I confess that as a relapsed academic and aspiring essayist, I have a propensity for reading a lot of non-fiction. I find I have to force myself to pick up a novel or browse through the fiction section, but 2013 had some incredible books in that category, like Dave Eggers’The Circle, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.
Yet my list of 2013 favorites below, with only one fiction title, sum up my incorrigible appetite for true stories and critical analyses. I’m a biography and poli-sci dork, but I think the books included here, in alphabetical order by title, are among the best of 2013 in terms of memorably powerful writing.
This is the best biography on an American artist to come out this year, and perhaps the best in the last ten years. The art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon gives us a new look at the artist and illustrator we thought we knew so well. Underneath his meticulously rendered, breezy images of Americana there was man plagued by insecurities and gnawing self-doubt. In giving us a glimpse of Norman Rockwell, Solomon takes us into the American id, in that transition from the America of Teddy Roosevelt to the America of Lyndon Johnson. She provides brilliant backstories on some of the great paintings, like The Gossips (1948) and The Golden Rule (1963). This is a must-read for lovers of American art and history.
Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary Bass
The account of the US government’s support of Pakistan during the 1971 civil war between East and West Pakistan, Blood Telegram is a gripping, powerful story of systematic injustice enacted in the highest levels of power. Princeton professor and historian Gary Bass has resurrected a moment of ’70s-era Cold War politics that often gets swept under the rug in terms of what the world chooses to remember from the late 20th century — the genocide in Bangladesh. Through meticulous archival research and mining through newly released recordings of Nixon and Kissinger in conversation (after listening to Nixon, you realize the media depictions of him barely capture the real complexity and creepiness of the man), Bass pieces together the account of American foreign policy dictated more by paranoia and pettiness than by the informed need for measured responses and negotiation. Over 300,000 Bangladeshis were killed by the Pakistani army and Bangladeshi collaborators, while ten million were forced to flee from their homes. Thanks to Bass’s commitment to truth, no matter how late it may be revealed, this important story will be heard again in a new way.
The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China by Wen Zhu, translated by Julia Lovell
This is a hilarious, touchingly candid look at modern urban China in all its highs and lows. Reading Julia Lovell’s wonderful translation, I still wished that I could read Wen’s stories in Mandarin, unmediated and bracingly direct in their humor and honesty. Among the eight stories here we see disaffected graduate students, struggling engineers, and down-and-out would-be writers struggling to get by within the rigid framework of China’s economy. Wen is a skilled narrator and can veer easily from a detached, ironic tone to one that’s lyrical and riveting: “The Nanjing summer has a talent for making you feel like an internal organ — hot, sticky, visceral, the blood pulsing through you — trapped inside the crowded, overheated body of the city.” This collection of stories has flown under the radar thus far, but hopefully not for long. It’s clever, sharp, and full of the fleeting joys and mysteries of life that few writers seem to be able to capture anymore. And what’s more, it takes us closer into that enigmatic riotous world of contemporary China.
The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia
A beautifully-staged, luscious book on the food and culture of Iran with recipes adapted to today’s hectic pace. Louisa Shafia is to Persian food what Rick Bayless is to Mexican; she takes the enticing, fascinating foods of a particular country and makes them come alive for a diverse audience in a refreshingly hip and accessible way. What may at first seem delectable but distancing, like dense pulaos or juicy, dripping kebabs, becomes re-appropriated into sleek, streamlined dishes. Glittering pomegranates and succulent vibrant citruses abound in the beautiful layouts, along with the rich variety of foods that are important to Iranians but often neglected in the eyes of bystanders, e.g., fresh herbs, nuts, dried fruits, spices. Shafia also shares some of her own stories about her parents and the dishes they loved that have influenced her in her work towards educating more people about Persian culture and history. If you’re going to buy one gorgeous cookbook this year, The New Persian Kitchenshould be it.
Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum by Stephen P. Cohen
When Stephen Cohen, an éminence grise of the South Asia division of The Brookings Institution, comes out with a new book, the foreign policy pundits and poli-sci student groupies usually clamber to get a copy and analyze it and pick it apart for all its juicy insights. And juicy they are. Few scholars and foreign policy experts can capture that complex, internecine relationship between India and Pakistan in the way that Stephen Cohen can. When I read Cohen’s other great books on Indian and Pakistani political history, like 2002’s India: An Emerging Power or 2006’s The Idea of Pakistan , I feel that I’m reading the work of our generation’s Polybius or Carl von Clausewitz. Cohen’s insight into history, motives, strategy, and the fluidity of power is singular and not-to-be-missed.
Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky
This is a one-of-a-kind inspiriting poetry anthology. Three-time United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has written a lively guide to some of his favorite poems, featuring works by Aphra Behn, Sir Walter Raleigh, Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and Sylvia Plath. The book’s title, derived from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, is a universal call to committed reading. “If you want learn singing, you must study,” Pinsky advises us. “Not just peruse or experience or dabble in or enjoy or take a course in, but study—monumental examples of magnificent singing.” With an open, encouraging tone he invites his audience to learn from these poems as well as to look for other poetry. Few anthologies, except perhaps for Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things (1998), have the same sense of clarity and joie de vivre.