropout Bobby, skating from one mental breakdown to the next. There’s 23-year-old Brian, who spends all his money following a girlfriend 10 years his senior from Los Angeles to Bermuda. And there’s Adam, the Yale-educated game-show production assistant waiting to land his big break in stand-up comedy. In Adam’s case, “despite all evidence to the contrary some part of himself—the most vital and destructive part of himself—believed that eventually his talent would be recognized as something pure and triumphant and somehow he would be granted dispensation from the degrading realities that made everyone else around him seem so shameless and corrupt.” If the other men in this volume suspect this about themselves, too, they never hint at it.
She Matters (Susan Sonnenberg) Susan Sonnenberg collects female friends the way some people collect kitchenware; this unusual memoir is both a remembrance of vital friendships as well as a deeply absorbing portrait of the author herself. Most of Sonnenberg’s intense friendships end in misunderstanding and silence. Sometimes, the culprit is simply life. Priorities shift, lines get crossed, circumstances and people change. But as Sonnenberg reveals more about her formative years, it becomes clear that she is the unwitting engineer of many of these interpersonal collapses. Still, there are beautiful moments documented here—shared artistic journeys with Mary, the painter; deep bonds of respect and trust with C., the acquaintance of youth turned midlife friend; moments of confidence with Marlene, her father’s ex-girlfriend. The result is a deeply original ode to the friendship of women.
Back to Back (Julia Franck) The first hundred or so pages of this novel set in East Berlin were so brutally spirit-crushing that I tried to weasel out of the review I’d pitched in the first place. I wrote to my editor to say that while engrossing, the storyline was too bleak and I wanted to drop the book. “Sounds kind of amazing, to tell you the truth,” he replied. And so I soldiered on. What makes Back to Back difficult to read is the suffering of Thomas and Ella, the abused children who are its two main characters. But Franck writes beautifully and knows exactly what she’s doing. Thomas and Ella’s cold, party-driven mother, Käthe, is to blame for their neglect; Käthe’s behavior only reinforces Franck’s bigger point about what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime. By the time I turn in my review, I hope to be able to better articulate exactly why Back to Back works, but trust me—it’s a tremendous book.
Honorable Mentions: Revenge (Yoko Agawa), In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Matt Bell), The Pink Hotel (Anna Stothard) and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Teddy Wayne).