Friday, December 20, 2013

My Year of Books: Best Fiction of 2013

This was the year I went all Lewis & Clark on my shelves. Authors who'd been on my "gotta-read-someday" list for far too long came out with new books, providing me with an opportunity to "discover" them.  Writers like Fiona Maazel, Andrew Sean Greer, Jamie Ford, J. Robert Lennon and Neil Gaiman provided many hours of joy between the covers.  But for every author I checked off my bucket list, there are triple that number still waiting to be read for the first time: Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Pete Fromm, Anthony Doerr, Bill Bryson, William T. Vollmann and Colson Whitehead to name a few--and don't even get me started on the classics!  (Hello, Hardy, Proust and Wodehouse...).

This year also gave me the pleasure of discovering some new writers and those who hadn't previously been on my radar--fictioneers like Ben Dolnick, Jamie Quatro, and Kate Southwood.  I look forward to reading more of their work in the future.

In compiling this year's "Best Books" list, I limited myself to fiction, but I'd like to give special mention to a couple of non-fiction books which would have made the cut if I'd widened the scope of the list: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is an absolute must-read for anyone who practices the craft of writing (or who thinks that someday they might take up the pen and jot down a few lines of art); and Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia is a riveting account of one stone-cold crazy patriarch who homesteads in Alaska's wilderness then endangers his family and the entire community when he takes a stand against the federal government (Kizzia's writing is so, so very good--right down to the last shattering sentence which casts the previous 335 pages in a new light).  In poetry, I was bowled over by the stanzas coming from Hugh Martin (The Stick Soldiers) and A. Van Jordan (The Cineaste)--poems about war and movies, respectively.

Without further preamble, here are my Top 10 favorite books from 2013 (in no particular order):

At the Bottom of Everything
by Ben Dolnick
Ben Dolnick’s novel about two childhood friends trying, as adults, to reconcile past mistakes held me in its grip so hard that I found myself at 2 a.m. one night turning pages so quickly my fingers were cross-hatched with tiny paper cuts.  At that point in the novel, Adam had traveled to India in search of his old friend Thomas who was lost, both bodily and in the corridors of his mind.  Both men are in their twenties and are trying to deal with a terrible accident for which they were responsible as reckless teenagers.  Guilt has wracked them each in separate ways and they drifted apart over the years—Adam (the novel’s narrator) is now a tutor who’s having sex with the mother of one of his students, and Thomas seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.  His worried parents reach out to Adam in hopes he can track him down.  Though Adam resists being pulled back into Thomas’ life, he also knows it’s inevitable.  He tells us on the first page: “I’d spent the last couple of years…ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard.”  Dolnick subtly asks big questions: What is our responsibility to the lives of others?  Should we take it upon ourselves to rescue lost souls?  How do we forgive ourselves for bad deeds?  Is it ever possible to move on from the errors of our past?  Another question he might have asked himself: “What is my responsibility to readers who end up bleeding from paper cuts?”  At the Bottom of Everything was probably the most compelling book I read all year.  I couldn't shake it from my system—nor did I want to.

I Want to Show You More
by Jamie Quatro
Jamie Quatro’s debut book, I Want to Show You More, is a profound, weird, funny, sad and wholly-original gathering of short fiction.  Nearly a year after reading it, I’m still thinking of highlights: a church that falls apart, sending its parishioners to live in the woods; an ultra-marathon in which runners carry totems—including a glass-blown penis—in backpacks; and several heartbreaking stories about a family coping with the loss of its matriarch as she battles cancer.  Set in the South—primarily on Lookout Mountain which straddles the border between Georgia and Tennessee—Quatro’s stories take on broad themes like adultery, spirituality, grief and parenting, but it’s the intimacy of the characters which drives the book forward.  There’s a quadriplegic mother at a pool party, a rotting lover’s corpse in a bed, a fair amount of phone sex and at least one frail character’s perilous journey up and down a hilly suburban street in her quest to mail a letter about the Iraq War to President Bush.  Quatro’s style has the terse, stabbing power of Raymond Carver in his finest hour, but at the same time there’s the fuller lyricism of something by Alice Munro, languorously stretching and humming below the surface of the words.  Each time I finished one of the stories, I thought, “Wow, that’s the best one in the book,” and then I’d go on to the next story and find it was the best one.  I ended up closing the book and sighing, “Okay, they’re all the best.”  I can’t wait for Jamie Quatro to show me more with her next book.

