[17 January 2014]
Man sitting on the Moon and reading a book image from Shutterstock.com.
The year 2013 was full of repeats in publishing. Dan Brown and Stephen King notched up another couple bestselling thrillers, there were new nonfiction entries from backlist favorites like Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris, Rick Atkinson capped off his monumental history of World War II, another self-published dystopian cycle (Hugh Howey’s Wool) became big news, and James Patterson knocked out another half-dozen books or so.
But with a few exceptions, these were not the books most likely to keep you up an extra hour or two flipping pages and fighting off sleep. Some better known writers who surprised you with what they were capable of, like Dave Eggers or George Packer, showed themselves able to generate thought-provoking science fiction and elegantly literary historical portraiture, respectively. Others, like crime novelist Jake Arnott, catapulted themselves to new levels entirely.
What 2013 proved more than anything else—besides the ability of writers to keep surprising you; who would have thought Donna Tartt had another bestseller in her?—was that taking a chance on something different (wait, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a historical ghost story… about Woodrow Wilson? Thomas Pynchon is that funny?) was going to pay off more often than not.
Herewith, in alphabetical order by title, the 15 books of 2013 that feel the most resonant to me, along with some notable mentions at the end; since denoting a mere 15 favorites is not merely enough.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
While the world kept careering towards the edge over the past couple decades, Thomas Pynchon must have been taking some great notes. This crackpot comic detective story set in 2001 New York is like a dowsing wand for the various nodal points of the jangled postmodern consumerist landscape ,where everything can be discovered but nothing comprehended. Pynchon’s heroine is a small-time Upper West Side fraud investigator with a healthy line of sarcasm, a web of connections, and a tendency to sleep with the worst guys she can possibly find. She gets wrapped up in some shady goings-on in the post-bubble Silicon Alley scene, where the “dark Internet” makes the burying and buying of secrets easier than ever.
It’s not surprising that the ever-conspiratorial Pynchon would throw in everything from the Montauk Project to MK-Ultra and a bucketful of 9/11 theories. But what stuns is how smartly attuned Pynchon’s cultural radar is for the Coen brothers-esque oddball (Russian gangsters rocking out to Nelly) and the William Gibson-like feel for how the future has become now. This is a screwball comedy for the age of terror.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
It would be easy to dismiss this flashing flare of a warning novel about a young woman who gets a dream job at a Google-ish company with world domination dreams as The Firm for the millennial generation. Eggers’ clean-chiseled voice does feel at times like that of some bestseller list-haunting thriller writer whose work is described as “pulse-pounding”. The characters tend to be skin-deep villains or mouthpieces for the author’s trepidations. But the pitch-perfect satire of the company’s blithe Silicon Valley utopian arrogance is on the nose. The stealthy totalitarian creep of the consumer opt-in online surveillance state, and the public’s eager acquiescence to it, has rarely been depicted with more plangent emotion and apocalyptic dread.
Published not long before Hugo Chavez’s death, Rory Carroll’s lacerating, colorful portrait of the effusive autocrat could stand the test of time as one of the best portraits of the comically ineffective leader who was, incredibly, once a hero to the international left. As Latin American bureau chief for The Guardian, Carroll had a front-row seat for the chaos that followed Chavez’s first election as president in 1999. His vivid reporting illustrates the myriad ways that Chavez’s media-obsessed cult of personality steadily demolished nearly every Venezuelan institution until the nation became practically a failed state. Carroll doesn’t call Chavez a dictator not just because he was popularly elected (albeit elections in which state propaganda and harassment drowned out the opposition), but because he was bad at it: “Real dictators—Trujillo Perez Jimenez, Fidel, Kim Jong Il—kept streets safe for ordinary people.”
This history of hate is electrifying in the worst way. Texas journalists Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis dug into the archives and produced a chronological accounting of how several power centers—oil magnate and Howard Hughes, nutjob H.L. Hunt, civil rights-hating General Edwin Walker, and the Eastern liberal-hating publisher of the Dallas Morning News—converged on Dallas in the early ‘60s to create a vortex of explosive right-wing rage. The litany of fury against everything deemed un-American (mink-coated Republican ladies assaulting LBJ, crosses burned on a Holocaust survivor’s lawn, pamphlets damning the Eastern establishment and fellow travelers for loving everything not white and Protestant) makes for dark but familiar reading.
The writers don’t have to draw parallels between this xenophobic, reactionary whirlwind and current political storms; an entire book could be written about the similarity of nightmares over that era’s supposed Socialist scheme (Medicare) and today’s (Affordable Care Act). How all this right-wing fury explodes in the assassination of a Democratic president by an avowed Marxist who had not long earlier been taking potshots at Gen. Walker is a mystery that the book doesn’t try to unravel. What it does show in riveting detail is how hate moves in mysterious ways.
