It really is hard to just pick ten favorite books of the year. I revised my earlier list for PRI. A few new picks, here.
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).
Last year, I found it extremely satisfying to put together a list of the ten best new books of 2010 I’d read. So I decided to do it all over again. Presenting the ten best new books of 2011 I’ve read:
The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Siddhartha Deb) A few months ago, I went to see Deb and Aatish Taseer discuss the future of India and Pakistan at a Granta magazine event at 192 Books. It was the most heated (and completely riveting) debate I’ve ever heard on the subject; Taseer and Deb are both very passionate about the subcontinent but think about it very differently. This book illustrates Deb’s perspective through a compilation of profiles — of Indian call center employees, middle-class engineers, shady magnates, struggling waitresses, Marxist farmers, idealistic inventors, and others. Deb doesn’t always find clear answers to the very good questions he asks about who the real winners and losers are in India’s recent economic surge. Nevertheless, his investigations provide a rich picture of what life in today’s global India is like for the filthy rich and the hopelessly destitute, as well as those who fall somewhere in between.
Noon (Aatish Taseer) Although I followed news of the death of Salmaan Tasseer (governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province) rather closely last year, I didn’t know who Aatish Taseer was til I came across an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why My Father Hated India.” After seeing Taseer at 192 Books, I picked up Noon mostly because I was curious to find out more about his life and perspective. I wasn’t disappointed. Like its author, the novel’s main character (Rehan Tabassam) is the son of a Pakistani powerbroker and a cultured Indian mother who have a brief affair; he has a privileged upbringing but no real relationship with his father til early adulthood, when he travels to Pakistan seeking out his extended family. The novel’s biggest strength — and weakness — is that it sticks closely to what the narrator perceives and experiences. This means the big political and cultural questions the story touches on are only ever examined fleetingly, as Rehan struggles to sort out his own place as a man, a son, an Indian and a Pakistani. Though the book seems to fall short of its own ambitions, it still offers a valuable glimpse into two dynamic countries in transition.
Guadalajara (Quim Monzó) Entrancing, fun, and unique. Months after reading this book, I find myself still thinking about the swiftly-drawn characters of these stories and their strange predicaments.
Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin) I fell for this book immediately when I read it. I fell for this book a second time when I read the responses it evoked from other readers as a judge for the Korean Cultural Service’s essay contest earlier this year. I fell for this book for a third time after discussing it with my mom when her book club read it last month.
Lee Krasner: A Biography (Gail Levin) The Brooklyn-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, by the time Lena Krasner was thirteen, she knew she wanted to be a painter. An early abstract impressionist, Krasner was already peers with artists like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Piet Mondrian, when she met and married Jackson Pollock. As Pollock’s career took off, Krasner directed her considerable energy and talents towards promoting his work and trying to keep his destructive alcoholism in check—while dealing with the frustration of suddenly being known simply as “Mrs. Jackson Pollack” (later critics would acknowledge that the marriage was “at once the greatest single advantage and the greatest handicap to her career”). No portrait of Pollock—or the abstract expressionist movement at large—is complete without a picture of Krasner’s life, but her life story is also very much a story about feminism’s early battles, a struggle best summed up by a few lines of French poet Arthur Rimbaud painted on her wall: “To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? … What lie must I maintain?”
The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness, and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard) Candice Millard brings a relatively obscure chapter of history to life in this nonfictional account of the assassination of President James Garfield. History textbooks don’t have much to say about President Garfield because his time in office was so short, but there’s a lot to admire in his life story, from his stint as his school’s janitor to his abolitionist views and composure through terrible pain on his deathbed. A bit of trivia in the book that especially captured my imagination has to do with Chester Arthur, the man waiting in the wings. A product of the spoils system, Arthur’s political ascendancy was entirely the result of ass-kissing, and popular sentiment widely regarded him as unworthy of the presidency. Arthur knew this about himself, and as the much-loved President Garfield lay dying in the White House, his vice-president fell into a deep despair. Then, at his lowest moment, Arthur got a letter from an unmarried 32-year-old invalid named Julia Sand. “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life,” she wrote. “If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you — but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!” Arthur was moved by this vote of confidence, and took her advice to heart. Millard cites Alexancer McClure for this summary of Arthur’s time in office: “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”
The Valley of the Masks (Tarun J. Tejpal) In this haunting, mesmerizing book, Tarun Tejpal creates an entire mini-civilization hidden away somewhere on the Indian subcontinent; the novel is narrated by one of its former inhabitants recounting his life story. I was particularly taken by the way the book enters into a dialogue with The Mahabharata — the protagonist, tellingly, is given the name “Karna” by his mother — as it considers twisting questions of ethics, morality and how to live. In some ways, the book’s message against the evils of totalitarianism and the fundamentalist thinking (“quest for perfection”) is a simple, familiar one. But the combination of discipline and credulity of the book’s narrator, as well as the poetic richness of the elaborate world he inhabits take this book to another plane.
The Sly Company of People Who Care (Rahul Bhattacharya) A rambling, vibrant account of the year a young cricket journalist from Mumbai spends looking for adventure in Guyana. A little unfocused but full of life and thick with sensory description. Bhattacharya dives in deep.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick) This book wasn’t published in 2011, but I’m making an exception. I happened to read this six months before Kim Jong-il’s death; nothing I’ve seen or heard about North Korea from any other source (including “Kim Jong-il’s guy in New Jersey”) has been more incredibly eye-opening. Barbara Demick spent years interviewing North Korean refugees — focusing on those who left one particular town, Chongjin — to piece together a detailed picture of life under Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-Il. Demick’s six main characters each left the country in very different ways for very different reasons. The world they find beyond North Korea’s borders startles, amazes and sometimes confounds them. Demick’s description of a young North Korean girl eating a banana for the first time (in The New Yorker and on The Takeaway) is what first drew my interest to this book, and it proved to be a good measure of what the experience of reading the entire book is like. Nothing to Envy is full of one astonishing — and very real — moment after another. “Horrifying” sums up much of life in North Korea, but the stories in this book demonstrate the tremendous resilience, bravery, romance, and fortitude of its people too.
