Then we came to the end: Notable Fiction 2013

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The last day of November signals my reading year has begun powering down. Alas, 2013, I hardly knew ye. I take that back; I knew you and didn’t like you much. You came, you brought a few good things but mostly not, and now you’re nearly gone. Overall, I’m glad to see the tail end of you.  I’m ready to start writing 2014 on my checks. In fact, I almost relish it.

How was my reading year? Pretty good. I’ve had better and worse. It felt like an eventful year in books, though others have probably been equal and I’m just fixated on 2013. I haven’t had the opportunity to cogitate and digest the cumulative experience just yet, so I’ll reserve judgment a little longer.

A favorite part of my summing up is my tradition of culling “best reads” lists, comparing what I’ve read and how I felt about it, as well as what I haven’t read or feel should have been on the list. This year’s authoritative list, against which I’ve decided to compare my own reading, is The New York Times list of Notable Books for 2013. I’ve already looked over it and thoroughly depressed myself by how few of the best I read. I own a good selection of the fiction, and a little of the nonfiction but ’tis a somber truth I’ve read precious little. That would indicate my taste in buying (or receiving from publishers) is decent, it’s just my execution that’s lacking.

Mantra: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and I accomplish enough. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and I accomplish enough.

Only the most serious, seasoned readers will care to read on from here; those with taste and normal reading appetites having stopped long ago, anyway. Now that they’re gone we can gossip about them! Whoa. Lame.

The NYTimes list is a honker, friends, which is why I am going to split this into two posts: fiction/poetry and nonfiction. Truth be told, I don’t actually read much poetry, which is code for “almost never.” So, here’s how my fiction reading stands up to the NYT’s list:

lineplain100 Notable Books of 2013 – Pt. 1: Fiction & Poetrylineplain

 

FICTION & POETRY

THE ACCURSED. By Joyce Carol Oates. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) Oates’s extravagantly horrifying, funny and prolix postmodern Gothic novel purports to be the definitive account of a curse that infected bucolic Princeton, N.J., in 1905 and 1906.

Status:  Own, haven’t read. LOVE JCO. This one will definitely roll over to 2014’s list of hopefuls.

ALL THAT IS. By James Salter. (Knopf, $26.95.) Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years, which follows the loves and losses of a World War II veteran, is an ambitious departure from his previous work and, at a stroke, demolishes any talk of twilight.

Status: Nope and I haven’t read any Salter. I know that’s a travesty.

AMERICANAH. By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Knopf, $26.95.) This witheringly trenchant novel scrutinizes blackness in America, Nigeria and Britain.

Status: Nope but it has a fighting chance.

BLEEDING EDGE. By Thomas Pynchon. (Penguin Press, $28.95.) Airliners crash not only into the twin towers but into a shaggy-dog tale involving a fraud investigator and a white-collar outlaw in this vital, audacious novel.

Status: Own, haven’t read. I haven’t made it through anything by Pynchon yet. Is he a genius or a poseur?

CHILDREN ARE DIAMONDS: An African Apocalypse. By Edward Hoagland. (Arcade, $23.95.) The adventure-seeking protagonist of Hoagland’s novel is swept up in the chaos of southern Sudan.

Status: Who?

THE CIRCLE. By Dave Eggers. (Knopf/McSweeney’s, $27.95.) In a disturbing not-too-distant future, human existence flows through the portal of a company that gives Eggers’s novel its title.

Status: Nope and the premise doesn’t appeal that much.

CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT. By Edwidge Danticat. (Knopf, $25.95.) Danticat’s novel is less about a Haitian girl who disappears on her birthday than about the heart of a magical seaside village.

Status: Nope but I’m grabbed by the setting.

THE COLOR MASTER: Stories. By Aimee Bender. (Doubleday, $25.95.) Physical objects help Bender’s characters grasp an overwhelming world.

Status: Nope but I’m not big on short stories.

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA. By Anthony Marra. (Hogarth, $26.) Odds against survival are high for the characters of Marra’s extraordinary first novel, set in war-torn Chechnya.

Status: Nope. I believe I have a short story (!) collection by him, though. Maybe? Him, or someone with a mighty similar name.

THE DINNER. By Herman Koch. Translated by Sam Garrett. (Hogarth, $24.) In this clever, dark Dutch novel, two couples dine out under the cloud of a terrible crime committed by their teenage sons.

Status: Own, haven’t read. I’ve heard so much about it, mostly raving – in a good way. It had so much pre-pub praise I pre-ordered it from Amazon. Sometimes all that kerfuffle is a ruse, sometimes not. We’ll see. I’m intrigued it’s written by a Dutch author, being partly Dutch myself. I need to read more world literature.