This malicious little mousetrap of a novel was something of a sensation in Herman Koch’s Netherlands when it first came out in 2009, and it’s easy to see why. The narrator, Paul, is getting ready for a dinner with his politician brother and their wives. His running commentary is at first a John Kennedy Toole-esque litany of bitchy complaints that turn into a kind of comic symphony. Just when Koch has sucked readers into Paul’s misanthropic worldview, though, he starts pulling back the curtain on the true nature of the dinner and the horrific crime that concerns both families. It’s a neat sleight-of-hand that goes beyond mere trickery. Koch continually dares readers to sympathize with Paul while giving them all the evidence of what kind of person he truly is. This is a chillingly funny and precise portrait of a European bourgeoisie feeling hemmed in by the modern world and eager to strike back at whatever or whoever is closest at hand.
Just how Rachel Kushner’s sparkling rocket of a novel is able to jump from the desert flats of Nevada to the lofts of Manhattan to gilded Italian villas without losing its unerring sense of time and place is just one of its glorious attributes. It’s a simple thing at heart but densely packed: Girl from Reno (nicknamed Reno) has a thing for motorcycles and defying expectations, so heads to ‘70s New York just as the downtown arts scene is rumbling towards full boil and falls in love with the scion of an Italian motorcycle fiefdom; sparks of romance, creativity, and what-the-hell-am-I-doing? fly everywhere. Reno’s sense of self is tinctured with complexities without being held hostage to the whims of a plot that’s part conveniently timed melodrama but mostly sharp-focus snapshots of time and place. Kushner sends Reno out on a quest for self and finds a whole world in the process.
It wasn’t that people never knew what was behind the “Church” of Scientology. It was just that for years, the organization has been able to wage a successful campaign of intimidation against anybody who dared talk, or even worse, write about it. The dam had been showing some leaks of late, but with Lawrence Wright’s near-definitive text on Scientology’s history and methods, it’s finally been busted wide open.
Drawing on years’ worth of research and interviews with former church members, Wright vividly portrays how a prolific pulp science-fiction writer turned some demonstrably helpful self-help techniques into a quasi-religious system of cult-like beliefs ruled over by a corrupted elite willing to use violence and virtual slavery to keep its members in line and the money flowing. The group’s strategy of recruiting denizens of Hollywood to their cause makes for some of the book’s more vivid material, particularly the stories of Tom Cruise being treated as a near-God and writer Paul Haggis’s transformation from convert to apostate. It’s not an attack, just history, expertly and thrillingly told.
The House of Rumor by Jake Arnott
Jake Arnott’s breakthrough, Borges-ish thriller appears at first to be spinning one of those history-behind-the-history stories where real-life figures turn out to be much more than recorded history gives them credit for. With the same ear for nervy dialogue and cinematic scenery that graced his London crime novels like The Long Firm, Arnott weaves a tangled web that yokes in World War II espionage, Jonestown, UFOs, Ian Fleming, magicians, West Coast sci-fi writers like L. Ron Hubbard, and Aleister Crowley. The stranger elements here, particularly the many curious intersections of those in positions of power with sketchy underworld characters, are generally based on fact. The plot skitters off in a half-dozen directions at once, even though it’s nominally pegged to one of World War II’s great mysteries: Why Nazi occultist Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland in 1941 only to be made prisoner immediately. But Arnott’s masterful sense of mood and tension makes it all seemed planned and never random.
Those looking for a great moment of clarity will be disappointed, with the novel preferring to let the great weight of time wear down everyone’s utopian visions. Readers can sink deeply and satisfyingly into the addictive but ultimately unknowable story that Arnott teases “from the cloud mass of history.”
Max Boot’s byline is generally seen in conservative journals where he’s decrying this or that liberal position on foreign policy. Fortunately, he brings little of that editorializing to one of the greatest works of popular military history to hit shelves in the past few years. With a learned but broadly approachable take that calls to mind Niall Ferguson, Boot has produced a volume that’s both magisterial in reach and compulsively readable in execution.
Starting with the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and culminating with the brushfire conflicts of today, Boot shows how time and again the same lessons for how conventional forces should fight guerrillas were learned and forgotten and rediscovered as though they’d never been thought of before. Each chapter, whether on the French Algerian campaign or the Irish uprising in the early 20th century, could stand alone as a superb thumbnail history of that war. It’s a fast and furious read, knocked out with the casual erudition of a scholar who has lost the need to show off what he’s learned.
Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
Gilbert Hernandez is usually the less flashy of the Love and Rockets brothers; Jamie’s punk-rocker love stories always by definition had a little more zip to them. But in this elegant, standalone graphic novel, Gilbert provides proof that he is every bit the artist that Jamie is, with possibly even more staying power. Here he tells the story of one Mexican-American man in the Southwest over the course of a century: 100 years in 100 pages. Julio’s story—parts of which were previously published in the Palomar series—is a tragicomic one, ranging from heartbreak to terror. It’s at once overwhelming and precise, a magical-realist fable unlike just about anything else seen this year.
In this quietly shattering story, Jhumpa Lahiri manages the deft trick of standing definitively outside her characters while sketching their lives with uncommon intimacy. Subhash is the quiet older brother to charismatic Udayan, both raised by a relatively well-to-do family just outside Calcutta. While Subhash establishes a white-collar life in America, Udayan embeds himself in the fiery rhetoric of the Marxist Naxalite movement. The story that follows is circles of small tragedies and quiet epiphanies that both embrace the past and try to flee it. Lahiri’s voice is cool and exacting, like that of her professorial characters like Subhash, who finds refuge in detached New England isolation: “It was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”
“It was the kind of cloudy night,” Neil Gaiman writes in this dream-dagger of a novella, “where the clouds seem to gather up light from distant streetlights and houses below, and throw it back at the earth.” So too Gaiman bundles up the sad moments and peculiar joys of childhood into a fabulistic tale that stirs memories readers have never had. A middle-aged man suddenly remembers an incident from his youth when a man committed suicide nearby and grisly hauntings followed. Unlike many stories of children facing the fell spirits of the beyond, though, this is less about his courage than that of Lettie Hempstock, the young girl from the curious household of hippie-like women down the way who turns out to be much more than she seems. It’s a graceful love story, a slim memory epic, and a heart-pounding adventure to nightmare places no child ever wants to go, yet firmly believes exists.
Although George Packer took his sweet time to write another book—his last was 2005’s excoriation of the American invasion of Iraq, The Assassin’s Gate—it was worth the wait. A sprawling, elegiac, John Dos Passos-inspired oral history of American decline, Packer’s book tells his story via the stories of people stuck in the morass of modern America, ranging from a poor Florida family barely getting by to an Ohio factory worker to a southern entrepreneur and a Washington lobbyist. Each of them are located at different intersections in what he calls “the unwinding” of the civic structures (unions, churches, regulatory bodies) that helped level out the inequalities of a capitalist system. What Packer finds is a society left increasingly at the mercy of organized money (what he calls the “default force in American life”) and the snake-oil balms of celebrities and demagogues. It sounds grim but this is a righteously powerful book, brimming over with the sounds and textures of life in extremis.
American troops have pulled out of Iraq and look ready to (mostly) depart from Afghanistan. But those big conflicts are just a part of the worldwide war that the country has been fighting since 9/11 and, according to Mark Mazzetti’s prescient book, it looks likely to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Thankfully more reporter than polemicist, Mazzetti avoids the tendency of writers like Jeremy Scahill (whose Dirty Wars film and book covered the same subject at greater length but with much less insight) to hyperbolize on already discomfiting subjects. His swift chronology of drone campaigns and guerrilla conflicts in remote corners of Afghanistan and Yemen is tied with a capsule history of the sea change in American military strategy that followed 9/11. Although Baghdad would still fall to a massive ground assault, more and more the country would chase its hidden enemies by “using killer robots and special-operations troops… [paying] privateers to set up clandestine spying networks and [relying] on mercurial dictators, unreliable foreign intelligence services, and ragtag, proxy armies.” Mazzetti keeps his own opinions mostly under wraps, but by the end of the book his concern over the American public’s lack of concern about these endless ugly shadow wars is palpable.
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
The paradisaical lure of the Internet and its capacity for seemingly endless free goodies (research, music, communication, you name it!) is one of those mythic bubbles that computer scientist Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) is eager to pop in this manifesto for a deluded age. He’s deeply concerned that the allure of free or cheap has blinded everyone to the hidden costs of overconcentration of power in the hands of a few digital oligarchies. He calls these companies “siren servers”, for their ability to generate massive revenues by manipulating networks, whether it’s a better search algorithm or a way to analyze and sell stocks a micro-second faster. Lanier ties his distrust of the siren servers to a Paul Krugman/Robert Reich-ian economic analysis of how digital disruption has unlocked value for new industries but helped shatter the middle class in the process. One solution to a worrying overconcentration of wealth and power? Make the myriad companies earning money off our digital track marks pay for the privilege. Lanier’s writing is so sharp-sighted and impassioned, his solutions so clear and practical, that you almost don’t realize how revolutionary it all really is.
Honorable Mentions: Fiction
Honorable Mentions: Nonfiction