“Best books” lists are a perennial inducer of anxiety. So this isn’t quite that; rather, a short tour of impressions from a year of reading — haphazard, sometimes misguided, always pleasurable.
Starting with fiction, I’m perhaps ashamed to discover, while tallying, that I read mostly the Great White Males. I both enjoyed and was frustrated by the firestorm now typical of the publication of a new Jonathan Franzen novel — for better or worse, Franzen has become the locus for a debate over all the inequities of the publishing industry, while his work is autopsied by those hoping to prove he’s the misogynist they, strangely, seem to want him to be. The actual book (Purity, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won me over with the vomitously tense novella at its center — the Tom Aberant section, if you’ve read it — in which our hero’s masochistic relationship with a neurotic feminist heiress is played out in gruelling detail. It’s an abject, despairing piece of writing — and no doubt at least partly a playful provocation of the author’s critics.
I also enjoyed Peter Buwalda’s rather nasty Bonita Avenue (Hogarth; review), and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Knopf Doubleday), a “corporate anthropology” romp packed with failed parachutes and data-anxiety. Tom Cooper’s debut novel, The Marauders (Crown; review), a thriller set in the swamps of Louisiana, was a real firecracker, too: bursting with invention and zipping by in a haze of weed and ultraviolence. At the end of the year, I was pretty enchanted by Heather O’Neill’s new collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels (FSG; review), a darkly comic waltz across the line between dream and “reality”. O’Neill was also a hilarious guest at November’s Seriously Entertaining (video) and an imaginative and candid interviewee when I spoke to her for the Literary Hub.
It was an outstanding year for nonfiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blistering Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), which is on pretty much all the year-end lists, was the obvious highlight: timely, elegant, and utterly persuasive. Emma Sky’s courageous The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (PublicAffairs; review) also seems like essential reading, as air strikes continue to hammer Syria. Sky was a brilliant speaker at September’s Seriously Entertaining (video), by turns deadly serious and slyly humorous (“I found out the Iraqis took me seriously when insurgents tried to assassinate me in the first week…”). Also in current affairs, Barney Frank’s witty, humble memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (FSG; review), came at just the right time for the Supreme Court’s overdue ruling on same-sex marriage in June.
Our Seriously Entertaining series introduced me (and hundreds of our guests) to many brilliant new books. This year, Steven Pinker’s sharply witty writing manual The Sense of Style (Viking; review) was an absolute joy, and he was fantastic value at our June show. The same night, we saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Knopf Doubleday; review) was valuable both as an account of ancient Greek history and a work of speculative fiction imagining a Plato for the modern era. If you fancy a double bill, Susanna Moore’s engrossing, sensitively written history Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i (FSG; review) goes very well with Simon Winchester’s latest epic, Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers (HarperCollins); funny, authoritative, engrossing — a definite highlight for me.
We saw a number of fabulous poets at SpeakEasy this year. My favorites were probably Amber Tamblyn, whose Dark Sparkler (Harper Perennial; review) took aim at the rotten heart of Hollywood (and was a contender for best-designed book of the year); Rowan Ricardo Phillips, whose Heaven (FSG; review) was a just nominee for the National Book Award; and Edward Hirsch, whose eulogy for his late son, Gabriel (Knopf Doubleday; review), was a truly devastating piece of work.
Two of the more disturbing books I read covered the darkest corners of human experience. I pretty much never cry when reading, but Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (FSG) was heart-stopping. It’s a long book but gruesomely compelling, adopting a sort of “banality of evil” approach to its enigmatic subject. We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s (PublicAffairs) was also horribly gripping. Richard Beck’s analysis of the ritual-abuse epidemic that swept the US in the ’80s, resulting in numerous likely-wrongful convictions, is clear-eyed and psychologically astute.
Miscellaneously, I was a huge fan of Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion (FSG; review), in which the author’s anthropological interest in everything from dating to death generates a collection of brilliant essays debunking the master narratives that seek, insidiously, to govern our lives; Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita (Bloomsbury), by Robert Roper, which tells the story of Vladimir’s twenty-year sanctuary in the States with a fabulous (Nabokovian?) eye for detail; and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules (Melville House), whose marvellous subtitle — On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy — only hints at the pleasures to be found within, including a withering takedown of The Dark Knight Rises and an ode to the German postal service in the nineteenth century, all told in a propulsive, intellectually cavalier style that kept me thoroughly entertained through its brisk two hundred pages.
Happy holiday reading, all. See you next year.