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 . . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .