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Our favorite books of the year

The best of 2013

This year, The A.V. Club invited our regular book writers and staff to pick their favorite books released in 2013. Since very few of us read the same books, a ballot system wouldn’t work as well. The A.V. Club works to cultivate an eclectic selection of tastes in books, and in our effort to do that, there isn’t much crossover among books and writers. Here is a list of our recommendations in four categories: reviewed favorites, unsung gems, best reissues, and great gift books. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

Reviewed favorites:

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon
What does Thomas Pynchon have left to prove? A literary giant and notorious recluse, the genius novelist has been on a tear recently after a long hiatus, and it looks like the rest did him good. Bleeding Edge is spooky, funny, thought provoking, and poignant—sometimes all in the same sentence. Taking place in New York City just months before 9/11, the book skewers, and supports, fears about the security state and the World Wide Web. But inside all the techno-babble and political conspiracies is Maxine Tornow, a woman with an all-too-real love for her family. Turns out Pynchon had to prove he had a heart, and he does so brilliantly here. [NC]

Vampires In The Lemon Grove, Karen Russell
Two aging vampires subsisting on citrus fruit in southern Italy go through a marital crisis. A massage therapist manipulates the tattoos of a traumatized war veteran. Former presidents discover they’ve been reincarnated as horses in the same barn. A group of Japanese silk seamstresses become trapped in a Kafkaesque factory environment. Karen Russell’s second story collection branched out and continued to deliver on the promise of St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves and Swamplandia by bridging the gap between the surreal fantasies of George Saunders and the supreme horror of Stephen King. That blend of world-bending and terror leads to satirical stories that are funny yet off-putting views of a world that can still reach out and hurt innocent people. [KM]

Tenth Of December, George Saunders
We spent much of the year joining the chorus of praise for Saunders’ fourth short-story collection. The author landed on the New York Times bestseller list, reappeared on The Colbert Report, and garnered lengthy magazine profiles—all well deserved. Tenth Of December is the culmination of Saunders’ talent, a collection that preserves his compassion and curiosity with a group of his most accessible stories. Saunders is an important voice in American literature, searching every dark corner for more satirical fodder, and Tenth Of December finally brought him the populist acclaim he deserves. [KM]

NOS4A2, Joe Hill
This massive horror novel from Horns and Locke & Key author Joe Hill reads like an IT-era book by his father, Stephen King, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hill’s previous horror novels have been intellectual and artful, but NOS4A2 is broader, more fulsome, and more raw fun. It’s a creepy monster tale, with an unsettlingly cheery villain who traps kids in the back of his luxury car and slowly steals their humanity, turning them into hollow little monsters. It’s also the kind of over-the-top imagination exercise that challenges readers to predict what will happen next, while grounding its events in enough detail to make even the most bizarre details seem eerily plausible. [TR]

The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell
This may be her first novel, but The Other Typist proves that Suzanne Rindell has already mastered the noir genre. Set against the rich backdrop of Prohibition-era New York, Rindell’s novel turns the femme fatale into the MacGuffin, slowly spooning out bits of the character’s background mixed with heaping servings of misdirection. It’s a gripping read, more so because it hints at the author’s future potential. [SN]

This Is How You Die, Various authors
The 2010 anthology Machine Of Death was a cunningly marketed, singularly creative Amazon bestseller about a device that predicts in a bare handful of words how its users will die, but gives no timeline or details. This follow-up, again consisting of short stories and other works exploring the possibilities of the device, irons out every flaw from the first collection, while pushing the stories to much more diverse extremes. There’s an impressive amount of color and genre range in these stories, but also a touching amount of humanity: The theme keeps pushing the individual authors back toward the idea of understanding and accepting their mortality. Some of the stories are funny, some are odd, and some are brilliant, but they’re all deceptively smart about exploring all the ways individuals come to terms with death. [TR]

