As I mentioned in an earlier post—or two—I ended up reading 111 books last year. A lot of South Korean titles—as part of my judging their biannual translation contest—and a random assortment of other things, both that Open Letter is publishing, or that I wanted to review/think might be BTBA longlist titles. I ended up reading books from 24 different languages (36 from English, 16 from Korean, 14 from Spanish, 9 from French, 8 from Portuguese) and “liked” most all of them.
Which was a bit of a problem. In contrast to 2013 music that I really liked—I have some-30 albums on my “shortlist” of things to include in that podcast—I was less overwhelmed by the 2013 books that I read. Not to say there weren’t a lot of great things that came out in 2013—Tirza for instance—just that of the 111 books, a huge portion were, for lack of a more scientific term, just “fine.”
So instead of picking favorites, I made up silly categories like I do for the music podcast, and dropped a few things in each one. Take this for what it’s worth—this is by no means a “best of” list, just a collection of some stuff that I would recommend.
And one final note—these aren’t all books published in 2013, just the ones I read during the past year and liked a lot.
Established Authors Whose Latest Books I Really Liked
The Map & The Territory by Michel Houellebecq, which I read after it made the BTBA longlist.
The Infatuations by Javier Marias, which I was wary of, but ended up really liking.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, which I had a feeling this would be awesome, but it was way more awesome than expected, especially post-Inherent Vice.
All The Spanish-Language Books:
Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza (coming soon!) was another Spanish highlight.
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov, who, along with Jacob Silverman, is the best anti-Internet guru writer out there. He’s provocative and drives all the “Digital Is the Answer to Everything!” people absolutely batshit. I approve.
Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, which is getting a ton of publicity right now. Go Jessica!
Straight Up Really Great Books:
A Time for Everything by Karl Knausgaard, which I read for our local bookclub . . . and turned out to the be only person who finished it.
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles. I read this before his event at the U of R and totally got sucked in. But when he explained more and more of the games behind this book—most of which were cut in both the French and English edition—I came to further appreciate how much of a masterpiece this is.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wieslaw Mysliwski, which is a worthy follow-up to the absolute mind-blowing Stone Upon Stone.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which should’ve made the Tournament of Books shortlist, and the NBCC Fiction Award shortlist. Also should’ve sold more copies than The Dinner, but, well, shit.
Strangest Books I Read
Leg over Leg by Faris al-Shidyaq, which defies every Arabic literature stereotype you might have.
Island of the Doomed by Stig Dagerman was another book club book, and one of the most singular, creepy, messed-up books I’ve ever read. It’s demanding and disturbed and totally worth it.
LoveStar by Andri Snaer Magnason. I have a man crush on this guy, and would love to publish his new novel, Time Box. His books are sort of sci-fi fables which heap joke upon joke, taking absurd situations that are remotely plausible and blowing them up into something hilarious and penetrating.
Favorite Book That Should Only Be Read in Print Form
S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, which hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from book people who still would rather own a physical book. With letters, postcards, photos, a code breaking device, and tons of multicolored margin notations, S. is a fascinating novel cum mystery that can never be replicated in PDF or mobi form.
Favorite Books Coming Out in early 2014
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic, which will officially come out next month. Similar in tone and humor and intelligence to Karaoke Culture, in this collection Ugresic takes aim at various inequalities and social movements, including Occupy Wall Street.
Viviane by Julia Deck, a very interesting book that flips from second person, to first person, to third person narration in building a sort of strange psychological mystery about a woman and a dead psychiatrist.
Because of the 2014 World Cup
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano, which very well may be the best book on soccer ever written.
All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Hyesoon Kim, which was my favorite Korean book of 2013.
Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, the language in which make me feel things. Like gross.
Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu. Sean Cotter could become the first back-to-back BTBA winner, what with this taking the 2013 prize, and Blinding up for the 2014 . . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .