Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Year's Best List

Just in time for the New Year - er, maybe not - my quickie list of the best stuff that I read, saw, and ate in 2013!

Best Books - Fiction

1. George Saunders, Tenth of December: Stories

This book blew me away. Click here for a review. I'm late to Saunders and will look into reading his earlier story collections.

2. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

As soon as I finished this incantatory and mysterious novel, I turned to the first page and read it again. I see that I'm not alone.

3. Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (three novellas)

This was my first time reading Gurganus. His prose style in this book is unusual and initially challenging. I stuck with it, and I was glad I did. I think I'll seek out some of his earlier novels now.

For the New York Times review of Local Souls, click here. I also enjoyed reading this interview.

4. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

An old book, but I read it in 2013. Click here for the contemporaneous New York Times review.

Honorable mention: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch.

Donna Tartt writes good old-fashioned plotted novels. I've read all three of her books, and I heartily recommend all of them.

The Goldfinch takes its title from a beautiful 1654 Dutch painting. The novel alludes frequently to Dickens, and the plotting and characterization in The Goldfinch are worthy of that great master. As in all her writing, Tartt's poetic litanies of description are masterful and lovely, if somehow also mannered (though it feels unfair to say that). And some of her narrative strategies gave the work an uneven feel.

By the way, it was quite a pleasure to see this painting in person recently--more about that further below!

Click here for Stephen King's review of The Goldfinch in the New York Times.

I also can't help noting Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In, the latest installment in Penny's Inspector Gamache series of mysteries. I began reading the popular series right when it came out, and I really enjoyed the books. At some point in the series, I sensed Penny was trying to reach for more with her prose style. It didn't work. So I left the series aside, until I saw good reviews for How the Light Gets In. The book is a triumph in the genre and an absorbing novel altogether.

I don't think the book would be as good for people new to the series, so if you don't know the Inspector Gamache novels, here is the list in order:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold (same book, different title)
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone (same book, different title)
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick of the Light
The Beautiful Mystery
How the Light Gets In.

Best Books - Nonfiction

1. Galileo, Selected Writings, new translations by William R. Shea and Mark Davie

I was already familiar with Galileo's scientific contributions before reading this book. However, most of what I'd known had come from pale textbook summaries or other secondary sources. This new translation was a fascinating introduction to the words and thoughts of the great scientist himself.

The selections cover a variety of topics, including key moments from Galileo's scientific writings as well as a rather terrifying set of primary documents from his trial at the hands of the Inquisition.

In addition to seeing a great physicist at work, one sees immediately Galileo's impressive skills as a writer and rhetorician. Those skills, along with his noble birth and his masterful political networking, undoubtedly saved his life.

There's a lot more to say about this book (my copy is drowning in marginalia!), but I'll move on.

2. Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

A complex book that includes, among its three parts, a wrenchingly calm account of Barnes's grief at the loss of his wife. Click here for a review.

3. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

I guess I'd always known, in a general way, that L. Ron Hubbard was a nutball. But wow--I had no idea. Wright's book is so dense and so closely researched that it sometimes reads like a history dissertation. But it's a page-turner anyway. You keep shaking your head and thinking, "Surely these people can't get any more crazy, can they?" And then you turn the page, and guess what--they can.

4. Sebastiao Salgado, Genesis

A stunning album from this Brazilian photographer. As beautiful as the landscapes are the portraits of people from undeveloped lands. My kids like to leaf through this book at bedtime with me.

Biggest disappointment: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Greenblatt's Will in the World, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2005, was an innovative look at Shakespeare the man. A few years later, The Swerve won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, and it was certainly a fine book--especially in its delicious first part, which skillfully narrates Poggio Braccolini's 1417 rediscovery of Lucretius's ancient Roman poem De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things"). But after a strong first half, the book becomes superficial.

I picked up the book after finishing the Galileo, because I'd seen the influence of Lucretius in Galileo's writings. So I think I just had an unrealistic expectation that the book would explicate the scientific dimensions of the topic in greater depth.

Best Short Story

1. Just about any story in George Saunders's collection Tenth of December (see above). I particularly remember "My Chivalric Fiasco" as a hilarious tour de force of prose technique. And of course there's "The Semplica Girl Diaries," probably the best short story of the year by most accounts.

2. Jennifer Egan, "Black Box"

A stunning accomplishment. A haunting piece of science fiction told in the form of excerpts from a training manual and mission log. This story first appeared in the New Yorker, and it is somehow possible to read it online here. The story also appears in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013.

3. Alice Munro, "Train"

There is a plot point that I still don't quite understand, but I'll be thinking about this story for a while. I read it in Best American Short Stories 2013 (a weak volume overall). You can also read the story online here.

4. Jim Shepard, "The World to Come"

Buy it here or read it in Best American Short Stories 2013.

Best Essay

I didn't read or remember very many essays this year, but I really enjoyed these:

1. Davy Rothbart, "Human Snowball"

This wondrous reminiscence took me right back to my own former days of picaresque Rust-Belt adventures by Greyhound and other means. To get the story, buy this back-issue of Paris Review, or buy The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013.

2. David Foster Wallace, "Federer Both Flesh and Not"

This is a great piece of sports writing from a great writer and sports fan. I first read it years ago, and then again this year when I bought the collection Both Flesh and Not: Essays. Also good in this collection is another tennis essay, "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open." There are some good usage notes in "Twenty-Four Word Notes." (I see I'm not the only person who cringes at the word utilize.)

You can read "Federer Both Flesh and Not" online here, under the original title, "Roger Federer as Religous Experience."

Best Films

I don't get to the movies very often, but from the sidelines 2013 seemed like a great year for films. There are a dozen I'd like to see someday. Of the few films I did see, in theaters or at home, the three best were:

Blue is the Warmest Color
All about Eve
Sunset Boulevard

Best Play

No award in this category. I saw a couple of plays this year, but both of them were just B/B+.

Best Meal in an Airport

Sadly, I have a large database on this question. I think the best airport meal I had in 2013 was my dinner at Chelsea's Kitchen in PHX, because I got to meet up with my sister and her husband there before my flight. For dinner I had a very passable piece of salmon and a nice local white wine, from a winery with the amusing name Arizona Stronghold.

The improvement in airport food over the last year or two--even as the experience of flying itself grows ever more miserable--was a widely reported trend this year (see here for example).

Best Meal

In the city of Las Vegas, hidden away in a decrepit strip mall far from the neon lights, there is one of the best Thai restaurants in the United States: Lotus of Siam. Click here for an article on the restaurant from Saveur magazine. Easily the best meal I had in 2013.


Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis at the Frick Collection.

There are still 14 days left to see this show. If you have any sick days at work, drop everything and fly to New York and see it. It's that incredible, and not just because of Girl with a Pearl Earring (though she is enough), but also because of the Rembrandts and other paintings on loan, including Fabritius's The Goldfinch.

Link to the show here. My advice: go on a weekday, buy a timed ticket, and/or buy a membership to the Frick--all will help you to avoid the long line that I had to wait in by doing none of these things.


jilly said...

You forgot a literary genre :)

JasonZimba said...

Oof! I sure did. :-)

I guess it slipped my mind because mostly I spend time rereading old poems, in order to understand them better. But I'm eager to read my friend's new book of poems Speculative Music.

In any case, you're the expert on poetry, Jilly - what poetry would make your own year's best list?

jilly said...

I have not read much, unfortunately but I picked up the 2013 Nba poetry winner & will start that soon. I read Don Gordon's collected who I really love!/20585803
I will check out your friend's book