Enon, Paul Harding
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers didn’t stray far from familiar territory for his follow-up novel. Enon’s protagonist, Charlie Crosby, is the grandson of Harding’s previous leading man. Instead of a lifetime of memories recalled from a deathbed, Enon charts one year in Charlie’s life: His 13-year-old daughter dies, and his wife moves out of the house days later, effectively ending his marriage. It’s a somber, intricate New England novel intensely focused on one man’s downward spiral into grief, while alternately bouncing into Charlie’s childhood memories, as he realizes what his daughter will never be able to experience. It’s a worthy successor to Tinkers, another striking regional history ensconced in one man’s journey back from the emotional brink. [KM]

The Infatuations, Javier Marías
No other novelist working today (besides, perhaps, Don DeLillo) has a more immediately recognizable prose style than Spanish writer Javier Marías. The Infatuations (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) continues in the vein of Marías’ long-held obsessions—death, time, memory—while telling the story of Maria Dolz and her infatuation with “the perfect couple” she spies from her perch at a Madrid café each morning. When the husband is murdered, a whole set of complications ensues as Dolz befriends the widow. The obvious machinery of an ordinary mystery retreats into the background as Marías uses the simple setup to launch into his signature digressions and ruminations, putting off the pay-off for as long as possible, not in search of tension, but truth. While Marías’ prose style can seem icy or detached, for those who revel in the circumlocutions of a brilliant mind, there was no better place to be this year than between the pages of Marías’ brilliant Infatuations. [GL]

Mo’ Meta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
Given the anticipation and opportunity built into the prospect of a Questlove memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues leaves a lot to be desired. It eschews taking a serious look at the more controversial events Questlove and co-writer Ben Greenman discuss, and the multiplicity of formats, while ambitious, is probably better to consider a noble failure. But what an incredible one: Most music memoirs rarely approach the levels of self-awareness, humor, and encyclopedic, intoxicating knowledge of music of Mo’ Meta Blues. Several individual passages examine (or at least ask important questions about) topics as diverse as skating with Prince, race in America, and the nature of music itself. As long as a reader is okay with missing sight of the forest and getting lost in the trees, Mo’ Meta Blues provides a remarkable page-by-page reading experience. [ET]

White Girls, Hilton Als
White Girls, the latest book from The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, covers a lot of ground in its pages: memoir, essay, criticism, free-association thought exercise, meditation on the nature of friendship and identity. And it covers that ground at such a dizzying speed, full of hairpin turns, that it’s all a reader can do just to hold on and catch the insights as they go whizzing by. That being said, this book is the one place where Virginia Woolf can be referred to as “Suicide Bitch” and where a significant player in the lead essay can be called “Sir/Lady,” and it still makes a towering case for itself as the one of the most honest, compelling reads of the year. [AB]

AVC’s unsung gems:

The Golem And The Jinni, Helene Wecker
This novel should have set the publishing world on its ear like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, another long-in-gestation debut literary fantasy that ranks among the best of the modern genre. It reads like a collaboration between Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman: part exploration of the microcultures in a specific time and space, and part thoughtful exploration of the roots of fables. Two supernatural creatures, an enslaved jinni and an aimless golem, meet in 1899 New York, where they’re simultaneously drawn to each other and baffled by all their differences: Djinns are from Arabian myth and golems are from Jewish folklore, and both characters have emerged from cultural backgrounds that give them complicated expectations for their places in the world. Wecker navigates their philosophical conflicts beautifully, while weaving a story about the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century America. On both a mainstream level and a magical one, it’s a fantastic read. [TR]

The Childhood Of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee
South African author J.M. Coetzee hasn’t rested on his laurels going into his twilight years. The Childhood Of Jesus is another masterpiece that mixes allegory with cold, hard realism. Refugees in a land where they do not speak the language, David and Simon must navigate a brave new world, loaded down by the fact that they have lost the memories of their homeland. Connecting identity, love, sex, and family all into one strange book (with a series of gut punches thrown in), Coetzee’s managed to create a novel that's both Kafkaesque and deeply human. [NC]

The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America, George Packer
Using John Dos Passos’ The U.S.A. Trilogy from the 1930s as an organizing framework upon which to set his own non-fiction portrayal of the United States, George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America seeks to understand America’s journey using anecdotal evidence from ordinary (and extraordinary) Americans. Whether he’s portraying Jeff Connaughton’s sad pursuit in the shadow of his hero Joe Biden; or knocking the wind out of Oprah Winfrey’s cult of magical thinking; or charting the reinvention of Tammy Thomas, who crawls from the economic wreckage of Youngstown, Ohio, Packer does his best to bear impartial witness to how individuals of all stripes are fairing since the dawn of Reagan’s morning. The conclusion appears to be “not so good.” Neither prescriptive nor preachy, Packer’s The Unwinding may find lasting relevance as a portrait of a young(ish) nation beginning to question whether the results of this Great Experiment are bearing out as promised or the time for drastic adjustments has arrived. [GL]

Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson
Lots of young-adult novels are set in dystopian futures, but the genius of Steelheart is that its setting is crafted from the stuff of childhood dreams—superheroes. In another world, Brandon Sanderson's 18-year-old protagonist might just be another comic-book nerd. But here he's a freedom fighter using careful study of tyrannical superpowered beings to give humanity a chance. The veteran fantasy author's world-building expertise is on full display here, making his horrifying vision of Chicago all the more chilling and exciting for readers of all ages to explore. [SN]

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is something very akin to “Nietzsche’s Eternal Return: The Novel.” That’s perhaps too reductive a way of explaining the book, but it’s also a good way of boiling a somewhat complicated, yet effortlessly beautiful concept down to a few words. The main character, Ursula, dies in its first few pages, when her just-born infant self fails to draw breath after exiting her mother’s womb. From there, Atkinson embarks on a journey through the first half of the 20th century with Ursula as her guide, each new attempt at life lasting slightly longer than the last and providing a sort of third-person Choose Your Own Adventure structure. All of that makes the book sound like a weird sci-fi thing, but it’s much more slippery than that. Atkinson’s gift for precise prose and wonderfully realized characters make the book a pleasing amalgamation of genres and approaches. It’s worth it just for the exquisite rendition of Ursula’s relationship with her mother. [TV]

Hyperbole And A Half, Allie Brosh
The full subtitle to Allie Brosh’s book (an adaptation of her popular autobiographical blog), Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, And Other Things That Happened, makes this seem like this will be yet another twentysomething navel-gazer grasping at profundity by way of charming drawings. That presumption could not be more wrong. Not only is this book uproariously funny, but in Brosh’s forthright, heart-wrenching description of her struggle with depression, she becomes downright hopeful, or hope-like, or slightly less convinced everything is hopeless bullshit. There are also several musings on the complicated inner lives of her maladjusted dogs. Something for everyone. [AB]

Best reissues:

Tropic Death, Eric Walrond
There’s no excuse for major works of significant literary movements to be out of print for decades. But until this past January, Eric Walrond’s 1926 short-story collection had dropped off the map as other totemic works of the Harlem Renaissance remained in circulation. Jean Toomer’s Cane represented a cross-genre, kaleidoscopic portrait of the black American experience at the beginning of the 20th century, and Walrond’s Panama-set collection offered the other side of the coin from an author born in British Guinea and raised in Barbados and on the isthmus. Tropic Death represents the re-emergence of the Omega to Cane’s Alpha, a vital piece of the Harlem Renaissance’s legacy restored to rightful prominence. [KM]

Speedboat/Pitch Dark, Renata Adler
In the first lines of Pitch Dark, Renata Adler’s follow-up (and sequel of sorts) to Speedboat, she writes: “Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?” The debate over Adler’s narrative style has only become more heated (in the kinds of circles that get heated over such things) since the re-publication of her two most famous novels this year. There is something invigorating about following Jen Fain and Kate Ennis, the heroines of these novels, as they meander through somewhat privileged lives, capturing in prose the flashbulb moments of modern life in clipped, dense scenes of alarming insight. To say Adler was prescient of things like Twitter or blogging does a disservice to the painterly arrangement of her work. Written before the ubiquity of writing workshops and the polished sameness that hovers over most of the polite novels published these days, these two books are triumphs now. They are evidence of what happens when messy life meets clean white page in exquisite prose and should be lingered over, not digested in gulps just to get to THE END. [GL]

