Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bookeywookey's Favorite Books of 2013

The summing up of my reading for the year 2013 moves now from hard, cold statistics to content.  Here are my best of... lists.  Rather than post separately on each genre, since I didn't read as many books as in the past several years, I am going to collect my favorites reads of 2013 in one place.


I'll begin with the essay/memoir category.  Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of my Youth is superbly crafted.  She can write about anything, the pleasures here are in the writing itself.  As I said earlier in the year:
the book is full of one marvelous essay after another - about her poor father's drinking, about her mother and aunt fishing, about a terrible event Beard experienced while working at the University of Iowa.  Why should I care about this stranger's life, you may ask?  But her sentences lend the boredom, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.


 Timothy Garton Ash's The File straddles the memoir and history categories.  This hybrid of forms is really what makes it so effective as a story of how individuals participate in history.  Garton Ash writes about his own time in East Berlin in the 1970s and about the subsequent reading of his own secret police file when the archives were made public after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  He visits each of the people who informed on him and tries to understand what about them and the facts of history led them to do so.


There were a number of novels this year that were solidly satisfying, each in their own way.  In no particular order they were.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch , many of my reading buddies were critical of Tartt's latest, particularly of its length.  I didn't have this problem with it. I found it an addictive saga, equal parts Gothic and Victorian, with more sophistication than her earlier novels, though no less entertaining. 

Days in the History of Silence - As the title suggests, this is a thoughtful, dark, interior book by Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom.  A beautiful read about an elderly couple and their relationship to each other and to difficult events in their past.  

NW - I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's multi-textured, urban, literary opus.  NW captures something essential about the social and economic zeitgeist of contemporary London.  She is an artist for our time whose work, I think, will last beyond it.

The Woman Upstairs Anger drives Claire Messud's latest book.  I love its depiction of the duality of the human psyche, and how the work of the artist and the work of being human interact. 
The trouble is that Nora needs others to tell her who she is.  She is not willing to reject their formulas, and that makes her angry as hell.  She's believed all this time that she's been mildly disappointed, but it takes meeting the Shahid family, particularly Sirena - a visual artist - someone seemingly free of these demands, to find out she's actually furious.

The Starboard Sea  - Amber Dermont's novel is the most promising debut I read this year. I found the prep school setting, the complex and sympathetic protagonist, and his search for moral compass enveloping and compelling.

Best read of 2013

Art Criticism/Fiction

Artful - If I had to choose my best book for 2013, it would not be a traditional novel, it wouldn't even be a traditional work of art criticism, but rather a wondrous piece of writing that uses the tools of fiction - character, plot, voice - as a vehicle for loving art, for translating the power of art upon an audience.
Artful is a masterpiece of integrity, and I mean that in all senses of the word.  Artful does not seem that it could be added to or subtracted from. It is consistent in its methods - its form (the subject, in fact, of its second chapter).  It is difficult while inside the whole to question these methods. Smith's narrator tells us she is mourning a lover.  Even as I am aware that Smith has created a narrative with craft and ingenuity, I believe that this must be true about Smith herself.  Finally, as Merriam Webster would have it, Artful is incorruptible. What I mean is that it brings its diverse pieces together so successfully that, well I was going to say that I am not aware of them, but that is not true. When I stop to consider the components of this book - form and content, reading and writing, painting and film, artist and art, lover and loved, mourner and mourned - my appreciation of the whole doesn't pause.  To consider the parts is to consider the whole.  


Danielle said...

Artful is going on my own wishlist I think! You have lots of good (and again very thought provoking) books on your favorites list. I have heard so much about the Massud--I bought it initially as it sounded like something I would really like, but then I have heard so many varying comments I am not sure what to think--but then, sometimes those are exactly the best sorts of books--the ones that cause such visceral reactions. I have the Tartt here, too and look forward to it in 2014 as well. And I really need to read Zadie Smith--I have read some of her essays only but I look forward to trying her fiction too.

Ted said...

I hope you will love Artful as much as I did. I can't imagine your not being intrigued by Messud's novel - a very strong piece. It made for much talk at my book club, but I don't remember anyone not liking it.