DIRTY LOVE. By Andre Dubus III. (Norton, $25.95.) Four linked stories expose their characters’ bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses.

Status: Nope and I get this Andre Dubus mixed up with the late one. I’m assuming this is the son, not the father but I’m not really consulting any authoritative source. I’ve not read either Dubus. I know I should.

DISSIDENT GARDENS. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $27.95.) Spanning 80 years and three generations, Lethem’s novel realistically portrays an enchanted — or disenchanted — garden of American leftists in Queens.

Status: Nope. I loved Motherless Brooklyn, though. How does this book compare?

DOCTOR SLEEP. By Stephen King. (Scribner, $30.) Now grown up, Danny, the boy with psycho-intuitive powers in “The Shining,” helps another threatened magic child in a novel that shares the virtues of King’s best work.

Status: Own, haven’t read. I can’t recall the last Stephen King novel I read, actually. Needful Things pops up in my mind but that was long ago now.

I have this one and Joyland, as far as his current stuff. When I was in junior high/high school I was enamored of him and have read and seen the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep‘s predecessor, The Shining. I’ve also been to Bangor twice and have some decent photos of his house. NICE. Irrelevant but nice. I wonder if he’s eaten at the Chili’s there? ‘Cause guess what? I have!

DUPLEX. By Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, $24.) A schoolteacher takes an unusual lover in this astonishing, double-hinged novel set in a fantastical suburbia.

Status: Nope and holy wow, this woman’s written a crap ton of books. Most have a pretty low Amazon average, not that I should let that deter me on its own. Hell sounds promising:

 

This demanding and rewarding third novel by the author of Labrador (Farrar, 1990) and The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (LJ 6/1/93) will delight all serious readers. Its sensuous prose and vivid rendering of the minutiae of everyday life propel the reader through three haunting tales woven together. They are the stories of two parents and two daughters in 1950s Philadelphia, a dollhouse whose inhabitants are not quite lifeless, and Edwina Moss, a 19th-century chatelaine of domesticity. The Philadelphia family’s story is narrated by the elder daughter, who, infatuated with literature, peppers her narrative with sly allusions to Wuthering Heights (shutters banging, wind sweeping across the moors) and A Girl of the Limberlost. Strained marriages, details of housekeeping, anorexic daughters (both human and not), and the mysterious conflation of two paintings of Heaven and of Hell combine to demand rereading. For all collections of literary fiction.?Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll., Bronxville, N.Y.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

 

But Duplex, I don’t know.

THE END OF THE POINT. By Elizabeth Graver. (Harper, $25.99.) A summer-house on the Massachusetts coast both shelters and isolates the wealthy family in Graver’s eloquent multigenerational novel.

Status: Nope and I’m not big on the “multigenerational” novel, which I associate with chick lit, for better or worse.

THE FLAMETHROWERS. By Rachel Kushner. (Scribner, $26.99.) In Kushner’s frequently dazzling second novel, an impressionable artist navigates the volatile worlds of New York and Rome in the 1970s.

Status: Own on Kindle, haven’t read. My confidence as far as how much I’ll like it isn’t terribly high but I have it, so I’ll get to it eventually.

THE GOLDFINCH. By Donna Tartt. (Little, Brown, $30.) The “Goldfinch” of the title of Tartt’s smartly written Dickensian novel is a painting smuggled through the early years of a boy’s life — his prize, his guilt and his burden.

Status: Own, haven’t read. They had me at Donna Tartt.

THE GOOD LORD BIRD. By James McBride. (Riverhead, $27.95.) McBride’s romp of a novel, the 2013 National Book Award winner, is narrated by a freed slave boy who passes as a girl. It’s a risky portrait of the radical abolitionist John Brown in which irreverence becomes a new form of ­homage.

Status: Own, haven’t read – NEED TO IMMEDIATELY, if not sooner.

A GUIDE TO BEING BORN: Stories. By Ramona Ausubel. (Riverhead, $26.95.) Ausubel’s fantastical collection traces a cycle of transformation: from love to conception to gestation to birth.

Status: Who? Nope and short stories. This description doesn’t grab me, either, even if it weren’t short stories.

HALF THE KINGDOM. By Lore Segal. (Melville House, $23.95.) In Segal’s darkly comic novel, dementia becomes contagious at a Manhattan hospital.

