A Year In Books: The Best Reads Of 2013
Despite a perpetual vow to read more books when they actually come out, I always play catch up much of the year with books that are a few years old that I’ve finally gotten around to. 2013 was no exception to that rule, but I did read some outstanding things published this year.
10) Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam — Nick Turse
Definitely not the feel-good hit of the summer, but a critical and long-overdue book about the war in Vietnam. Turse’s thesis — that massacres like My Lai were not outliers but instead the rational outcome of United States policy towards Vietnamese civilians — is likely as hard to swallow for Americans as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners was for Germans 15 years ago. Turse has mountains of research to back up his unpleasant and unpalatable truths. You’ll come away feeling battered and bruised, smarter and sadder.
9) Gun Machine — Warren Ellis
Warren Ellis is best known as a graphic novelist, and his comic, RED, was turned into the surprisingly delightful Bruce Willis/Helen Mirren movie of the same name. Here, he turns in a darkly comic, deeply weird, not-graphic-novel that starts as a traditional police procedural that almost immediately goes sideways as the deliberately stereotypical loner cop stumbles on a far greater treasure trove of guns and larger conspiracy than he could have imagined. Along the way, he acquires the completely dysfunctional but completely entertaining CSI workers Scarlatta and Bat. Scarlatta is aggressively terrible and has a habit of yelling “FUCK YOU I’M AUTISTIC” (she’s not) to win any argument or excuse any bad behavior. Bat largely refuses to eat and howls that his stomach is a death bag. Sadly, the narrative collapses into the conventional at the very end, but you don’t really mind because getting there has been so entertaining.
8) Critical Mass — Sara Paretsky
Sara Paretsky pretty much invented the female P.I. genre with V.I. Warshawski, who remains one of the most fully realized recurrent detective characters in the past 30 years. As the series has gone on, Paretsky has shifted the narrative from standard mystery solving to novels that are deft reflections on politics, history and feminism. Additionally, Paretsky has been terrific about allowing Warshawski to age and grow, to mellow into her more settled personal life while burning more fiercely about issues she cares about. Here, Paretsky uses the detective mystery format to talk about particle physics, the creation of the Jewish ghettos during World War II, and the ways in which women are removed from the narrative of scientific discoveries. Entertaining and edifying in equal parts.
7) The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking — Brendan Koerner
Koerner’s book, about the cluster outbreak of airplane hijackings in America from 1968 to 1973, is one of those books that comes so fully complete that you feel like someone must have told this story somewhere before, but Koerner is definitely the first. At the center of the book is one hijacker couple, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, who manage the longest-distance hijack with a nearly incomprehensible set of reasons, most of which boil down to disillusionment and ennui. The real skill of the book lies not in his research — though that’s exhaustive — into both Holder and the hundreds of other hijackings during that five-year span, but in the way he grounds that narrative in the shambles that was America at the time. We were slogging through Vietnam and watching the country come apart at the seams and that laid the groundwork for the most peculiar of anti-heros: the hijacker.
6) The Shining Girls — Lauren Beukes
Much like Ellis does with Gun Machine, Beukes takes what starts out as a fairly routine narrative — a serial killer is targeting girls that he feels are special, that “shine” — and shifts it into something unexpected. Beukes’ murderer can time travel, though he doesn’t know why or how, and he jumps back and forth across a span of 70 years, stashing weapons years away. One of his victims survives, though she was never supposed to, and begins tracking him in the present day. It sounds convoluted, but Beukes is skilled enough that you almost immediately suspend disbelief and go along for a ride that is part surrealist art, part mystery, and all thriller.
5) Detroit: An American Autopsy — Charlie LeDuff
LeDuff was the classic hometown boy made good, a native Detroiter? Detroitian? that made it all the way to the New York Times and won a Pulitzer there, and then came home to figure out how everything in Detroit went so horribly wrong. All the usual suspects for a city’s demise are here — corrupt politicians, white flight, the loss of manufacturing jobs, but LeDuff works it all into a highly personal and highly angry narrative. LeDuff leads with his chin when he writes, and his book is a pugilistic free-for-all. Read this when you need to be goaded into picking a fight.
4) Visitation Street — Ivy Pochoda
Reviewed here earlier this year, Pochoda’s novel is only nominally a mystery. Two girls take a raft into the bay during a sweltering night in Red Hook, and only one returns and spends the rest of the book both trying to remember and forget what might have happened. The result is a beautiful heartbreak of a book.
3) Bitter River — Julia Keller
Also reviewed in these here digital pages in September. Keller, like Charlie LeDuff, won a newspaper Pulitzer but ultimately chose to write about home. Keller is from West Virginia, and this murder mystery is set in a fictional West Virginia small town that is crumbling as logging and mining disappears. Though there’s a conventional mystery-solving story, it’s really just a way to talk about family and home and how fragile the threads that hold those things together can be. Keller takes the quotidian and makes it quietly gorgeous.
2) Tenth of December: Stories — George Saunders
This was such a high-profile book this year that if you managed not to read it, it’s likely because you actively avoided it, which is a shame. This collection of short stories is probably the best thing Saunders has ever written. There’s the ever-so-slightly deranged humor of his novellas, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. There’s the savagery of previous short story collections like In Persuasion Nation. There’s the vicious incisiveness of the non-fiction essays in The Braindead Megaphone.
Quite simply, there’s no one writing who is as funny and smart about class in America. There’s no one writing who is as funny and smart and sad about existential despair in America. Every few years the publishing industry throws up a new someone that is supposed to be the new Kurt Vonnegut, but Saunders is the real heir to the crown.
A common thread of despair runs through all the stories, from “Home,” where a soldier returns from war in the Middle East and visits his now much-better-off ex-wife to “Escape from Spiderhead,” which recalls Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” with its unfeeling drug experimentations on disposable humans, but Saunders never permits himself to be maudlin. He’s clear-eyed about joy and pain in equal parts and we’re lucky to have him.
1) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — Karen Joy Fowler
Usually books with a big “he was a ghost all along” pivotal plot moment feel gimmicky. You’re suckered into one part of the narrative and then sucker-punched by the reveal. Fowler’s book has a big gotcha moment at the very heart of the story, but doesn’t feel like a feint. Casual googling will turn up what the big surprise is, as many reviews didn’t really feel they could talk about the book in any depth without actually talking about key plot points, which makes perfect sense. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll only cover the plot in broad strokes.
It’s the 1970s, and the era of freewheeling exploitation of animals to discover more about humans is running full smack ahead into a nascent animal rights movement. At the center of that car crash intersection is the Cooke family, and Rosemary Cooke, the daughter of a noted behavioral psychologist, tells the story of her family’s unwinding from a remove of some years, but the remove isn’t cool or distant — it’s achingly present and all the tragedy of the past is raw and ragged. The end of the book is so sad, so evocative, so familial, so fully human, that you’ll be dumbfounded by the beauty of it.
Feel free to check out what I’m reading in 2014 over at Goodreads, where I almost universally fail to review books but never fail to rank them.