Three Cheers for Reading
Our favorite books of 2013
From the year's biggest books – Matt Zoller Seitz's Wes Anderson Collection, say – to the smallest – like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and hitRECord's Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, Vol. 3 – you've already heard most of my cooing about 2013's new releases. I loved exploring the ideas of technological frontiers in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and David Gilbert's & Sons charmed me with its clever hat tips to word nerds. I even enjoyed a good break from the literary with such blog-to-book converts as Maddie on Things, T-Rex Trying, and that plushy Pusheen. But if your tastes don't run along my same cutesy currents, don't despair. With dozens of publishers churning out millions of pages, there's plenty of pulpy picks for every type of reader; here are three of the Chronicle's resident bookworms on their picks for 2013.
– Monica Riese
Mything in Action
Goodbye, 2013, the year in which Margaret Atwood brought her Flood trilogy – a beautifully crafted narrative sequence that was post-apocalyptic and involved widescale genetic engineering, a multitude of technocultural advances, and even hints of telepathy, but which couldn't possibly be science fiction – to a conclusion with MaddAddam (Random House), a novel tastier than any soup with a smelly bone. Fare thee well, 2013, the year in which we got to enjoy the debut of novelist Sarah Bruni and her The Night Gwen Stacy Died (Mariner Books), an odd modern romance that mined the Spider-Man mythos and deftly transmuted its four-color ore to literary gold. Here's your hat, 2013, what's your hurry? Do you really want to rush any closer to the future that Dave Eggers describes so chillingly in his The Circle (Knopf), a book with implications more terrifying than whatever slasher flick's titillating the local cineplex? J.J. Abrams, it turns out, titillates real good when he teams with author Doug Dorst to produce the gloriously embellished, metafictive mystery of S. (Little, Brown), where young love blossoms in the margins of a macabre thriller.
Genius continues to blossom at Fantagraphics – which released Dash Shaw's New School to intrigue, enchant, and confound comics' smart set and The Daniel Clowes Reader to enlighten us all – and at Drawn & Quarterly, which brought us Anders Nilsen's trenchant (and fucking hilarious) accordioned extension of Greek myths in Rage of Poseidon and Lisa Hanawalt's collection of delightfully, brilliantly perverse comics called My Dirty Dumb Eyes. And hello, 2014, and all the bookish promise you hold.
– Wayne Alan Brenner
Leagues of Legends
Jonathan Lethem's dense, absorbing novel, Dissident Gardens (Doubleday), is a multigenerational tale that centers on the relationship of fiery activist and communist Rose Zimmer and her equally passionate daughter, Miriam, in post-World War II New York City. Their ferocious personalities chew up the landscape. Along with a cast of well-drawn supporting characters, Lethem provides us with insightful notions of radicalism, idealism, and an elusive American Dream from the McCarthy era to the Occupy movement. Philipp Meyer's The Son (Ecco) is also a multigenerational saga, but this one is as sprawling as its subject matter, the history of Texas. We get a panoramic view of the Lone Star State by tracing the ruthless ambitions of the McCullough family spanning the birth of the Republic to the immigration issues of the present.
On the nonfiction side, Kansas City Lightning (Harper) by Stanley Crouch, the first of two volumes, is a brilliant tour de force chronicling the early life and career of legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. Crouch's colorful embrace of African-American culture in general and jazz history specifically is as breathtaking and frenetic as a Parker solo. More conventional in its narrative, Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham) is a comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable bio of the music, passion, and foibles of the most important jazz composer ever, a musician whose instrument was his orchestra.
I'm currently enthralled with Double Down (Penguin Press), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's penetrating look at the 2012 presidential campaign which, like its predecessor Game Change, reads like a political thriller. And, after 45 years, I'm finally re-reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and truly appreciating his amazing use of language. A trip to L.A. prompted my dusting off Raymond Chandler's 1940 hard-boiled, noir classic, Farewell, My Lovely. "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."
– Jay Trachtenberg
Mull Again on Mulligans
Has anyone not looked back on his or her past and wondered if there was some decision – maybe tiny, maybe arduously considered – that shot-putted life's arc in the wrong direction? That's no concern, at first, of the gifted and talented teens who open Meg Wolitzer's gorgeous gorge of a novel, The Interestings (Riverhead). Artsy, brainy, cheeky teenagers who dub their clique, all eyeroll-ironic over hits on a joint, "the Interestings," they're young enough and brazen enough to believe (never out loud, mind you) that there's nothing but dazzling tomorrows ahead. That most of them will age into a less-starry adulthood is foregone (Wolitzer tracks them into their 50s). But what makes the book so moving is the largesse of its conclusions: that the lives defined by false starts, bitter compromises, and outright failures are just as valid – and, yes, maybe even more interesting – than the rarer success stories, and the few early prodigies to make good endured just as much pain and heartache as their lesser-achieving friends.
Life After Life (Reagan Arthur Books) tangled with fate more bracingly. In Kate Atkinson's experimental narrative, heroine Ursula isn't plagued by regret or the wistful dream of a do-over; her life is nothing but do-overs. Born in a snowstorm in early 20th century England, Ursula meets endless, typically violent ends – strangled by an umbilical cord, drowned in a wave, beaten by an abusive husband, even bulleted while trying to assassinate Hitler (yes, Hitler) – and then rebirths/reboots to try again. An evocative, immersive brain-tease with no assuaging exit, Life After Life lived on for me long after I shut the book on it.
– Kimberley Jones