I read about 80 books this year. I thought I was going to hit 100, but I had a terrifically busy fall. Still, 80 is a lot, and I read some very good ones. I read poetry and, because of my book club, a fair amount of non-fiction. But mostly I read fiction because that’s what I like and that’s what I write. Not everything I read was new, although most of it was relatively recent. Probably next year I’ll read a lot of what was published this year. Story of my life.
Below is a list of some very good fiction I read this year, in no meaningful order (I think it’s the reverse chronological order of when I finished them). It’s a pretty long list to be a “best of” list, but I didn’t want to leave any of these books off. And the links are to the mini-reviews I did of them on this blog. (To see all of my mini reviews, go here.) If I had to pick one book out of all that I read this year as my favorite, I’d have to say Suite Francaise. It’s brilliant.
The Right Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Civilized World by Susi Wyss
The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky
Flashes of War by Katey Schultz
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Book Law for Authors by Mary Hutchings Reed and David Creasey
This is an excellent summary of the basic legal issues facing authors. There are more detailed references available, but this one hits all the right issues. While it is spot-on with regard to the law (I’m also a lawyer, although not a specialist in copyright and publishing), it does make the occasional odd remark about the business, such as: “While writers often submit their stories or poems directly to magazines and journals, book writers almost always need an agent.” That’s true IF you want your book to be published by one of the large trade publishers. There are thousands of smaller presses that accept submissions directly from authors without an agent. In fact, some of the best literary fiction now is coming from smaller presses as the big publishers focus primarily on big commercial books that will make them a lot of money.
Other than that, though, this is a handy guide that I can recommend.
(Note: one of the authors is a former law partner of mine from my days at Sidley Austin)
Out Across the Nowhere by Amy Willoughby-Burle
This is a very short collection of very short stories. The characters are at times rough, but the language is beautiful. I especially liked “Missing Maya,” in which a girl who has a history of disappearing is eventually missed by her friends who then look for her. There’s a bit of sameness to the tone and voice here, so I don’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. Read a story and savor it, then come back later to read the next one.
Sticklebacks and Snow Globes by B.A. Goodjohn
One of the things that makes this novel (novel in stories?) unique is its setting—a housing estate in England. Set in the early 70s, we focus on young Tot, a girl in a household on the verge of disintegration who is further challenged by her [mild] epilepsy. Around Tot are the many problems of the lower middleclass in England (and everywhere)—illness, alcoholism, racism, underemployment, teen pregnancy, idleness. Tot herself is an engaging, curious child (a device I’ve used myself, so I like it) and sees things that perhaps adults will not. Surprisingly, not much is made of Tot’s epilepsy, which remains mostly in the background—she has “fits” and she takes medication for them, but other than some teasing by the neighborhood children, the condition has few consequences for her. The stakes for Tot are high, though; her father has dreams of going to New Orleans to make it big in jazz, and Tot makes a deal with God to keep him home.
The chapters read like individual stories, so it’s an easy book to pick up from time to time. An enjoyable read.
The Right-Hand Shore: A Novel by Christopher Tilghman
This novel–the first book I’ve read by Tilghman–was one of the three finalists for the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction this year, along with The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers and my own What the Zhang Boys Know. While I know my book is good, I feel even better about winning the Award after reading the other two books.
I’ve written earlier about The Yellow Birds but now I can say that The Right-Hand Shore is also an exceptional book. It’s structure is unique, in my reading experience. It begins in the present time of the narrative (1920s) when a visitor arrives at Mason’s Retreat (a vast estate on the Eastern Shore)–a possible inheritor of the property. He is interviewed by Mary Bayly who is seeking to determine if he is suitable to take the reins of the operation, a farm that has transitioned from tobacco to peaches to dairy. After his meeting with Mary, he meets with Mr. and Mrs. French, the farm manager and his wife who have worked for Mary’s family for decades. The succeeding chapters are the stories they tell about the various players in the family history, until we finally circle back to the present time having learned the secrets of the family and the estate.
It’s a convoluted story, with a lot of characters, but it wrestles with big themes. It’s a terrific historical novel.
Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition by Charles Eisenstein
Judging by comments I’ve heard about this book, the author has something of a cult following among refugees from capitalism–the folks who want to escape from the reality of modern, corporate-controlled, globalized existence.
I want to be sympathetic with these views, but I just can’t. There is too much about the argument offered by this book and others like it that is based on faulty, or at least unsubstantiated, assumptions. Yes, we could be headed for a societal collapse that will fundamentally alter the global economy, but that’s not a foregone conclusion, and Eisenstein seems to treat it as if it is. On page after page, the author makes assertions–statements that he offers as fact and then uses as jumping-off points to reach conclusions that sound reasonable–but offers no evidence.
Furthermore, in order to buy into the argument, one has to reject classical economics, and I’m just not able to do that. The book is interesting, but ultimately unconvincing.
The Yellow Birds: A Novel by Kevin Powers
Last Saturday, I won the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction. I was thrilled, of course. And I feel especially honored after reading this fine novel, which was one of the two other finalists for the award.
The Yellow Birds is about a young soldier from Virginia who goes to Iraq. A comrade is killed and the protagonist’s reaction is the story of the novel. Kevin Powers–a very nice guy whom I spent some time with on the day of the awards ceremony–is also a poet, and it absolutely shows. The language is often lyrical and fine, in a way that a novel about war can’t usually get away with.
War is hell, this book says, but it says a lot more about the characters. Powers’s next book is a collection of poetry due out next year. Can’t wait to see it!
A Fingerprint Repeated by Jeffrey Condran.
Isn’t this a great cover? But besides that, I really enjoyed several of the stories in this collection, including “Praha,” which appeared in The Missouri Review, and “Housewarming.” Most of the stories are linked in an unusual way–they feature a character who us Muslim, often from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. The character might be an estranged spouse, a cuckold, or someone under investigation (or arrest) for shadowy ties to terrorism. I’m not too clear on the point of these links, but continued to be surprised by them as I read through the book.
Of the collection, Steve Yarbrough says “Condran possesses an admirable ability to imbue isolated encounters with mystery and suspense.” Indeed, these encounters frequently are mysterious.
It’s an unusual–and therefore interesting–collection.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
This middle-grade novel by a my friend Meg Medina is excellent. If you know kids in high school, you should get this book for them. (Do NOT be put off by the title, which got the book removed from the reading list in one stuffy Virginia county; if you think kids don’t already talk that way, you haven’t been paying attention.)
The story is straight-forward: Piddy Sanchez moves to a new school and is confronted by a bully. At the same time, she’s faced with other challenges–her best friend has moved a way, she gets close to a boy, she’s fighting with her mother–and so she’s struggling to deal with the bully. But things escalate, as they tend to do, and eventually she has to act. Should she flee? Or stay and fight? And who can she count on?
Obviously, I’m not the target audience for this book, but it was an enjoyable read because the writing is flawless.
Blacksnake at the Family Reunion: Poems (Southern Messenger Poets) by David Huddle
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of poems by David Huddle, one of the finalists for this year’s Library of Virginia Award in poetry. The poems tell great stories–about the blacksnake at the family reunion, about the wife who doesn’t speak, about the man with a burned face, and so on. The poems explore childhood and relationships and family with great concision.
It’s a terrific book.