My Literary Year in Review, 2013


I'm always reading something. When I finish one book, I'll start another the next day (if not sooner). I try to end every day reading in bed. I'm also fortunate to count some smart readers among my friends and family, which helps keep new/interesting releases on my radar. In 2013, I finished 25 books, which I'm pretty happy with. That shakes out to a couple of books a month, which — in addition to more than 100 movies over the course of the year and, you know, doing other things and being a person — feels like a nice amount for me. Some people read more or faster, and I'm envious of that speed. But I'm happy with the books I discovered in 2013. Also: It's important to distinguish here between books I've labeled as "quit" and those marked "unfinished." Quitting a book is, for me, just what it sounds like: I decided that I just wasn't invested. Leaving one unfinished, though, means that I plan to return to it later. I'll do this often with essay or short story collections, which lend themselves easily to piecemeal reading. Occasionally, it'll happen with a novel, but that's less common.

In the order I read them:

The Lost City of Z, David Grann (2009) A fantastic, haunting nonfiction narrative that's paced like the best fiction. Grann cuts between an ill-fated Amazonian expedition from the early 20th century and his own quest to re-create the journey and find the elusive city of Z.

Five Skies, Ron Carlson (2007) I found Ron Carlson via This American Life. He read his short story "The H Street Sledding Record" on an episode of that show, and I fell in love with his language and eye for humanity. This novel, his third, is quiet and patient and heartbreaking.

Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen (2012) A smart and engaging essay collection. I got into Franzen's fiction in 2012 after having read some of his nonfiction a few years earlier, and I appreciate his style and his sense of despairing humor. The title piece is his look at the trouble and legacy of David Foster Wallace.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (1974) (unfinished) Gorgeous essays and meditations on nature, faith, and the universe, though the structure of the book led me to pick and choose instead of reading straight through. As a result, I haven't finished it.

ampastAmerican Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997) This was the first Roth I'd ever read, though I was familiar enough with his name and works to appreciate his place in American literature. I picked up this novel at local used bookstore while shopping for other titles, but isn't that always the way things work? You go in looking for one thing, or a few things, and you come away with something unexpected. I devoured this book, feeling the narrator's obsession with the Swede become my own, and I loved Roth's driving theme that everyone is essentially unknowable, and that we can never fully understand those around us. The prose is so rich here, too. One bit that's stayed with me: when the narrator rises from his bed in the middle of the night to write, his head "vibrant with the static of unelaborated thought."

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880) (unfinished) I am drawn again and again to Dostoevsky, even though I have yet to finish any of his longer novels. I read Notes From Underground a couple years back and loved it, and I half-remember working through a version of Crime and Punishment in high school, but that's it. Yet there's something about his legacy and his style, and the way his stories struggle with grace and relationships, that fascinates me. I really liked the hundred-plus pages of The Brothers Karamazov that I read, but I hit a wall, and I really do want to break through it.

tenthdecTenth of December, George Saunders (2013) Saunders has been writing for years, but I didn't discover him until late 2012, when I read "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" in The New Yorker. The story sank into me like only the best do, and the New York Times profile of Saunders got me even more excited to read Tenth of December. The collection is every bit as good, as warm, as wounded and worrying, as I'd hoped it would be.

The Hotel Eden: Stories, Ron Carlson (1997) I loved this collection. The stories range from funny to mournful to absurd, but they're always rooted in strong, concrete characters. Standouts include "Zanduce at Second," about a baseball player who keeps accidentally killing people with fly balls; "What We Wanted to Do," a barbarian's mea culpa for poor wartime planning; and the title story, a wonderful coming-of-age piece.

