Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Books I read in 2013

I thought I'd read 40 books this year, but, oh well. The books I did read were mostly great and inspired me to start trying fiction writing.

1. Ben Lerner - Leaving the Atocha Station

This reminded me somewhat of "Open City" in that the philosophy matters more than the plot. This book is sillier, wry-er than Teju Cole's, though. It's still very thoughtful, but just in a more clever, of-the-moment way. I enjoyed reading it. It's short. Probably wouldn't read it a second time, though.

2. Mitchell S. Jackson - Oversoul

I love his voice. I like the fiction here better than the essays, but I'm really excited to see what Jackson writes in the future.

3. Anuradha Roy - The Folded Earth

I really enjoyed reading this. It didn't break any narrative grounds or do anything particularly special, but I just liked reading it. The imagery is nice, the story is good, the characters are memorable. I felt really a part of the world, and I never felt eager for the novel to end.

4. Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket: Who Could That Be At This Hour?

I love the language. It is so fun, so lip-smackingly clever. Can't wait to read the next in this series.

5. George Saunders - CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

So fun. So brilliant. I felt so lucky to be reading. The last piece -- the novella -- dragged on, but the short stories. Oh my gosh the short stories. Everything I wish David Foster Wallace or Gary Shteyngart would be.

6. Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events

I liked it, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the new Lemony Snicket. I was bummed to see a repetition of tropes ("xx here means xx"), and this one was much darker than the new book.

7. Jennifer Egan - A Visit From The Goon Squad

I skipped this when it first came out because I thought it was a futuristic book. I bought it after seeing Saunders read because I was so hungry for books and felt, OK, I better do this. But it's not futuristic. I love the non-linear structure. I love the writing and the characters. It challenged me to remember everyone and their place in the main character's life, but that was part of the fun. It taught me a new way to view life. Plus, reading it always seemed more fun than watching TV (this coming from an unabashed TV lover). The very last chapter was too blatant to be enjoyable for me, but overall, I loved the meditations on the passing of time.

8. Mary Doria Russell - Sparrow

I put off reading this for months after my former editor sent it to me. A book about a group visiting an alien planet did not seem like my kind of thing. But this editor has always recommended good books, so I finally picked it up. I didn't love the parts that had to with aliens, but 75 percent of the book actually deals in religion, loneliness, purpose and love. And those parts were great. It's dense, but the characters are well drawn. It took me a while to read because it wasn't a book that begged me to read it every second, but ultimately, I really enjoyed it.

9. Alexis M. Smith - Glaciers

I read this tiny meditation very quickly. I don't normally like to read a book set in Portland -- books are for escaping! -- but I found reading this one while reading the bus to be a nice time. It's well written and thoughtful, a good nod to what's to come from her.

10. JT LeRoy - Sarah

Despite all the controversy surrounding the writing of this book, I enjoyed reading it. I thought it was well enough written, and the plot was really engrossing.

11. Cheryl Strayed - Tiny Beautiful Things

I don't think of myself as the advice book type, but I loved this. Her advice in all situations basically boils down to: You know what to do it. It's going to suck, but you have to do it. That voice kept resounding in my head at work, as I headed down to Louisiana to film the documentary. If I had been having love problems, this would have been a godsend. Instead, I used it to push myself at work. It's incredibly written, so beautiful that it made me go buy "Wild," a book about hiking that I assumed I'd never attempt. I read it each day as if it were my devotion. It was everything I had always wished devotionals would be.

12. Karen Russell - Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I shouldn't like this book. Russell's stories are often set in times and tones (hello, magical realism) that I just do not like. But she writes such great sentences. Those looping words kept drawing me in, even through plots I would generally say I won't like. Some stories were better than others, but overall, I felt a gnawing ache of jealousy as I read this. To be this good. Sigh.

13. Nathan Englander - What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

I loved these stories. Though they tell of a world fairly unfamiliar to me (most of the stories have at least one foot in Israel), Englander's voice makes each piece feel close at hand, relatable. Though the Holocaust and Orthodox Judaism cast a pall over most of the stories, they span generations and places and moods. There is lightness here, even when the stories are dark. It's an imaginative and confidently written collection, and I read it in like two days.

14. Charlie Le Duff - Detroit

When I picked this up from the library, I snorted. There he is, journalism's grittiest, most self-indulgent son splashed across the front pages of his own book. The title suggests this is a book about Detroit, but, as with all his work, it's really about Charlie Le Duff. The cover photo is apt. When he is good, he is great. Sometimes he is not, sometimes he is too bull-headedly himself, but I knew going into the book that he would be. There's plenty to skim through, and it is not, as he would hope, the definitive book on Detroit. He is of that place, but he is not the whole place himself. He doesn't back down ever, and he nearly always describes the race of the person he talks about. A younger version of me would have glazed over it, but the Portland version of me bristled at times. Sometimes it sounds like he's doing that just to show how ballsy and real and unfraid and direct he is. And sometimes I don't need that point drilled in so hard. But it's a fun read.