by Roxana Robinson
Conrad Farrell comes home from the war in Iraq, skin unbroken and all limbs still attached…and yet he is a damaged man, a wounded warrior struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder—like so many (too many) of our returning veterans.  PTSD is at the heart of Roxana Robinson's riveting novel which describes the condition in terms I've never before seen on the page.  Precise as a psychological case history, the book charts the painful journey of Conrad from gung-ho boy to disillusioned warrior to broken man.  Conrad comes from a family that's "bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian," with a mother and father who can't understand why their son would want to take up arms in defense of his country.   Conrad, a classics major in college, is drawn to the stories of the ancient world—particularly Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, and the Iliad.  "I want to do something big," he tells his family when announcing his decision to join the Marines.  "I want to do something that has consequences."  Little does he know, he'll be the one on the receiving end of those consequences.  No matter where you fall in the spectrum between hawk and dove, Robinson's novel is powerfully affecting and takes its place on the shelf of essential war literature.

All That Is
by James Salter
At the center of All That Is, James Salter’s first novel in 35 years, stands Phillip Bowman who we first see as a young naval officer in World War Two, then a Harvard student, and then on to a Mad Men life as a book editor in mid-century Manhattan.  He lives, he loves, he advances toward death—nothing too remarkable plot-wise, but the book's power is all in the telling.  Salter's language is beautiful and confident.  How many writers do you know who can carry off describing the span and breadth of one person's life in the space of just one paragraph?  Seemingly minor characters are given full, rich treatments in big, bold strokes.  Admittedly, there were times when I didn't want to like All That Is because it seemed tainted by a thin coating of mysogynism—and that's certainly there to a degree—but then I had to ask myself whether it was truly Salter's feelings toward women or if it was an accurate portrayal of 1960s America and I was just looking back at it through the bias of a more enlightened age.  Maybe it's a little of both (which still makes me uncomfortable), but in the end I was won over by the sheer quality of the writing.  James Salter is hardly a household name—even, sadly, in bookish households—but he's been quietly producing great works of literature since the late 1950s.  In his generous and spot-on review for the New York Times, Malcolm Jones wrote: “Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove.  If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already.  He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.”  And yet, here he is in the twilight of a career with what could arguably be his best book so far.  It is full of language distilled down to pure, true sentences.

Falling to Earth
by Kate Southwood
Pivoting off the real-life Tri-State Tornado of 1925, Kate Southwood’s debut novel is a riveting account of wealth, gossip, and ostracism.  The wind's devastation is described in vivid images like “a woman is frozen, screaming under a tree at a child’s body caught high in its branches” and “trees have been snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair.”  Paul Graves, owner of a successful lumberyard, miraculously survives the tornado as the rest of his small Illinois town is flattened.  While the tornado scene (which comes upon us quickly in the first chapter) is breathtaking in its fury, the most fascinating part of the story is how Paul is shunned by the rest of his town for his good fortune (none of his family members are hurt and his house and store are left standing in a landscape reduced to splinters and rubble).  It's a clever reversal of the Biblical story of Job.  Instead of being stripped of everything by God, Paul is divinely spared––and that's the worst thing which could have happened to him.  Kate Southwood's first novel is the start of a very promising career.