A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992) (quit) Drawn in by the promise of hard sci-fi and a good story; turned off when only one of those things was present.

correcThe Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001) I know Franzen gets a lot of heat from the Internet about his general antipathy toward Twitter and other social platforms, as well as his spiritual reluctance to embrace the digital age. But — aside from hitting a whole lot of problems square on the head re: our capacity for delusion and obsession online — Franzen's also written two of the novels that have stayed with me more than most in recent years. The Corrections is all about family dysfunction, and on paper the story can look grim. But in the act of telling the story (and in reading it), we can see the actual broken hearts inside these people, and come to understand what's driven them to be the way they are. One of the main characters, Gary, is angry and frustrated and confused and burdened and wildly codependent, and I shuddered with all manner of recognition reading about his efforts to strain against the life he's made for himself. The sibling dynamics are spot-on, the passive aggression between generations is true to life, and people only get ahead by taking tiny steps.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2001) (quit) There was a lot to like here, but the squirrely plot and interchangeable characters lost me after a while.

A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (2010) Absolutely fantastic. Egan plays with language, perspective, and execution in wonderful ways. It's a novel constructed like a story collection, but it works.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (2011) Slim, quick, and engaging. The story's about the twists life takes and how we're never quite sure what's happening in the lives of others, and Barnes illustrates that through a notoriously unreliable narrator, a man living in denial about his youth and behavior. The truth of the story slips in through the cracks.

Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor (1965) (unfinished) Great stories, but I also happened to pick this one up around the time I got laid off, and living in a state of general anger and depression did not make for a receptive attitude for stories that were often about rotten people. I'll pick it up again in the future.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz (2012) I remember plowing through this, but a few months later, I can remember almost none of it. I get snatches of story segments, little bits of dialogue or character, but I have zero recollection of how it all worked out. That can't be good.

NOS4A2, Joe Hill (2013) Another one I absolutely devoured, the way you tear through a box of candy at the movies. Joe Hill is, of course, Stephen King's son, and there are moments in NOS4A2 where he gets a little too close to the old man's current style for comfort: paper-thin characters built on something like quirk, as well as a horribly ill-advised decision to link the narrative world of this novel with some of King's, thanks to character and location references. Talking to The A.V. Club, Hill said he was just "fooling around" when he did that, though that's actually somehow more worrisome.

Attempting Normal, Marc Maron (2013) Most comedians are shitty book writers. Oratory and prose are totally different beats, and what works on the stage almost never works on paper. The rhythms are all wrong. Maron, though, is better than most, and his is the first book by a comedian I've read and actually enjoyed as a book, not a lark.

The_Marriage_Plot_(Jeffrey_Eugenides_novel)_cover_artThe Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011) A great story about post-graduate aimlessness. I hadn't read any Eugenides since The Virgin Suicides back in high school, so it was wonderful to revisit him.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (2012) Here's another one I blew through, though I can't imagine rereading it. It's expertly paced, surprisingly vicious, laced with great twists, and kind of disappointing in the end. I realized I was expecting a stronger sense of closure with the finale because, for all its ambitions, this is essentially a straight-ahead thriller, and not the kind that leans on ambiguity or character. Still, it's a compelling read.

All That Is, James Salter (2013) (quit) I'd heard great things, and I still believe them. But my eyes kept sliding from the page.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2001) (quit) Another one I couldn't quite lock into, though I'm not sure why. I'd like to revisit this down the road.

The Morels, Christopher Hacker (2013) (quit) Some first novels shout their debut status from the rooftops. Hacker's is like that.

leopjansThe Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma (2013) A moving, funny, beautiful book about the creative process and coming of age, filled with so many great emotional insights I was convinced Jansma had pulled them from my own brain.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (2012) A wonderful, compact story that mines so much material from a simple set-up. (An aspiring actress in the 1960s spends a few days at a seaside hotel in Italy; decades later, the proprietor tries to find her.) Great characters, great story, and one of the most fulfilling resolutions I've read in quite a while.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway (2008) There's a David Foster Wallace vibe to much of Harkaway's book, from the author's love of language to his absurdist reconstruction of an alternate future. But The Gone-Away World is very much its own thing, and I loved it.