15. Jess Walter - Beautiful Ruins

This is a great story. I read it over a long weekend and was always eager to choose it over TV. But that's in part because it felt like TV -- a little mindless. I didn't love the voice. At times, Walter just seems to be trying too hard. But the story was great, and I'd recommend it to anyone in need of a good yarn.

16. George Saunders - Tenth of December

I didn't like it as much as CivilWarLand, but there were some really standout pieces here. The Simplica Girl Diaries is one of the best short stories I've ever read. And overall, it was a very fun, incisive book.

17. Colum McCann - TransAtlantic

This is my disappointment of the year. I loved McCann's last book, Let The Great World Spin. It's one of my favorite books of all time. I was eager to lose myself again in his sentences. And he does have some good sentences here, but TransAtlantic fails to differentiate between voices the way Let the Great World Spin so expertly did. Everyone speaks in lofty fragments, rendering each character into one, undistinct somebody. I could never lose myself in this book. Because every sentence was so high in the clouds, I never got a chance to feel the weight of any one line. Mostly, the book felt like work, never like fun. And finally, near the last third, I just gave it back to the library.

18. Mitchell Jackson - The Residue Years

This book is made of the kind of sentences I want to remember forever. I saw Jackson read last year and have been waiting for this book ever sense. It is pulsing and alive, so so good. Again, it made me jealous of his style. It's the kind of book I wish I could write.

19. Claire Vaye Watkins - Battleborn

I loved all of these stories, but the first and last are especially perfect. I can't wait to read it again. Again! I am so jealous of her talent.

20. Cheryl Strayed - Wild

An interesting and quick read that really left me more in awe of Strayed as a person rather than as a writer. I didn't like the writing here as much as I did in the advice columns, but it was still enjoyable.

21. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah

This was hands-down my favorite book of the year. The sentences aren't as good as those in Residue Years or in Battleborn, but the story is just so good. Which reminds me: Story always trumps sentences.

22. Mark Leibovich - This Town

When he's on, he's on, but this book is a structural mess. Too meandering to really hold me. I prefer him in shorter doses -- he's killer on the news desk.

23. Rachel Kushner - The Flamethrowers

I loved the first half of this book. I rented it from the library and was immediately sad because there were so many good lines I wanted to underline. I kept a running list in my journal instead, a list that soon stretched pages. By the time the action heads to Italy, though, my fever had cooled. I felt less and less like reading it once the novel shifted.

24. Jesmyn Ward - Salvage the Bones

Tough read, but brilliantly written. Important work. I could only read a chapter a day, though.

25. Justin St. Germain - Son of a Gun

I really enjoyed the way St. Germain structured this book, going between his own life and the Tombstone legends. I read the book in only a few days. It's well written, though I wouldn't call him a voicey writer. I didn't find myself underlining any sentences. But I really enjoyed reading it.

26. Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland

Lahiri's prose is so beautiful. I love many things about this book -- including the killer last paragraph -- but parts of the story felt too rushed, too paraphrased. I wanted the story to be slowed or more focused, less overarching. I didn't feel the story benefited by showing readers the entire cycles of the character's lives. But I really enjoyed reading it. For all its scope, it was a quick read.

27. Meg Wolitzer - The Interestings

I just never came to really care about these characters. I felt like the novel was always telling me about them and who they are, rather than showing me. That left me with a shallow connection. There was nothing to keep me wanting to read more. I know Wolitzer is super accomplished and experienced, but her style reminded me of a college writer still finding her voice.

28. Jesmyn Ward - Men We Reaped

There are so many beautiful sentences in Men We Reaped. At times, the books feel repetitive or just not done enough (maybe a few more years of distance or editing would have helped?) but I think it's headed in the right direction. Lack of options, lack of government investment in equal infrastructure and economic development, self-medicating precipitated by generations of untreated depression -- these are real factors, nearly always insurmountable. It was clearly a tough write for Ward, and I admired the book.

29. Questlove - Mo Meta Blues

I loved this book. It's such a fun way to learn about the history of hip-hop, its sample sources, its commercialization. This book is so well written, too. Great read and great history of Philadelphia.

30. Jayne Anne Phillips - Black Tickets

I loved the sentences (or, frequently, the fragments) in this book. Very intense read, though, so I was glad to have the break between stories. I like the tiny stories especially.

31. Allie Brosh - Hyperbole and a Half

Not every story is great, but most made me laugh out loud or mutter "so true" to myself. I love how open she is.

32. Ben Fountain - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

After a while, the criticisms and points seemed repetitive, but I really like this book. The sentences are almost too good for the narrator. I don't believe an uneducated 19-year-old kids knows some of the words Fountain puts in his brain, but as a reader, it was fun to read them. Neat conceit for a book, too: The whole novel takes place during a Cowboys football game.

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