1 Read more new books than usual
2 Disagreed with the critical consensus more than usual (really disliking a lot of the books that are making best-of-the-year lists),
I decided to go ahead. Today will be my favorite fiction, Wednesday my favorite nonfiction.
Favorite fiction of 2013
Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard: A brilliantly realized, wholly convincing epistolary novel. I wrote about it back in February when I first read it, and I've continued to recommend it in the months since.
Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors: I happened to take this brilliant debut novel with me on a work trip to Prague this summer, only to discover when I opened it that it's about young American expatriates . . . living in Prague. Over the course of more than 400 pages, not much happens--except that Crain manages to takes us back to that moment in life when we're poised between youth, with its structures and deadlines, and adulthood, with its terrifying wide-openness. Our time horizons then were so short, our experience (despite what we told ourselves) so limited, that every single thing, person, and event seemed of outsized, at times monumental, importance, and Crain--with neither too much irony nor false naivete--makes us feel that again in all its self-involved glory. It's an incredible achievement.
Gaito Gazdanov's The Spectre of Alexander Wolf: It seems like an extra treat when you happen upon a favorite book of the year in early December--and you find it because the single line on the back cover convinces you to pick up:
Of all my memories, of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.A young man who killed an opposing soldier during the Russian Civil War happens upon a book of short stories in which one of the stories tells of the killing--and which could only be the work of the dead man. That sets him off on an investigation, and along the way the story turns and shifts, interpolating other stories with a narrative confidence and storytelling fecundity that reminds me of nothing so much as Roberto Bolano. The book was first published in 1948 in Russia, its author a taxi driver, but it feels as fresh as any of the new books on this list. Pushkin Press seems to have increased their presence in the States substantially this year, which is all to the good for readers, and this is the best yet.
A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book: A novel that tries to wrong-foot the reader from the very start, full of tricks and misdirections, appropriate for a story of people who work in the borderlands between magic and con artistry. It's clever, engrossing, funny, dark-hearted, and ultimately moving. I'd not read Kennedy before, but this book will send me to the rest of her work.
Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts: With the possible exception of my friend Ed Park, there's no comic writer working today whose sentences I enjoy more. Not every story in this collection is wholly successful, but even the lesser ones offer finely honed sentences--sonically and rhythmically rich and brilliantly funny.
Matthew Specktor's American Dream Machine: I wrote about this one very briefly in the summer, calling it a cousin to Steve Erickson's Zeroville. But it's better than Zeroville, trading Erickson's distance for empathy. Specktor tells a story of Hollywood success (and the problems it brings), and it's that relatively rare multi-generational story where both generations are wholly believable, their different worlds and worldviews fully realized.