Status: Who? Nope but what a premise! It’s pretty new. Published in October. This may be how it snuck in under my radar. But then, the praise she got for this book, the fact she’s been called someone who “could write the Great American Novel” makes me gag. That’s what you call a load of crap. She’s barely written anything. A couple books. Three, including what seems to be a nonfiction piece on the novella. Overblown and over-hyped.

I WANT TO SHOW YOU MORE: Stories. By Jamie Quatro. (Grove, $24.) Quatro’s strange, thrilling and disarmingly honest first collection draws from a pool of resonant themes (Christianity, marital infidelity, cancer, running) in agile ­recombinations.

Status: Who? Nope and short stories. And unappealing themes.

THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS. By Andrew Sean Greer. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99.) A distraught woman inhabits different selves across the 20th century in Greer’s elegiac novel.

Status: Yes! We have a yes! It was okay… I question if it was really best of 2013 caliber. The plot was too smooth, the time travel too easy. Everything conspired too conveniently.

THE INFATUATIONS. By Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. (Knopf, $26.95.) Amid a proliferation of alternative perspectives, Marías’s novel explores its female narrator’s relationship with the widow and the best friend of a murdered man.

Status: Nope but it’s a definite maybe.

THE INTERESTINGS. By Meg Wolitzer. (Riverhead, $27.95.) Wolitzer’s enveloping novel offers a fresh take on the theme of self-invention, with a heroine who asks herself whether the ambitious men and women in her circle have inaccurately defined success.

Status: Nope but this description’s a bit dull.

LIFE AFTER LIFE. By Kate Atkinson. (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $27.99.) Atkinson’s heroine, born in 1910, keeps dying and dying again, as she experiences the alternate courses her destiny might have taken.

Status: Yes! Another yes! And it was masterful. Masterful!

LOCAL SOULS: Novellas. By Allan Gurganus. (Liveright, $25.95.) This triptych, set in Gurganus’s familiar Falls, N.C., showcases the increasing universality of his imaginative powers.

Status: Own, though it’s short stories, because it’s Gurganus. But haven’t read. Of course.

LONGBOURN. By Jo Baker. (Knopf, $25.95.) Baker’s charming novel offers an affecting look at the world of “Pride and Prejudice” from the point of view of the Bennets’ servants’ hall.

Status: Nope and I hate spin-offs from classic novels. H A T E.

LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH. By David Rakoff. (Doubleday, $26.95.) Rakoff completed his novel-in-couplets, whose characters live the title’s verbs, just before his death in 2012.

Status: Nope but how intriguing.  And sad.

THE LOWLAND. By Jhumpa Lahiri. (Knopf, $27.95.) After his radical brother is killed, an Indian scientist brings his widow to join him in America in Lahiri’s efficiently written novel.

Status: Own, haven’t read. MUST.

THE LUMINARIES. By Eleanor Catton. (Little, Brown, $27.) In her Booker Prize winner, a love story and mystery set in New Zealand, Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, while creating something utterly new for the 21st.

Status: Read via NetGalley free ebook. Read! Baffling, so it must be genius.

MADDADDAM. By Margaret Atwood. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.95.) The survivors of “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” await a final showdown, in a trilogy’s concluding entry.

Status: Nope but I haven’t read the first two in the trilogy, so I don’t know when or if I’ll get to it.

A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT. By Alexander Maksik. (Knopf, $24.95.) Maksik’s forceful novel illuminates the life of a Liberian woman who flees her troubled past to seek refuge on an Aegean island.

Status: Who? I first read the description as “Librarian” woman. What a letdown.

METAPHYSICAL DOG. By Frank Bidart. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) To immerse oneself in these poems is to enter a crowd of unusual characters: artistic geniuses, violent misfits, dramatic self-accusers (including the poet himself).

Status: POETRY, so nope.

OUR ANDROMEDA. By Brenda Shaughnessy. (Copper Canyon, paper, $16.) In these emotionally charged and gorgeously constructed poems, Shaughnessy imagines a world without a child’s pain.

Status: POETRY, so nope.

SCHRODER. By Amity Gaige. (Twelve, $21.99.) In Gaige’s scenic novel, a man with a long-established false identity goes on the run with his 6-year-old daughter.

Status: Who?

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. By Elizabeth Gilbert. (Viking, $28.95.) In this winning novel by the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” a botanist’s hunger for explanations carries her through the better part of Darwin’s century, and to Tahiti.

Status: Own, haven’t read. I’m not highly confident about it, so I’m not sure why I bought it, but I did, so it’s moot.

SOMEONE. By Alice McDermott. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Through scattered recollections, this novel sifts the significance of an ordinary life.

