January 6, 2014

The Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best

It's the end of another year, which means it's time for CCLaP's seventh annual Year In Books special week-long report, in which we look back at all the books we read in 2013 and bring 40 or 50 of them to your attention one more time. CCLaP managed to review 140 books in 2013, on par with the usual 125 to 150 we normally get through in any given year, but this time with a big new twist; I myself only reviewed a handful of these titles, the rest covered by our brand-new full-time review staff (including Karl Wolff out of Minnesota, Madeleine Maccar in New Jersey, and fellow Chicagoan Travis Fortney). That means that each of these critics will be doing their own best-of list throughout this week, pooled from only the books they themselves reviewed, while I'll be recusing myself from such a list this year because I got so few books actually read in 2013. (Instead, on my day we'll be running our first new photography feature of 2014.) Then for today, each of us picked our top three reading experiences of 2013, and the combined list of twelve titles officially makes up our "Best of the Best" list for last year. I hope you'll have a chance to come back all week and check out each critic's individual list; but in the meanwhile, here is what we as a staff have determined to be the twelve "best" books of 2013.

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Cannonball, by Joseph McElroy. I finally got around to feasting on not one but two Joseph McElroy novels in 2013, devouring his debut effort, A Smuggler's Bible, and Cannonball, his most recent offering, just months apart, which made for one of the most satisfying introductions to a writer I could have ever hoped for. While I enjoyed Cannonball as I was losing myself in McElroy's beautiful words and complex storytelling, it's one of those reads that truly gets better as it ferments in the memory. Its rich symbolism, effortless upheaval of standard avenues of thought, and hazy recall all combine to force the reader into considering the nature of truth and reconsidering long-held beliefs that may benefit from a harsh reexamination. It is complicated, it is unflinchingly honest to the point of wanting to look away, but most of all, it is rewarding and thought-provoking. (MM)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Capital, by John Lanchester. John Lanchester focuses on the residents of a street in London to weave a tapestry of lives affected by the Great Recession. Characters include an absent-minded merchant banker and his shopaholic wife, a Polish immigrant, a Senegalese soccer prodigy, and a Banksy-type artist. Regardless of social station or personal behavior, Lanchester finds the human center of the characters, creating believable and sympathetic inhabitants of London. A wonderful modern update of the sprawling 19th-century realistic novel. (KW)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, by Diana Wagman. Blood and guts, animal cruelty and explicit sexuality abound in this gripping suspense novel. What makes this one stand out from the pack is the expert use of craft--in lesser hands, this would have been little more than a mildly amusing diversion, but the book Ms. Wegman has created ends up being a madcap, bizarro train-wreck that's impossible to turn away from. (TF)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Fight Song, by Joshua Mohr. There's a growing amount of writers out there now who are superb at turning in quirky comedies with high literary quality, including Michael Chabon, Tom Perrotta and Karen Russell; and now you can add Joshua Mohr to this list, who after two previous books of a decidedly darker bent has turned in this still weighty yet more light-hearted comedy about a dysfunctional family and the patriarch who's having a slow mental breakdown in the middle of it. Whether taking on professional magicians, KISS cover bands, or prostitution rings run out of the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant in the middle of the night, Mohr vaults himself out of the small-press mob and into the smaller circle of national A-list writers with this melancholy but charming winner. (JP)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. This is one of those books that made me fall in love with reading all over again. At nearly 800 pages, it does demand a considerable investment of time but the payoff is oceans beyond the effort exerted, especially considering that The Goldfinch is obviously imbued with a special sort of magic that makes hundreds of pages fly by in a dizzy, awestruck whirl of that unique conflict between not wanting to stop reading and not wanting to reach the story's end. Donna Tartt takes her young protagonist and positions him in the middle of a museum explosion, kills both his parents, subjects him to the pains of unrequited love, flings him across the country twice, unceremoniously dumps him in a foreign country, and saddles him with a drug problem--and softens each blow with achingly gorgeous prose, winsome wisdom and detail so polished it seems effortless, all with the constant but never intrusive reminder that art's immortality and connectivity can save us all, no matter how damned we believe ourselves to be. (MM)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