El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Ioan Grillo) Take even a cursory look at Mexico’s drug war and you’ll quickly find support for the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Grillo has spent more than a decade in Mexico, and this book piles on one wild – historically verifiable – tale after another. Though Grillo’s anecdotal style comes off as clumsy once in a while, the conversational tone he takes in his extensive, substantive journalism is refreshing overall.
Finally, here are five books of 2011 I’d like to read but haven’t yet gotten around to: The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht), Bossypants (Tina Fey), The Folded Earth (Anuradha Roy), Room For Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports (John Casey), The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides).
Presenting the ten best books of 2010 that I’ve read:
The Big Short (Michael Lewis) This book was essential to my understanding of the financial meltdown. Michael Lewis approaches the topic of the housing crisis and short-selling with an insider’s grasp of financial products and derivatives and an outsider’s sense of the absurdity of Wall Street. What results is a very clear explanation of what drove the economy’s collapse, peppered with colorful anecdotes. While I was reading this, I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I knew. I would loan it to you but I’ve given away both copies I had.
The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø) I violently hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But this is Scandinavian crime fiction worth reading.
Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (edited by Cathy Porter) Sofia was her husband’s secretary, proofreader, editor, housekeeper, agent, and nurse – the person who darned Leo’s socks as well as the person who proofread the first draft of War and Peace. Spanning 57 years, these diaries chronicle the mundane (“Lev Nikolaevich [Leo] is better today; he has moved his bowels and is no longer in pain, and my soul is relieved of a terrible anxiety”) but also bear witness to her struggles. Sofia yearns for the pleasure of her own creative pursuits, often questions her fate, and sometimes contemplates suicide — but (luckily, for generations of Tolstoy’s readers) she never doubts her husband’s genius or wavers in her commitment to his legacy. By the end of the book, Sofia’s frayed nerves and endless crying scenes had nearly worn me out, but for most of it, I was entirely captivated by her world. Her life raises difficult questions about feminism, marriage, and the price of greatness in the arts.
Dolly City (Orly Castel-Bloom) In the early pages of this book, I was really put off by Dolly’s perversity. But as the plot kicked in, the book began to follow its own internal logic and I was completely gripped. For a taste of Castel-Bloom’s brilliance, check out “My Fallow Years,” a short piece published online by Words Without Borders.
Fordlandia (Greg Grandin) Henry Ford was an odd guy. The story of Fordlandia, his never profitable but truly colossal rubber-growing outpost in the Brazilian Amazon typifies his oddness, as well as his supreme self-confidence and stubbornness. This book is a portrait of a spectacular (and forgotten) failure brimming with historical trivia.
How Does it Feel To Be A Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi) The last time a TSA agent asked to search my suitcase, he was confronted with the following: 50 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal (embedded in a weekends’ worth of outfits), 2 ceramic soup bowls, 2 grapefruit spoons, 1 ZipLock packet of fresh Pongal rice, 1 set of stinky gym clothes, 1 pair of heels, 1 bag of toiletries … and a hardback copy of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? with big bright red Arabic letters on the cover. Rather appropriately, reading this book on an airplane and on the subway cars turned into a bit of an exercise in seeing how it feels to be an object of misplaced, inchoate suspicion — I always have a bag full of strange items when I return from a weekend in Poquoson, but never before has there been anything that might peg me as Muslim or Arab-American. Though this book was published 2008, I’m including it on this list because it didn’t become topic of national debate until this fall.
I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson) I’m starting to notice that this list is heavy on less-than-sunny material, but so be it. This brooding book sees protagonist Arvid Jansen through the midst of a mid-life crisis (“There was a fissure in my life, a void, and that void only beer could fill”). He’s unpleasant company, but his self-loathing has the virtue of a searing clarity.
Negative Space (Robert Steiner) This book traces, in elegant, obsessive detail, the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage of 20 years over the course of one evening. As they sit on their French terrace overlooking a 300-year-old olive grove, drinking wine and smoking, the narrator’s wife begins to explain to him that she has been unfaithful. The narrator feels flattened: “… I became the husband in a novelette devoid of martyrs or fevered Russians. No booming voices, no Bach, nothing of an epic scale — instead small, brutish, unsympathetic.” Infidelity is an old theme, but the single-mindedness of the protagonist’s introspection is what makes this book fascinating — and what elevates the crude betrayal, jealousy and loss at the center of the story into something far more rarefied.
Tail of the Blue Bird (Nii Ayikwei Parkes) A lovely detective story set in rural Ghana, Tail of the Blue Bird draws heavily from folklore and — though it follows a number of modern whodunit conventions — isn’t afraid to leave some things shrouded in mystery. The book ends up being a gentle critique of story-telling in all its forms. As a tribal hunter tells the forensic pathologist, “On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”
The Tiger (John Vaillant) I’m reading this now. The book follows the trail of destruction left by one man-eating Siberian tiger in the farthest reaches of eastern Russia. My favorite line so far: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”
To be fair, more than half of these were assigned to me (what can I say? I’m lucky to have editors who have good taste). To round out the list, here are 5 more books/editions released this year which I’d like to read, but have not yet: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson), Prejudices (H. L. Mencken), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann).