Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question: What’s your favorite book of the year so far?
Easily my favorite book of the year is Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem And The Jinni, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s noticed me talking it up in the comment section, largely out of frustration at having read it too late to review it. It’s a literary fantasy that other people have heavily compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because of its density, though to me it reads more like Neil Gaiman writing a Michael Chabon novel, or vice versa: It’s set in the immigrant enclaves of 1899 New York, and it treats the real-life history of immigrant Jews and Arabs with the same richness and detail that it treats the fantasy history of jinns and their relationship with humanity. It’s a rich book with many narrative threads and terrifically realized characters, but what really sucked me in was the degree to which it explores the philosophical differences between golems—creatures from Jewish folklore, created to serve man and taking fundamental satisfaction in meeting people’s needs—and jinn, creatures from Arabic folklore, commonly captured and forced to grant men’s wishes, while craving freedom. It’s what I look for most in books: a fresh perspective, delivered in a setting absorbing and evocative enough to get lost in.
The best new book I’ve read this year is probably Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers or George Packer’s state-of-the-union report The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America. But as favorites go, the addictive, borderline-guilty-pleasure thrill read for me is The Skies Belong To Us, subtitled Love And Terror In The Golden Age Of Hijacking, by Wired reporter Brendan I. Koerner. I’m guessing there are two kinds of people in the world: There are those who will see the phrase “the golden age of hijacking” and automatically think, “Wait, the who of what?” And then there are those like me, whose first thought is, “Oh my God, there kind of was one, wasn’t there?” Koerner weaves a lot of information and period detail in and around his main story of a Vietnam vet named Roger Holder and the apple of his eye, Cathy Kerkow, who ’jacked a commercial airliner in Los Angeles, ostensibly to protest the war, and ended up in Algiers with a half-million-dollar ransom and full membership in the mile high club. Read it just so you’ll know how disappointed you should be in the inevitable movie version.
I’ll have more to say about this in Comics Panel this month, but Chuck Forsman’s The End Of The Fucking World just leapt to the top of my 2013 list. His debut graphic novel—which anthologizes a mini-comic he’d been self-publishing over the past couple years—is a stark account of a young couple’s journey from teen runaways to something far more disturbing. The storytelling is deceptively deadpan, and Forsman’s classically rooted cartooning (think Peanuts, only ghostly) has a clean, quiet quality that works at dissonant odds with the sociopathic subject matter. It’s a jarring and harrowing read, in the best possible way.
The only 2013 books I’ve read are Tenth Of December and the new menu at my favorite Mexican restaurant, both of which proved quite satisfying, but I admit the more lasting pleasure came from George Saunders’ newest collection of short stories. I bought it on a friend’s recommendation along with the author’s first collection, Civilwarland In Bad Decline. I devoured that one, with its sci-fi corporations and blasé absurdism. But from the very first story in December, a moment-of-truth haunter called “Victory Lap,” the new volume achieves new heights. Which makes sense, considering almost all of these stories are from nearly a decade later than those in Civilwarland. The form is a little more complex, from the goofy streams of consciousness to the experiments with perspective, and the payoffs that much more rewarding. I’m grinning just thinking about the opening sentence of “Puppy,” a deeply wistful sentiment that’s also a self-aware take on reading expressed as a paragraph of jokes about its own repetitiousness. I have plenty of catch-up ahead, but I’ll be lucky to find anything as rich as Tenth Of December.
I took a long hiatus from fiction for a while, thinking it had nothing to offer me, but last year I got back into it with Gone Girl. This year has been good so far for fiction: I’ve got a stack of books on my bedside table to get through and am happily working my way through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I think my favorite that I’ve read this year so far is Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song Of Jonny Valentine. The premise reads like an intriguing gimmick: What is the life of a Justin Bieber type really like? Beneath the gloss of pop music and tours, it’s a sad, provoking, darkly funny book as well. I describe it to people as one of those brownies that someone secretly baked some spinach into. On the non-fiction tip, I really enjoyed Rosie Schaap’s Drinking With Men: I saw her do a reading this spring but really she read for about two minutes and just chatted with the audience for the rest of the time, which was appropriate because reading her book will just make you want to pull a seat up next to her at a dark bar and shoot the shit for hours.
When I found out that South African writer J.M. Coetzee was releasing a book this year, it was like Christmas had come early. The book isn’t out in the States yet, so I had to pick it up on my last trip home to Canada, and I read most of it on the plane. Two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize and a Nobel Laureate, Coetzee is, in my comment-baiting opinion, the greatest living writer of the English language. And, unsurprisingly, his new novel, The Childhood Of Jesus, is another triumph. When two refugees land in an unnamed country, their memories erased and families lost, they try to make a new life for themselves, only to buckle under the pressure of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and strange cultural norms. The book is, in many ways, like The Castle, except Coetzee manages to create enormous sympathy for his characters, unlike the ciphers that exist in Kafka’s novel. This makes the impediments they face all the more heartbreaking. It’s a dreamlike book, but one that still had the power to shake me emotionally. At 73, Coetzee is getting toward the end of his life, but The Childhood Of Jesus proves that the master has not lost his incredible skills as a novelist.
This answer may seem a little bit strange, but since this is probably the only place on the site that I’ll have the chance to mention it, I’m going to say Hot Doug’s: The Book. Chicago readers will/ought to know exactly what Hot Doug’s is, but for those outside our town: It’s an “encased meat emporium” that serves the best sausages you’ll ever experience. But more than that—and this is where the book comes in—Hot Doug’s is an incredible experience and a sort of cultural touchstone for Chicagoans. You go, you happily wait in a long line, you have a chat with the proprietor, and you eat a great wiener. We’ve taken dozens of A.V. Club trips to the Avondale neighborhood over the years, gathering in groups large and small to celebrate in style, with reds and yellows and kitschy hot-dog paraphernalia. The glossy hardcover details the restaurant’s history, both from the man behind the counter—“Hot” Doug Sohn—and testimonials from customers (including, I must reveal, me). Sohn is such a funny, charming guy, and he’s found huge success by keeping things small: Every minute the store is open, he’s at the counter, making sure everything goes exactly right. And he hasn’t gone out of his way to publicize Hot Doug’s, either: Word of mouth is what draws the long lines every day, and it’s what drew people like Anthony Bourdain (who named it “one of 13 places to eat before you die”) to sing its praises. I’d like to say reading the book is just like being there, but unfortunately the book doesn’t come with a bacon and jalapeño duck sausage with blood orange mustard, white cheddar curds, and spicy olives. (Or even a straight-up Chicago dog!) It’ll make you hungry, though.
I’ve written enough about George Saunders’ Tenth Of December this year to set it aside as my clear choice for best book of 2013 so far. But excepting Saunders’ latest collection, the book that has stayed with me the most this year is Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death, a short-story collection from the Harlem Renaissance republished in January after decades out of print. For me, the alpha and omega of the Harlem Renaissance are Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Walrond’s only collection—10 stories set in the punishing heat of British Guiana, Barbados, and the Panama Canal Zone—makes a tough case for inclusion as part of a trinity of the best works to emerge from the period. Though the dialect-heavy style makes for difficult reading at times, Walrond’s crisp and disturbing stories expand on the violence and racism that drips from every word of “Blood Burning Moon,” one of Toomer’s best and most widely recognized works. Tropic Death is an unexpected, long-lost gem, every bit as immediate and affecting today as it must have been more than 85 years ago.
I haven’t had as much time to read this year as I would have liked, and most of that reading time has been spent on catching up with books from years prior to this one. But for you TV fans out there, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted is a must, a bright, breezy read about one of the best TV shows ever made. Armstrong has talked to nearly everybody that made The Mary Tyler Moore Show tick, and her book is particularly good in the early sections, which reveal just how little faith in the program the network that put it on the air had, something that seems baffling now, after it ran for seven years, became a Nielsen hit, and won many, many Emmys. The most telling section of the book is the chapter on the early reviews of the show, which all assumed that the Mary Richards of the pilot was half-heartedly searching for a man and doing a piss-poor job of it. Only after nearly a full season had aired would most critics get what the program was going for, a good reminder that TV criticism sometimes misses the forest for the trees and is always evolving.
Looking back on the 2013 book releases I’ve read thus far this year, I found the list was surprisingly short, which is something I intend to remedy in the second half of the year. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two books whose release I eagerly anticipated and am currently reading and loving: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga Volume Two and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo Meta Blues. Volume Two collects issues #7-12 of Vaughan’s newest ongoing and continues the tale of interspecies couple Alana and Marko and their daughter, Hazel. Staples’ art continues to be stellar, and Vaughan is crafting yet another epic tale that I can just tell is going to break my heart. Getting through the Questlove book is taking a while, as I am compelled to stop reading and seek out the music he references, but I’m fine with that. At this rate, perhaps Mo Meta will be the favorite book I read in 2014. Another book I really enjoyed that didn’t get much love this year was Adam Mansbach’s Rage Is Back. Mansbach (of Go The Fuck To Sleep fame) has crafted a story that I’ve seen described as a cross between Michael Chabon and Junot Díaz; I wouldn’t quite go that far, but he does some interesting things with perspective and language in this book. Though the narrative is a bit all over the place, the novel combined so many elements that I like—history of street art, examination of invisible communities, an atypical coming-of-age story—that I was onboard from the start. Mansbach also collaborated with Brooklyn DJ-producer J.Period to produce an accompanying mixtape featuring Common, Talib Kweli, Black Thought, and others that is worth checking out.