Status: Own, haven’t read. Charming Billy was okay. I didn’t get all the hoopla.

THE SON. By Philipp Meyer. (Ecco/Harper­Collins, $27.99.) Members of a Texas clan grope their way from the ordeals of the frontier to celebrity culture’s absurdities in this masterly multigenerational saga.

Status: Nope but I’ve read good things about it. Again, though, “multigenerational” isn’t my favorite theme.

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING. By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Translated by Anne McLean. (Riverhead, $27.95.) This gripping Colombian novel, built on the country’s tragic history with the drug trade, meditates on love, fate and death.

Status: Nope and the drug trade isn’t a draw for me. I’ve read enough in the headlines, thanks.

SUBMERGENCE. By J. M. Ledgard. (Coffee House, paper, $15.95.) This hard-edged, well-written novel involves a terrorist hostage-taking and a perilous deep-sea dive.

Status: Nope and it sounds too action adventure for me. Terrorist, hostage and deep-sea dive have no interest for me.

SUBTLE BODIES. By Norman Rush. (Knopf, $26.95.) Amid dark humor both mournful and absurd, former classmates converge on the hilltop estate of a friend who has died in a freak accident.

Status: Nope but it’s on my radar. I read an article about the writing of this book, how Rush promised his wife it would be a short, sweet project and it turned out to be anything but. I’ve read nothing by Norman Rush. Should I start with this one? Something else?

TENTH OF DECEMBER: Stories. By George Saunders. (Random House, $26.) Saunders’s relentless humor and beatific generosity of spirit keep his highly moral tales from succumbing to life’s darker aspects.

Status: Own – review copy of finished hardback – and have partially read, though, okay, short stories… If I can’t break my rules, who can.

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. By Ayana Mathis. (Knopf, $24.95.) Mathis’s deeply felt first novel works at the rough edges of history, within a brutal and poetic allegory of a black family beset by tribulations after the Great Migration to the North.

Status: Own – publisher sent me the paperback. But no, haven’t read it. It attracted Oprah’s attention, which kind of turns me off.

THE TWO HOTEL FRANCFORTS. By David Leavitt. (Bloomsbury, $25.) In Leavitt’s atmospheric novel of 1940 Lisbon, as two couples await passage to New York, the husbands embark on an affair.

Status: Nope but intriguing…

THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT. By Amy Tan. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99.) This wrenching novel by the author of “The Joy Luck Club” follows mother and daughter courtesans over four decades.

Status: Nope and nope. Not really an Amy Tan fan.

WANT NOT. By Jonathan Miles. (Houghton Miff­lin Harcourt, $26.) Linking disparate characters and story threads, Miles’s novel explores varieties of waste and decay in a consumer world.

Status: Who? And the interest isn’t there.

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES. By Karen Joy Fowler. (Marian Wood/Putnam, $26.95.) This surreptitiously smart novel’s big reveal slyly recalls a tabloid headline: “Girl and Chimp Twinned at Birth in Psychological ­Experiment.”

Status: Nope. I don’t associate Fowler’s name with literary fiction. I’m not actually sure if I’ve read anything by her before ??? Don’t think so.

WE NEED NEW NAMES. By NoViolet Bulawayo. (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $25.) A Zimbabwean moves to Detroit in Bulawayo’s striking first novel.

Status: Nope but I need to.

WOKE UP LONELY. By Fiona Maazel. (Graywolf, $26.) Maazel’s restlessly antic novel examines the concurrent urges for solitude and intimacy.

Status: Nope and I’m not sure how I feel about the description “restlessly antic.” Could be really good or really bad. When in doubt, I often believe the latter.

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS. By Claire Messud. (Knopf, $25.95.) Messud’s ingenious, disquieting novel of outsize conflicts tells the story of a thwarted artist who finds herself bewitched by a boy and his parents.

Status: Nope but I like the sound of it. “Disquieting” is good, also “thwarted artist” and “bewitched.” Have I read Claire Messud?

Yes, I sometimes let short blurbs determine my level of interest, when I know nothing else about the book. There’s a lot riding on those few words. On the title and cover art, too. I’ve been drawn to buy/read books for all these reasons so, so many times.

What do I find interesting for the fact the NYT excluded it from their list? Why, I’m glad you asked. I’ll think about it and poke about a bit. I’ve only just begun reviewing 2013 in writing trends, books and authors. So much to do… So much to do…

For now, I’m going to go read. If you have thoughts on any of the books above, I’d sure love to hear them.

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