The Best Books We Read in 2013: Fiction Roundup

TMR’s fiction readers have a few recommendations up our sleeves—here are the best books we read in the last year.

Amy L.’s pick: The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2013)

I’ve been hyping Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle a lot this year, but as much as I love that collection, I can’t earnestly call it my “favorite.” In sort of the way that I’ll always claim The Wire as my favorite TV show when, really, I should just admit that it’s Grey’s Anatomy, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed tops my 2013 reading list. The novel is no guilty pleasure; it’s a 700-page tome narrated by an amateur historian hellbent on identifying the origins of a mysterious “curse” that plagued Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century. Oates’ third 2013 release pulls readers into alternate demon-worlds, yet still demands their engagement with the political and socioeconomic realities that shaped the early 1900s, placing historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair among its major characters. No easy read, that. But Oates’ lush, pointed prose and sharp eye for the grotesque make The Accursed one of those immersive, epic books that will keep you marathon-reading for three days (or maybe that’s just me).

Freddy’s pick: El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Harper & Row, 1968)

I read El Coronel in Spanish. It was one of Marquez’s less magic realist stories, which at first disappointed me, but I read on and did find magic in it, in secret miracles and simple statements about October—“one of the few things that arrive.” Marquez opens a window into the world of an old retired colonel who, in manic vigil, awaits his military pension, which will never arrive—but it does not matter, since waiting is a definition of his life. Marquez magically, surreptitiously penetrates our head with the feeling that El Coronel is Colombia, Latin America, humanity. He lets the beauty and miracles come out between lines that are filled with disappointment, and the human toll caused by futile, parasitic governments, and people, and heavy rain and a fighting rooster. Marquez ultimately offers what might be interpreted as hope; he lets us see the defiant, imaginative child who lives inside El Coronel, inside Marquez: a rambunctious, optimistic child named Latin America.

Joe’s pick: Dancer, Colum McCann (Picador, 2009)

Colum McCann’s Dancer chronicles the life of Rudolf Nureyev, a ballet dancer who famously defected from the Soviet Union to become one of the most celebrated performers of the twentieth century. The novel ranges from Nureyev’s impoverished childhood in the Soviet Union to his globetrotting years as a celebrity. Readers get to know the famous dancer through a multitude of perspectives that McCann assumes with such ease that at times it seems the book was composed by a consortium of writers and not just one man. By constantly shifting the lens through which the story is told, McCann artfully weaves diverse voices together to construct a narrative pulsating with the bravado of Nureyev himself.

Josh’s pick: The Runes of the Earth, Stephen R. Donaldson (Putnam, 2004)

Last summer, I received a generous donation of books from my grandmother, delivered in a box covered by a thin layer of dust. Among the books I received was Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Runes of the Earth, the seventh book in his Covenant series. The language, rich and sophisticated, told a surprisingly dark story that was compelling from start to finish—a book I couldn’t stop reading and won’t soon forget. The book includes one of my favorite scenes in fantasy, in which Joan, Covenant’s crazed ex-wife, tears at her skin until she is soothed by the touch of her former husband’s wedding band: “. . . it was precisely the reminder of guilt which calmed Joan: that Joan’s catatonia endured because she had been fundamentally defeated by the touch of white gold.” I enjoyed Donaldson’s book so much that I went out and bought the previous six books to ensure I don’t miss a single masterfully crafted scene.

Kari’s pick: Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead, 2012)

Near the end of the first story in this collection, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” which reads as a kind of hybrid of essay and story, personal and public history, artifact and invention, Watkins concedes: “Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.” And yet—thankfully—Watkins goes on for nine more stories that, while all grounded in Nevada, span from the mythic to the historical to the personal– brothels to mining camps, the Vegas strip to a falling-apart peacock farm. All of them push against Watkins’ early concession by pulling forth story from past, narrative from mystery, meaning from haunting. Battleborn, Watkins’ first collection, is definitely one of my favorite reads of 2013.

Matty’s pick: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel 

This graphic novel took Bechdel over seven years to write and illustrate. That time and effort comes through in a heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a young girl grappling with her sexuality—while also grappling with her father’s ambiguous sexuality. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read in years!

Nora’s pick: Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2013)

Taiye Selasi’s first novel begins with the death of the Sai family patriarch in Ghana, a death that sparks complex reactions among his ex-wife and four children. The very public politics of Ghana and Nigeria reverberate in the private tragedies that break up the Sai family.  Each of the characters in this novel is unique, complicated, and fascinating; each breaks boundaries of one kind or another. By showing how larger forces leave scars on individual lives, Ghana Must Go gives life to the pages of history books and newspaper headlines.

Kelly’s pick: Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Elissa Schappell’s collection of interconnected short stories contains engaging female characters grappling with challenging conflicts at various stages of life and across different generations. I loved the depth of emotion conveyed through highly accessible, entertaining prose. I could feel the loneliness, excitement, conflict, and grief of the characters. This is a great book for anyone interested in major transitions in the lives of women and the social implications of women’s struggles.

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