Books of 2013: My Favorites

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.  Hear 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).

Happiness, Like Water

I reviewed Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water for The Daily Beast:

Scheming mothers and selfish husbands, fathers, and brothers domineer over the sensitive women of Happiness, Like Water, Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut short-story collection. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Okparanta was named one of Granta’s six New Voices in 2012. It’s a fitting honor: the unsparing stories of Happiness, Like Water show Okparanta to be a champion of young, frequently misunderstood female protagonists whose voices are too often stifled. In many of these tales, Okparanta’s women struggle to control their fate in the face of oppressive circumstances.‬

The full review is here.

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A Fort of Nine Towers

towersI reviewed A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar in today’s New York Times Book Review.  A snippet:

The collective memory of prewar life repeatedly saves Omar and his family. The bloodthirsty horticulturist drops his threats when he realizes he is menacing the father and son of his beloved boxing instructor. The leader of the tunnel diggers is none other than their old gardener’s assistant, a hardworking teenager and Omar’s partner in kite-fighting; upon finding his old employer’s son and grandson in captivity he orders their immediate release. Omar’s retelling startlingly transforms each horror into a reminder of what lies beneath the rubble: an openhearted, hospitable community of generous, gregarious people, “one minute laughing and the next minute shouting” and always fiercely loyal to their kind.

The Critic’s Global Voice

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 8.32.12 PMWith more than 100 world-class writers in dozens events spanning a week, this year’s PEN World Voices Festival line-up is pretty daunting.  I did manage to carve out time to make it out for a few things– and I blogged about an event earlier this week for Words Without Borders.  The topic was “The Critic’s Global Voice,” and the panel featured Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Ursula Krechel, and Mikhail Shishkin (with Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio moderating):

Reports of the death of American literary culture have been, well, at least a little exaggerated.  There’s no other way to explain the steady stream of lively essays bemoaning the health of book reviews, book critics, and literature itself. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote, dismissing the genre in n+1. Literary culture is in the midst of a “long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world,” as Michael Wolff recently put it in a churlish column predicting the demise of the New York Times Book Review.  At any rate, “most contemporary literary fiction is terrible,” J. Robert Lennon griped in Salon.

But what of the rest of the world?  Are we to believe that such assessments hold true for the public dialogue about books—and the role of “professional” readers—in other languages, other markets, other cultures?  Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio put the question of the role of criticism to writers from Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Haiti (Jean-Euphèle Milcé), and Germany (Ursula Krechel) in a Wednesday night PEN festival discussion of “The Critic’s Global Voice.”

Head over to Words Without Borders for the rest of my dispatch, and for coverage of other PEN events (there’s a nice dispatch on the “Speaking in Languages on the Edge,” event, and interview with Susan Bernofsky, host of “How to Be a Translator” — and more coverage to come).

Revenge

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Head over to Words Without Borders for my review of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge

If an enterprising reader were to map the through-lines linking the quiet, twisted (and subtly interconnected) tales of eccentric strangers and mysterious deaths in Yoko Ogawa’s new collection, Revenge, the resulting diagram would likely look something like a spider-web: Delicate, spindled, and perfectly designed for entrapment. The experience of reading Revenge is like getting caught in a beautiful, lethal web—or maybe, like wandering through a labyrinthine haunted mansion. These stories’ charm lies in their treacherous unpredictability. In each tale, it’s impossible to anticipate just what particular nightmarish turn the plot will take, or to guess what shadowy character or tiny detail from an entirely separate tale will reappear (a dead hamster left in a trashcan, a brace designed to make the wearer taller, a three-digit number used in a report). There is a spooky fun-house quality to this collection.

Hot Reads: The New Mind of the South, Honor, Between Man and Beast, A Tale for the Time Being, On the Ropes

Picture 1This week’s Hot Reads feature Japanese tsunami flotsam, “the ‘two-ness’ of Southerners,” an honor killing in 1970s London, and gorillas.

Math Anxiety and a Visit to MoMath

In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math.  Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.

One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen.  A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.

This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math.  Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.

I lucked out that day.  But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.

Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom.  That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan.  Listen to the piece that resulted here.

Hot Reads: Middle Men, A Week in Winter, An Armenian Sketchbook, The Teleportation Accident, The Searchers

Picture 1Featuring a John Wayne western, teleportation experiments, indigestion in Armenia, and the highways of Los Angeles.  The full reviews here.