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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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I have "The Goldfinch" to read over winter break, but not sure about Messud's "The Woman Upstairs." It has appeared on a lot of "recommended" lists, but I didn't care much for her earlier "The Emperor's Children." Hope you will review "The Woman Upstairs."

Also downloaded "Hild" by Nicola Griffith, a YA novel (fat one) about the life of St. Hilda of Whitby. The anachronistic cover does not make me hope for the best; I fear a "Mists of Avalon" treatment. But those 7th Century Anglo-Saxon abbesses deserve to be better known, and I've always thought Hilda's life especially would make an interesting novel.

I'm planning on reading The Goldfinch over break, too--nothing beats a big, fat, Dickensian read over the holidays. You should at least give The Woman Upstairs a shot. For what it's worth, it's nothing at all like The Emperor's Children. (And yes, I'm reviewing Messud in an upcoming column.)

Hild is also on my list largely because I loved the anachronistic cover! I've heard very good things about it.

Griffith, I understand, is a sci-fi writer; will be interesting to see how she handles hagiography.

She'll have to extrapolate a lot in any case. The earliest and most accurate accounts of Hilda's life are restricted to a few lines in the A-S Chronicle and what looks to be a careful and largely factual account in Bede's Historia. Tom Cahill offers a nod to her first-rate scriptorium in his fanciful "How the Irish Saved Civilization," but gives the credit for it to the Irish church missionaries.

What I find interesting is that accounts of St. Hilda's life were less subject to more frivolous accretions than those of her contemporaries. Poor St. Werburgh of Chester's claim to fame is the restoration to life of a goose eaten by her steward (today there's a kind of balloon float commemorating this event in the St. Werbergh's festival there). Which is a shame because St. Werburgh must have been a tireless administrator. Plus she lived on the Welsh marches among those wild-ass Mercians, which couldn't have been a big picnic most of the time. 

Sorry to co-opt your thread. I wish there were a Catholic book club where I could get excited talking about this to "real" people.

The places where you cheat are wher I most agree with you: Penelope Fitzgerald and Renata Adler.  It's great that Alder has gotten this bump. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/07/renata-adler-new-york-author-interview

Allow me to add another "necessary" book: TJ Clark's Picasso and Truth. I don't actually think that t is successful in its main goals, but that actually doens't depreciate its value that much.

Working my way through the run up to WWI, so have read The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and The War that Ended Peace by Margaret McMillan. Both excellent, Sleepwalkers best. Now reading Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings--full of rambunctious opinion and went back to The Guns of August by  Barbara Tuchman (on the recommendation of some here). Opening chapter spectacular (speaking of Dickensian), but the battlefield scenes are densely written and the maps indecipherable.

And speaking of Dickensian: I stood in the bookstore looking through The Goldfinch. Its heft may approach Bleak House, but not the writing. Am I wrong?

My husband received The Goldfinch in the Powell's bookclub shipment a month or so go.  He motored through it, so I'm going to try and read it over Christmas.  He received  The Best of McSweeney's in this month's shipment, which I think will make for  a good vacation read, too.

Jean, I'm attracted to the book for exactly that reason--I want to see how a SF writer deals with this material.

Abe, I'm glad that you love Fitzgerald/Adler, too. It's hard to imagine that Adler's novels were out of print. I'm a huge fan of Clark's pieces for the London Review of Books, so I'll have to check out the book. Any other suggestions?

Margaret, not having read The Goldfinch yet, I sense that it's Dickensian not in its prose style but in its intricate, expansive plotting and in its heavy reliance on coincidence. 

I thought I had a few more, but I realize now that they're 2012.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was Will Rogers:  A Political Life, by Richrd D. White, Jr.

http://www.amazon.com/Will-Rogers-A-Political-Life/dp/0896726762

I'm thinking about buying Joe Sacco's The Great War:  July 1, 1916:  The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.   

http://www.amazon.com/The-Great-War-First-Battle/dp/0393088804/ref=sr_1_...

Illustrated across a single, wordless 24-foot-long accordion-fold page, Sacco details—and detail is the right word—the situation on July 1, 1916, as British troops meet the Germans at the Battle of the Somme in France.

Oh, wait--this book dropped in 2012, but at the very end. Here are a lot of 1-star Amazon reviews:

http://www.amazon.com/This-Is-Not-My-Hat/product-reviews/0763655996/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_pop_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0

Not as good as 2011's I Want My Hat Back.

Have you seen the sequel, This Is Not a Hat, by Rene Magritte?