The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir, Domingo Martinez (2012) (quit) I really enjoyed a radio story Martinez did on This American Life. Would that I could say the same for the book.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012) Aside from scattered memories and an extended flashback, all the action here takes place on one day, as a group of soldiers are used as halftime props for a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. It's a burning satire of war media and pop culture.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer (2013) There were definitely moments when I felt like quitting on this one, but I stuck it out. Some of the character stories really worked for me; unfortunately, the main character wasn't one of them.

The Next Time You See Me, Holly Goddard Jones (2013) What looks like a simple mystery story becomes a much more interesting look at small-town relationships, race, and class. Jones is fantastic at setting a scene and creating a real sense of place.

A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz (2008) (quit) I liked a lot about it, but there was ultimately something too showy and artificial about it. Couldn't hang in there.

The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan (2011) This got a lot of chatter upon release for its frank depictions of sex, which I think is only warranted when the author in question is writing scenes so bad you wonder if they've ever had experience with what they're trying and failing to describe. Duncan's book isn't like that at all, and the sex in question makes perfect sense from a character perspective: the protagonist, a werewolf, lives for centuries, eventually having nothing to focus on but sex as it reflects his loneliness. The book's a great thriller, too, with a taut story and nice execution. Really enjoyed this one.

& Sons, David Gilbert (2013) Gilbert's novel blew me away. So patient, so haunting, so incisive with its depictions of crumbling family relationships. The mind supplies the missing "Fathers" from the title, and that's what the story is: the tale of missing fathers, men whose images and reputations tower over their sons despite their physical or emotional remove. Wonderfully written.

Pastoralia, George Saunders (2001) Great collection. Standout: "The Barber's Unhappiness."

butchcrossButcher's Crossing, John Williams (1960) I'd gone to the library looking for Williams' Stoner, but it was checked out. This was in its place, though, and I'm so glad I picked it up. It's a Western, but not in the sense of adventure or pulp. Instead, it's a finely observed novel about the way a young man's eagerness to explore the world slams into the world's harsh realities. A hunt gone wrong, a trip weighed down by avarice and fear. It's more than 50 years old, but it doesn't feel dated a day.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (2013) (quit) Cute ideas and some fun moments and character work, but I soon lost interest. Parts of it played like a Michael Chabon derivative. Might pick it up again later.

We, the Drowned, Carsten Jensen (2006) (quit) Another one whose rhythm I couldn't quite get into, but I'd like to give it another whirl sometime.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013) I found The Secret History on the shelf of a used bookstore when I was in high school. I loved it for reasons I couldn't quite put together at the time. Partly it was because it was one of the most adult novels I'd read at the time (the book came out in 1992 and I probably read it around 1998, making me 15/16). But I was also entranced by the beauty of the writing, and many of that book's passages have stayed with me ever since. Here's one:


I missed The Little Friend, but after hearing so many people praise The Goldfinch, I knew I wanted to read it. It's not a small book, either: at around 775 pages, this one took me a while, thanks in part to a general slowdown in my reading during a busy holiday season. It moves so gracefully from one idea and setting and crisis to the next that, for hundreds of pages, I couldn't have begun to guess where the story would end up. But I was never bored reading it, not once, and I never felt that it should be shorter. It's about everything, in its way: art, and life, and friends, and theft, and greed, and pride, and hope against hopelessness. The writing is clear and powerful, and Tartt uses certain textual gimmicks (run-ons to illustrate a drug-addled mind, etc.) without ever wearing out their welcome. A great book, one of the best I read all year, and a perfect way to end 2013.

By the numbers: Total books finished: 25 Nonfiction: 1 Books (finished) released in 2013: 8 Books (finished) released before 2013: 17 Books (finished) released before 2000: 3 Favorites: American Pastoral, Tenth of December, The Hotel Eden, The Corrections, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Marriage Plot, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Beautiful Ruins, The Gone-Away World, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, & Sons, Butcher's Crossing, The Goldfinch