This has been quite the year for literary releases, and I didn’t get to many books I’d hoped to read, let alone some of those that have been sitting on shelves, calling and calling, for ages. 2014 promises the same, though I think I will focus more on my “backstock.” So, as usual, this annotated list represents the most memorable of what I happened to read in 2013, but these books might not have been released in the last year.
No particular order.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk, Ben Fountain. There were a few issues with Billy Lynn’s Walk, but as the year rolled on, I found my mind going back to it again and again. As a meditation on the relationship between America’s culture and America’s wars, this is the best I’ve seen.
- Surveyor, G.W. Hawkes. I would love for the universe to explain how I missed this book when it came out in the 90s. Luckily I stumbled upon it in a used bookstore and from now on it will be the book-gift I give. Two bachelor friends, Korean War vets, heterosexual but who have lived together long enough to function as a married couple, face profound changes in their relationship and way of life. Wonderfully complicated by the mysterious landscape of the New Mexican desert, and the artistic and fairly crazy (but few) people who live there with them.
- Pacazo, Roy Kesey. This guy Kesey is one of the more exciting writers I’ve found in a long time. Pacazo is set in Peru; the narrator is an American student of the Spanish Conquest, who has been long delayed in that country by his marriage to a Peruvian woman. His wife has been abducted and murdered. His mind, broken by grief and rage, holds, seemingly, all of known Peruvian and a lot of American history simultaneously, and the way that Kesey represents this on the page is something to behold. I bought the book for my ereader and then again for my shelf in hardback. It’s just something to hold onto.
- The Virgins, Pamela Erens. Clean and complex. Tempting to compare to some kind of alcohol, but I’m not sure which, especially as you’re not in a stupor when it’s over, but stimulated. Anyway, Erens takes some risk in the way she structures this story, which is to say that she’ll make you think. She’ll also make you remember.
- Dear Life, Alice Munro. Can’t have a list without Alice. Never disappoints.
- Half as Happy, Gregory Spatz. I rarely include non-Alice Munro story collections in this list, because it’s hard to love all the stories in a collection. However, the stories here—and that was most of them—that I did love? I LOVED. I read this early in the year and still the characters and their situations are vivid to me. How are we happy, how do we know when we are and when we aren’t, and what should we settle for—these are some of the concerns of this book.
- The News from Spain, Joan Wickersham. Another collection of stories, in this case thematically linked. Each story is given the same title, but that’s not what links them—some have said they are stories about betrayal and adultery, but I would disagree: these are tales of fidelity.
- The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adelle Waldman. I wasn’t going to read this. It sounded like one of those chick lit books that were trying not to be chick lit. However, it was well worth my time. Was it Freud who said “What do men want?” If you’re a woman who’s ever dated a guy and wondered what the fuck goes on in that head, or if you’re a single guy who has ever wondered what the fuck goes on in your head, here you go.
- The City & the City, China Mieville. I like this far better than the other Mieville books I’ve read. Noir and twisty, lots of allegory, much to think about in terms of how we deny the realities in front of our faces, right in our neighborhoods, how we cage our histories, our hatreds, our loves.
- Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. Always meant to read this; now I have. The care and delicacy with which Stegner builds his worlds are always such a delight. What is it to live a life well?
- How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti. Praise God and Mary! A real novel of ideas, just like we used to have, populated by fucked-up artists. Just the kind of thing real novels used to be about.
- The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud. The question Messud raised in the now-famous interview about whether literary characters need to be likable is worth pondering, as it seems there is an awful lot of whining these days from readers about how they “didn’t like the characters.” However, this novel raises more questions than that. What does it take to make art? Must artists be ruthless to succeed? What should we expect of our friends? What kinds of things are fair trades in friendships, and are all relationships transactional? What are our obligations to our parents—not just in terms of caretaking but in terms of living the lives they were unable to live? In many ways, this book too addresses the question of how a person should be.
- The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante. An Italian mother faces divorce and kind of goes nuts. Also, The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante. An Italian mother faces the empty nest and kind of goes nuts. I’ll be reading more of this woman.
- You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik. Just while we’re on twisted.
- Benediction, Kent Haruf. Every time I drive through the Pawnee National Grasslands area of Colorado, which I bet is more often than a lot of people have driven through it, I get this sense of a novel stirring and pecking inside. To which I say, STOP THAT! I don’t have time for you. Luckily Haruf has it covered. It’s always a pleasure to return to Ault, CO, and live in Haruf’s version of it.
- The Human Stain, Philip Roth. Aside from the first 20 pages or so, which were belabored and sometimes even clumsy, this book is a perfect work of art.
- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Timothy Egan. Wonderful insight into what it’s like to have an artistic mission that’s both temporally urgent and hard to find financial and cultural support for. Also a great explication of what Curtis did to make a record of Native American culture as it was rapidly changing under white attack and later under unrelenting pressure from our dominant culture. His photographs were nearly lost. He also gathered the first non-white accounts of the Custer battle.
- Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky. Part of what is sure to become a growing body of work around Wallace’s life and works. This is not biography—it’s more like primary material. Lipsky was sent to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone. These are (mostly, one assumes—the recorder was shut off sometimes at Wallace’s request, and I suppose Lipsky may have chosen to delete other sections) the raw tapes. I enjoyed the fly-on-the wall vantage, though there is a patina of sadness, given what the reader knows, and Wallace and Lipsky do not know, about what would come in later years.
- The Psychopath Inside, James Fallon. Quite a slog, because of the author’s admittedly rotten personality, which gleams at you on every page. Recommended not so much for the insights on psychopathy (though the part about how to avoid psychopaths is good advice), as for his articulate explanations of how mental illnesses operate vis a vis brain development, what drugs work and why they work, the role of genetics in all this, and the role of epigenetics. Feel free to skim the rest. And don’t give this guy money; get it from the library.
- Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman. Some of these essays were less successful than others, but I suspect how well they speak to you will depend on your own parenting and spousing experiences and philosophies. They will challenge or affirm them, and either reading experience is worthwhile.
- Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds. Know anyone who’s ever gone through a major breakup or a divorce? Great gift.
- Hafiz, The Mystic Poets, tr. Gertrude Bell. An important influence for Robert Bly’s work, Hafiz’s ecstatic Sufi poetry offers a counterpoint to the view of Islam we in the West have unfortunately been tending toward. “Wine-drunk, love-drunk, we inherit paradise,/His mercy is for sinners.” I know: wine is supposed to be a symbol for “the drunken bliss of love”—ie, God’s grace. Hafiz drinks in this grace quite a lot, it seems.
- Complete Poems, E. E. Cummings. I can see I knew very little of E. E. Cummings.
- Club Icarus, Matt W. Miller. Poems about how hard it is to stay cool with being inside skin.
Bonus: Literary Magazines
Because it rarely publishes or reviews women compared with the frequency with which it does the same for men, I took (at least) a year off from subscribing to The New Yorker and rambled about among less well-known journals. Here’s what popped.
- Fiction: The Santa Monica Review. Usually I hand on or recycle literary journals when I’m done with them, even the big ones like Tin House. I’ll be finding room, God knows how, on my shelves for SMR, I have a feeling, because I’ll want to return to some of the stories in these pages.
- Poetry: Cave Wall. In truth, I’ve been subscribing almost since the beginning, so it’s been a pleasure to see Rhett Iseman Trull evolve as an editor.
- Personal essay and commentary: Still looking, though I did enjoy a lot of the work in n+1.