Edward Adrift
by Craig Lancaster
Like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather II, Edward Adrift is that rarest of things: a sequel that is actually better than its predecessor.  In the case of Montana writer Craig Lancaster's new book, that's saying a lot because I loved 600 Hours of Edward with all the passionate joy of a botanist discovering a new butterfly.  That first novel possessed a distinct voice told by a unique character who immediately endeared himself to the reader: Edward Stanton, a middle-aged man with Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder who lives alone in Billings, Montana and adheres to a rigid schedule, all of it noted in his logbook, including the day's temperature and his most common waking time (7:38 a.m.).  Edward refuses to start his therapy sessions even a minute before the appointed hour (10:00 a.m.), and he watches one episode of the 1960s cop show Dragnet every night (10:00 p.m. sharp).  In Edward Adrift, Lancaster deepens our understanding of 42-year-old Edward who is plowing through the world in spite of (or perhaps because of) his Asperger's.  As the novel opens, Edward is going through a period of upheaval: he's lost his job, his best friend, 12-year-old Kyle, has moved away, and his Dragnet schedule has been thrown all out of whack.  Edward is, as he would say, flummoxed.  When Kyle's mother calls from Boise to say the boy isn't adjusting very well to his new life, Edward makes the bold decision to leave his comfort zone and embark on a road trip that is both hilarious and touching, all of it delivered in Edward's distinct man-child voice:
I'm trying to see what's coming, but that is a silly pursuit. We never know. I don't, anyway. It's all a surprise, and I'm having to learn to live with surprises even though I prefer certainty. Certainty allows you to plan your life, and there are few things I like better than planning. Surprises make you adjust along the way, and I'm not very good at that.
My biggest surprise in reading this book is how much I loved it.  Don't get me wrong--I looked forward to spending some more time with one of my favorite literary characters, but I was, frankly, braced for a Jaws 2 experience.  Edward Adrift turned out to be richer, funnier, and even more moving than my first encounter with the man obsessed with time and temperature.