A Guide for the Perplexed, by Dara Horn. Set in a modern Egypt intoxicated with the first flush of the Arab Spring, Dara Horn creates a narrative that is filled in equal measure with intellectual vigor and political intrigue. A Guide for the Perplexed takes as inspiration the similarly named book by medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. At first, the narrative seems like a thriller, something akin to The Da Vinci Code, but blooms into something much more complex and beautiful. And like nested Russian dolls, the novel takes the reader from modern Egypt to Victorian Egypt to the medieval Egypt of Maimonides. Memory, technology, sibling rivalry, the Egyptian Jewish community, and the evils of personal hubris come together in a mesmerizing novel. (KW)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Mira Corpora, by Jeff Jackson. This debut novel features a great mix of breakneck pacing, inventive storytelling, memorable scenes, and unforgettable images. Its disturbing, violent, hyper-sexual, drug-fueled, touching and based on a "true story", though just how true is up in the air. The reason this one makes the list is that it's one of the most original books I read in 2013, but never at the expense of pure entertainment. (TF)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Out of Print, by George Brock. After reading and hearing endless invectives lobbed at the current state of media, there was something refreshing about the educated optimism George Brock employed in his thorough examination of how journalism's past and present hold the key to ensuring its continued survival, as arriving at any viable future is wholly dependent upon accepting that the industry needs to maintain its flexibility as well as its credibility. Out of Print is packed with an array of information ranging from historical evidence to current media models that have shrugged off old conventions to embrace a modern infrastructure, offers explanations without giving into the temptation of condescension, and remains optimistic without getting bogged down in rosy, revised nostalgia. It is, quite simply, required reading for anyone interested in media studies, or anyone who just wants to be adequately informed about the state of journalism to better understand what it's up against these days. (MM)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Seed, by Rob Ziegler. As a growing amount of novels have recently shown us, the '80s science-fiction subgenre "cyberpunk" is not dead at all, but in fact can be easily adapted to fit the underground culture of our present day, while still delivering on its original promise of noir stories about the ways utopian high-tech gets corrupted and modded when finally making it down to the proletarian street level. Take this exciting thriller, for example, which tells a fascinating story about the genetic engineering of crops in a post-famine future, and how city-sized artificial intelligences work with grungy Mexican punk-rockers to provide the kind of blight-resistent seeds needed to keep the human race ticking along its haggard way. Face-paced but full of big ideeas, it's not the best sci-fi actioner of the year nor the most thought-provoking, but certainly one of the best novels of 2013 to combine both. (JP)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle. With the recent passing of a true American literary legend, the genre-stretching speculative author Ray Bradbury, it was a perfect time for this all-star tribute to come out, ironically started while Bradbury was still alive but only published after his death. And while it would've been easy for this collection of equally famous contributors to have phoned in their individual entries, instead these writers really dug down and came up with pieces truly honoring the complex, hard-to-define style of Bradbury himself, which says much about what high esteem he is held by the generations of American authors who have come after him. Strong, tight, and thrilling throughout, this is one of the best anthologies I've read in years. (JP)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, by Ivan G. Goldman. Ivan G. Goldman stares into the abyss of modern jurisprudence. From emboldened prosecutors to a corrupt California prison guard lobby to the for-profit prison industry and the Machiavellian designs of ALEC, Goldman's swath is wide and far-ranging. All the more remarkable is his ability to take all this material and boil it down to a succinct single volume. He fills Sick Justice with literary flair, investigative deep journalism, and heartbreaking human tragedy. Goldman has resurrected the fine art of American muckraking. (KW)

CCLaP's Year In Books 2013: Best of the Best
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. This one wasn't published in 2013, but it's the best book I read this year, so I had to put it on this list. The bottom line is that in this case the hype was well-justified. It turns out that the old "horrors of war" story never gets old. What this book got right was even more starkly evident because it happened to be published within just a few months of several other novels that seemed to be attempting to put a "new spin" on the war novel. (TF)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:17 PM, January 6, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Madeleine Maccar | Reviews | Travis Fortney |