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.
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.
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
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.