Woke Up Lonely
by Fiona Maazel
In his praise of Woke Up Lonely, novelist Wesley Stace warns, "Ignore Fiona Maazel at your peril."  It's true--Maazel is a force to be reckoned with....and a force to be read.  I'd ignored her first novel Last Last Chance when it was released (no, "ignored" is the wrong word--"allowed it to be buried in the avalanche of new books hitting me at the time" is more like it), and now I'm regretting that decision.  Woke Up Lonely is a clanging wake-up alarm for literature: "Rise and shine, all you lazy Words--today, we're going out there, and we're gonna be funny!  And smart!  And we'll take the brain by storm!  Let's go!"  How to describe the plot and characters of Maazel's new novel in this short space?  Woke Up Lonely is for those readers who wished George Saunders would write a novel.  It's for fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson who'd like to see his off-kilter brand of humor pinned down to the page.  Woke Up Lonely is for everyone who wished the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas had been funnier.  Still not good enough for you?  Hmmm....well, try this: there's a cult leader who promises to cure loneliness, there's his ex-wife who's spying on him even though she really wants to protect him from those who've hired her, there's a hostage situation, there's Cincinnati, there's North Korea, there's Kim Jong Il (and his double, and his double's double), there's speed dating, there's a secret passageway, there's an explosion or two, and....there's more, much more.  Maazel throws a lot of spaghetti at the wall and, impressively, only one or two noodles fall off.  While the story and its people were interesting and engaging, I loved this book primarily at the sentence level.  Woke Up Lonely is one of the few books which made me laugh out loud this year.  It also made me cluck my tongue in amazement at what Maazel does with the English language.  A couple of examples:  "She settled under a lamp whose glow helped define the cut of her face.  Very narrow.  Unnaturally so.   A face between cymbals after the clap."  And this: "He had slept but three hours the night before--the couch was a muddle of lump and trough--and the sugar was romping about his blood like it owned the place."  Those two sentences happen by coincidence to be on the same page, but trust me when I say there are more like them throughout the book.  Fiona Maazel romps across all her pages like she owns the place.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Childhood is a scary place, full of under-the-bed shadows, half-ajar closet doors, and--most frightening of all--the inscrutable motives of adults. Think of all those dark fairy tales which pressed their thumbprints into your young, malleable imagination.  Now multiply that darkness by two-hundred-thousand and you'll get the heart of Neil Gaiman's fable for adults.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is populated with monsters--both the fantastical, many-tentacled creature kind and the human variety.  Most of the outright scary stuff comes in the second half of this slim novel, though there's a sense of unease from the very start as the unnamed narrator revisits his childhood home in rural Sussex, England.  Now in his fifties, he's there to deliver the eulogy at a funeral, but it's also an occasion for him to remember the time when he was seven years old and a series of traumatic events left a lasting mark.  By the same token, the novel will leave a lasting mark on anyone who is fortunate enough to pick it up and enter the world of Gaiman's magical, mystical, fertile imagination.  I began by saying this book is heavy with shadows, but it's really like that piece of dark chocolate you bite between your teeth.  There is, at first, the very adult, black-coffee taste; but let it sit on your tongue long enough and you'll start to taste the sweet notes.  As Gaiman writes in the opening pages, "Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good."  Now, think of the last time you dug around in your old toy chest (if, that is, your parents were kind enough to save it for you up in the attic).  Do you remember the rush of nostalgia and the nose-sting of unexpected tears?  That's exactly the kind of experience that waits for you in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Return to Oakpine
by Ron Carlson
Is there any pen Ron Carlson touches that doesn't turn to gold?  I've fallen headlong in love with every book he's written (with the exception of the best-forgotten Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an early clunker from 1977).  His short story collection At the Jim Bridger is damn near perfect; The Signal is a harrowing story of wilderness survival; and you won't find a better novel about blue-collar work than in the pages of Five Skies.  In his newest novel, Carlson turns a sentimental eye (perhaps too sentimental for some readers) on life in a small town.  Thirty years after they graduated high school, four friends reunite in their hometown, the fictional Oakpine, Wyoming.  Frank, a hardware store owner, and Craig, a bartender, never left.  Mason, a freshly divorced lawyer, comes back to Oakpine from Denver looking for "a change, an end, some new chapter in this old life."  And then there's Jimmy, who left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother.  A successful novelist, he's come back to live with his estranged parents because he's dying.  Carlson deftly captures the pull-and-resistance feeling of going back to your roots.  You can go home again, but it's never quite the same, it is?  (I speak as one who recently returned to his own hometown in Wyoming after a 15-year absence.)  As Carlson writes of Larry, Craig's ambitious track-star son who runs the length and breadth of Oakpine on a daily basis, "Anybody with any dignity got out of Oakpine....Larry had no idea where he was going, but he was going, that was for sure."  Somehow, I get the feeling that if you pay a visit to Craig's hardware store ten years down the line, you'll find Larry there behind the counter.  Return to Oakpine is full of sentences that I kept stopping to re-read, savoring Carlson's wordcraft.  For instance, I could practically taste the afternoon of a small town in these fine sentences:
The two men sat in the quiet bar. Suddenly the light dimmed again under a cloud, and it was a moment that went out on them, through the big plate-glass window across the gray street and up above the town in a moment, reaching past the last house and the few bad roads newly bladed into the prairie and the antelope in clusters on greengray hillsides beyond that and then hovering beyond and beyond, the world, their lives, the full gravid sense of afternoon. There was nothing to do or say except ride this part of the day together there, both men feeling the weight register; the men they'd become. It was a beery afternoon in their hometown.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
Starting with the wordy title itself, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is like that hypertensive friend you meet for coffee and you realize, after a caffeinated hour, that you've never gotten a word in edgewise, but that doesn't really matter because you've been held in thrall by the conversation which has bounded along on a series of breathless loop-de-loops. As this funny, quirky novel begins, narrator Rosemary Cooke, a twenty-two-year-old "meandering" through college, admits she’s always been a “great talker.” As a child she chatters like a chimp in a zoo and really gets under the skin of her parents—a father who’s “a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis” and a mother who has retreated into near catatonic madness. As she's grown older, Rosemary has retreated into silence after her family experienced a traumatic upheaval. Two of her siblings go missing (at separate times) and the majority of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about Rosemary’s quest to learn what happened to them. I won’t say much more because surprises abound in these pages and I don’t want to have angry readers come throw rocks at my house because I’ve spoiled things.  Let’s just say, things aren’t always what they appear to be.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is thought-provoking, funny, and about as unforgettable as that friend who never stops to take a breath.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

1 comment:

  1. "Admittedly, there were times when I didn't want to like All That Is because it seemed tainted by a thin coating of mysogynism—and that's certainly there to a degree—but then I had to ask myself whether it was truly Salter's feelings toward women or if it was an accurate portrayal of 1960s America and I was just looking back at it through the bias of a more enlightened age."

    More enlightened age? Our age of slut pride parades, Miley Cyrus, Rap music and 'bitchass hos', famous women getting tons of plastic surgery, boob jobs, and botox injections to stave off nature, porn that treats women like meat and the pornification of the mass media, etc?

    You gotta be kidding.