Best Books, Part II

To supplement the magazine’s Books of the Year post, here’s my own personal list.

Fiction

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. Absurdly confident, absolutely convincing. Kushner’s novel moves effortlessly between topics (conceptual art, Italian radical politics, motorcycle racing) and time periods and locations (1970s NYC, early twentieth-century Italy, midcentury Brazil).

Caleb Crain, Necessary Errors. Crain’s first novel is very much in the vein of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, not so much because it’s about a young, innocent American abroad (although it’s about that, too) but because it’s about the drama and danger of knowledge—how we define ourselves by what we withhold from others. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Necessary Errors is the most intelligent and lyrical novel of the year.

Aminatta Forna, The Hired Man. Forna’s haunting novel, which concerns a Croatian village and its buried past, reveals its riches slowly. It’s an example of just how much structural subtlety and stylistic restraint can achieve.

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs. Another work of restraint, though of a different kind. Messud tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged woman who is unexceptional in everything except her barely controlled rage at the world and those who have betrayed her. The Woman Upstairs is the angriest—and, in its anger, the most exhilarating—book that I read this year.

Renata Adler, Speedboat and Pitch Dark. These novels, originally published in 1976 and 1983 respectively, have just been re-issued by New York Review Books. There’s a reason that David Foster Wallace regularly assigned Adler’s fiction when he taught at Pomona. Adler’s work is something very rare: experimental fiction that is also a pleasure to read.

Novels that were published in 2013 that I can’t wait to read: Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch; Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Non-Fiction

George Scialabba, For the Republic. I hate it when critics describe a book as “necessary”—necessary to whom? and why?—but that’s the only word that comes to mind for Scialabba’s sharp arguments about literature, government, and political economy.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby. Solnit is an intellectual magpie, raiding fairy tales, contemporary art, political history, and anthropology in order to examine the nature of narrative. The book wends this way and that, now talking about Che Guevara, now about Hans Christian Anderson, but it always returns to its central claim: that humans are, and always will be, storytelling animals.

Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians. Scott Moringiello said it best here.

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss. Paul K. Johnston said it best here.

Non-fiction books that were published in 2013 that I can’t wait to read: Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (published in the UK); George Packer, The Unwinding; Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore

Best Book That I Read This Year That Wasn’t Published in 2013

Everything by Penelope Fitzgerald, but especially The Blue Flower. My wife has been begging me to give Fitzgerald a try for a long time. I should have listened sooner. Fitzgerald is often compared to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and other distinctively British—and female—comic novelists. But she strikes me as more like Tolstoy: aware of the comedy and drama of philosophical speculation, able to create characters who seem alive in their vitality, their suggestiveness, and their ultimate indecipherability. A good goal for 2014: make your way through Fitzgerald’s nine novels. They’re all short (usually under 200 pages) and they’re all brilliant.

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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