Welcome to my first end-of-year roundup. I have read a lot of good contemporary literature this year -- more than usual, because I've been doing some official reviewing -- though I don't claim to have an exhaustive sample. Still, if you are a reader of my blog, who wants to know what I think you should read -- or stay away from -- from 2013, enjoy! The following is best to worst, from 1 to 5 being picks, starting with the best, and from 6 to 10 being pans, ending with the worst.
1. The Blind Masseuse by Alden Jones
This is a small book from a university press that hasn't been reviewed nearly enough, in my opinion, and that I've been trying to spread the word about, because it's the best travel book I've read -- and I used to write about travel as a profession -- not to mention certainly the best travel book of 2013. It's the chronicle of how Jones, as a recent college graduate with itchy feet syndrome, found it difficult to settle down onto a career track as many of her friends did, and instead used every means she could to go to the most exotic places possible. And how that played out in Costa Rica, Cambodia, Cuba, etc., as she got older. It's about the joys of travel, the hows and whys we do it, but also about what it means to be an observer of a foreign culture, of who we're exoticizing, and what we're assuming, and what that does to our own identities. It's smart and thoughtful, but also Jones is cackle-for-days hilarious and the book is a page-turner from second one, when she's out walking in the dark in her village and bumps into a cow. Please, everyone, read this book!
2. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
Here's another book that I think is being semi-robbed by the literary establishment, for the depressing, predictable reason that it's being treated as genre. Bookforum, in particular, which lately has seemed like it's going out of its way to kiss the ass of every writer-about-town, no matter how terrible their book is, did a really torturous review struggling with the fact that this book is historical and might possibly be construed as fantasy, because the heroine is considered by some characters in the book to be able to see the future. It was only through comparison with Wolf Hall, another historical novel that is safely agreed to be literary, that the reviewer garnered the courage to put pen to paper. Phew! No matter that Hild is a brilliantly researched, intensely granular, almost out-of-body experiences of being transported to another world. Every detail of life in the seventh century is foreign, but rings true. The plot kept things moving, and the prose reminded me of Marilynne Robinson in its beauty and strangeness.
3. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid
This faux self-help book might be the best use of second-person narration since Bright Lights, Big City, and, as a meditation on living a good life, has stayed with me surprisingly vividly since reading it. It is, as it says, about a young man born into rural poverty in an unnamed Asian city, known only as "you," and the success arc of his life. One of the first extremely clever structural innovations is how quickly the author makes us, the readers, whose life experiences are largely very different from the hero's, actually live in his skin, and feel like "you" is us.
4. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
At this point it's difficult to remember that the year, for me, started in a blaze of Saunders glory, when I, like so many other readers first discovered his weird, angry, deliberately ugly work through the huge crossover hit, Tenth of December, and felt that it was a frighteningly accurate description of late corporate America. I then went and read three other Saunders books in quick succession, and quickly tired of the flatness of affect that comes with his dehumanized humans. Nonetheless, it's only fair to include this book in the best-of side, since Saunders has single-handedly created a vernacular-dystopian genre that will now be with us for a long time.
5. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulaweyo
This was a beautiful immigrant story with a fresh voice and lovely, gritty reality, polished to a gleaming M.F.A.-program shine. I liked it mostly because it was young and female and African (which might be exoticism, read Alden Jones' book from item one!), and felt utterly true.
6. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
I wrote a pretty good review of this book for The Tottenville Review, for many reasons. One was its sexy premise about a young woman motorcyclist in the '70s who goes to New York to make it in the art world, and ends up using velocity for her performance art. Another was Kushner's incredible sentences. The Flamethrowers was a big, ambitious, fun to read, from an hugely skilled writer. It has ended up underneath my personal waterline because it's a book about misogyny that seems to be on some level itself misogynist. In the end, there was too much authorial joy taken in punishing the female characters just for being female. I'm conflicted, because I've experienced enough struggle as a woman in the arts to appreciate Kushner's portrait, but at the same time as I resent her for not allowing her character to rise above the female condition.
7. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya Von Bremzen
My detailed review of this book is still pending on my blog (whoops, end-of-year crush). It's an entertaining and well-written memoir of Von Bremzen's family history in the Soviet Union, told through cooking and recreating one recipe per decade of Soviet rule. I found it to be a bait-and-switch, because I picked it up as someone who knows Von Bremzen as a food writer, and wanted to both read her story and also learn from the recipes. But the recipes were either the most emblematic (cliche) dishes, or things that weren't really meant to be cooked, like "cornbread for Krushchev," which was meant to be a joke. So, the book didn't deliver on the suggestion that mastering the art of Soviet cooking might be enjoyable. And, just as a history, it covered pretty familiar ground, though in a fluid, colorful way. I also questioned Von Bremzen writing about her high-level Soviet nomenklatura grandparents, and about her life of comparative privilege in the Soviet Union, while still claiming that she and her mother were always, in their hearts, dissidents. I am fairly certain that real dissidents weren't eating caviar in elite preschools, as Von Bremzen says she was, and that such claims devalue many honorable people's true suffering under the Soviet regime. So, despite Von Bremzen's talent and fascinating story, I found the book hard to like, in the end.
8. I forget what 8 was for
I don't actually have five new-release books that I read this year that deserve a spot on the worst-of list. Yet I am the type of hater who really wants to punish the two following despicable titles with 9 and 10 spots. Read on!
9. A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
I don't know why a writer as great as Dave Eggers published two books this year, if they were both going to be so bad. This one, I hear, is the less-bad than The Circle, but both seem to share the same flaws of being unrealistic thrillers with a naive reliance on liberal cultural bogeymen. This one is about a down-on-his-luck businessman who goes to Saudi Arabia to try to sell a technology to the Saudi king. Eggers has such a storytelling knack that it's a compelling read on the surface, until the reader starts to find the characters hackneyed-faceless Chinese competition! inscrutable Arab partners! Americans who don't make anything anymore!-and the moral quandaries manipulative and false. From such a talented writer, this was truly a shame.
10. Storm Front, by "John Sandford"
The death of a great line of police procedurals is worth noting, and mourning. No one ever said that John Sandford's Prey series, or its spinoff starring the Virgil Flowers character, was great literature, but they were extremely well-written, well-plotted, very funny books with a pitch-perfect sense of place. Sandford has now gone the ghost-writing route and the fans, myself included, are screaming in horror as beloved characters stagger around, half-animated, like farcical zombie versions of themselves. If anything is an argument for good writing transcending genre, this is it. Sandford's accomplishment, turns out, can't be automated.