Monday, December 23, 2013

Top 5 books of 2013

After much deliberation, I've selected my picks for the Top 5 books of 2013:

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
James Salter, All That Is
Will Self, Umbrella
Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge


Set in the late 19th-Century in a mining town on the coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries revolves around a dead body and a missing fortune, with twelve men involved in the mystery and one out-of-towner who is pulled into the web of intrigue. Catton won the 2013 Booker Prize for the novel and should win tons more awards for it. I've read a number of books this year from the current generation of writing-school grads and found most of them to be exhausting and lacking in a unique voice. Catton spins the plot of The Luminaries through an allegory of celestial charts and cosmic revolutions and her commitment to this theme shines through beautifully in her writing. It's one of the best and most fun books I've read in ages. A more detailed review can be read here.


Where was James Salter when I was falling into the oeuvre of Philip Roth, looking for great American novelists and their related great novels? Salter's All That Is is his first novel in thirty-five years (that's probably where he's been), and in one swoop cuts through through the shenanigans of the old-world, uber-masculine great-American-males like Roth and Updike. All That Is follows Philip Bowman, a former naval officer who has worked his way up the ranks in a Manhattan publishing house. Salter doesn't have any hidden agendas or subtle incendiary themes here, he's just interested in a telling a sweeping bildungsroman of a complex character and his growth through America. This felt like a mid-century classic I'd never heard of, not of its time but lost somewhere in history. My full review can be read here.


(Umbrella was published in the UK in 2012, but released in the US early 2013). One of the most difficult books I've ever read, Will Self's Umbrella is a Joycean whirlwind through psychiatric medicine. Taking place in three timelines that actually switch between each other in midsentence, Umbrella will have you reading aloud to find temporal cluing in Self's magnificent array of voices. The book is an awe-inspiring riddle and perhaps should have won the Booker last year if the judges were given ten years to re-read the shortlist before making a selection. Not for the impatient or weak-willed, but an incredibly rewarding tome. A lengthy review can be found here.


Anne Carson writes with an elegance that I've rarely encountered in my reading. Her formal constraints and pitch-perfect voice turned a Greek myth about about a monster named Geryon into something relatable and deeply personal. I had the chance to meet her at an event at the NYPL and heard her read a lengthy addendum to Red Doc> that she wrote about a character's aimlessness after finally finishing Proust. She's an author that I'm trying to take very slowly -- her books are ones to simmer with, absorb, and re-read. A review can be read here.


Tied with The Luminaries for the top rank this year, Bleeding Edge is a stunner of a book that will resound spectacularly with readers depending on who they were in the year 2000. Me, I was a Nintendo kid in the middle of my teens, growing up essentially in tandem with technology's great advancements, but wasn't immune to the various fads and cultural manias that swept through the country. I remember dial-up internet, Geocities, Beanie Babies, the X-Files, the first signs of Pokemon, and really, to sum it all up, a world pre-Google and before the Apple-empire. Pynchon remembers all of this, almost as if the novel had been cryogenically frozen for 12 years and thawed now that we're deep into the digital frontier and political uncertainty. The book is your standard hysterical Pynchon mystery-fare, but written in a way that renders the millennium like historical fiction. Beneath the double-crossing and foul play of Bleeding Edge, it's bittersweet to see how far we've come in just over a decade.

I highly recommend each of these books. Perhaps you'll need some holiday reading during travels, or have a gift card or two to spend after Christmas. I wish you all a great holiday and New Year's and will see you next in 2014.

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