I Await The Devil’s Coming, Mary MacLane
Somewhere between the philosophical weight of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and the melodramatic yearning of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther lies Mary MacLane’s I Await The Devil’s Coming. Published in 1902 (as The Story Of Mary MacLane) and written when the author was just 19, this rediscovered book belongs on the shelves of every scholar interested in feminism and early memoir (or both) as well as the nightstands of every misunderstood teen (boy or girl). At her own admission (“I am not a literary genius”), I Await The Devil’s Coming makes up for any youthful lack of novelistic discipline with a clear voice full of the energetic will to live a life of one’s own choosing. Happily hyperbolic, contradictory, and brimming with exhaustive existential refrains designed to provoke readers more than a century ago, MacLane’s prose still stirs. (Her passionate evocation of eating an olive and all of its existential implications is enough to reconsider another bite of Proust’s madeleine.) Or, as MacLane herself puts it, “When you read this Portrayal you will admire me. You will surely have to admire me.” [GL]

Signifying Rappers, David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello
There’s a reason Signifying Rappers isn’t one of David Foster Wallace’s more popular works. The essay on ’80s rap culture, race, and poetry, co-written with Wallace’s then-roommate, fiction writer Mark Costello, hasn’t aged particularly well (especially Wallace and Costello’s reflexive hatred of The Beastie Boys, which comes across as more of a grasp for street cred than an actual, informed opinion). But the re-released edition includes a lengthy, new foreword from Costello that makes it much easier to place Signifying Rappers in the broader context of Wallace’s writing. Parts of the book display flashes of brilliance while others are clearly the product of, as Costello puts it, drunk, hyper-intelligent graduate students goofing around by getting really into Tone Loc. While Signifying Rappers can still seem as embarrassing as it is intelligent, the reissue is definitely a text with value for people other than DFW completists. [ET]

Great books to give as gifts:

The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz
People scrambling for a gift for a special someone should buy The Wes Anderson Collection and then just keep it. The bulk of the book—Matt Zoller Seitz’s occasionally frustrating but mostly insightful, revealing interviews with Anderson and thoughtful essays dissecting each of his films—is excellent, but the interviews in many ways are second to the book’s stunning visuals. The Wes Anderson Collection deserves to be pored over, wrapped in a blanket by a fire. Beautifully rendered with original art, photographs of the director at work, and carefully assembled illustrations of several of Anderson’s filmmaking techniques and influences alongside his original sketches, it’s not hard to see why it was named a top book for people who don’t read—a bit of a backhanded compliment, but an accurate one. [ET]

Soul Train: The Music, Dance, And Style Of A Generation, Questlove
In his second entry on this list, the drummer-DJ-Roots bandleader provides a loving tribute to Soul Train, the longest-running syndicated program in television history and one of the biggest launch pads for musical careers for three decades. For this book, the commentary is helpful and much of the trivia is amusing, but it’s really all about these photographs. Much of the photos haven’t been collected before and the Soul Train dancers are given their due. In light of the sudden 2012 death of show creator and host Don Cornelius, this salute to his legacy is timely and welcome. [AB]

Tune In: The Beatles—All These Years Volume 1, Mark Lewisohn
All The Songs: The Song Behind Every Beatles Release, Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon
The Fifth Beatle, Vivek J. Tiwary
For the devoted Beatlemaniac, three books were published this year that would make great gifts. The first of Mark Lewisohn’s planned trilogy, Tune In: The Beatles—All These Years Volume 1, took the author 10 years to write, but his devotion shows, masterfully weaving six distinct lives (the Fab Four, plus Brian Epstein and George Martin) into a single narrative. All The Songs, is an easily accessible, textbook-quality tome with a beautiful layout and plenty of photos throughout. As the title suggests, every song the group released is given its own entry and thorough examination. And if that isn’t enough, Patti Smith wrote the book’s preface. While The Fifth Beatle may not bring very much in the way of new revelations in its examination of the life of band manager Brian Epstein, Vivey J. Tiwary and the artists Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker should be lauded for delivering this story to a brand new medium: This graphic novel is set to be adapted into a feature film in 2014. [AB]

Main image credit:  Brendan Leach