Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Favorite Books of 2013

This is the eighth annual listing of the books I liked best in the past year, and is the only Antick Musings "tradition" that I've consistently kept up with over the life of this blog. (So, even though I feel that I've been reading less and less -- particularly as my current job has slowly drifted me away first from the SF world and then from book publishing entirely, over the past few years -- I want to keep doing this, even as I suspect it means less when I'm choosing from fewer books.)

If anyone wants to compare to prior years, here they are: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

My list of books is deeply idiosyncratic, possibly to guard against anyone being able to argue with me.

Idiosyncrasy the First: I do this list at the very end of the year, and sometimes insult people and publications that do their lists earlier. Admittedly, I don't read much over Christmas vacation any more -- which used to be my catch-up time, and one of my big arguments in this area -- but if we're going to judge the best stuff seen in a given year, we should have the simple decency to use the whole year.

Idiosyncrasy the Second: I use the word "favorite" rather than best, deliberately. I'm not claiming that it's impossible to judge the "best" work of art here, but that's not what I'm aiming to do.

Idiosyncrasy the Third: I generally avoid mentioning really old books -- if I ever restart my long-stalled Trollope reading project, He Knew He Was Right would be generally ineligible for this list -- but it's based on what I read this year, not what was published this year. I didn't read most of what was published, and I read some things that are from before 2013, and both of those things will affect the list.

Idiosyncrasy the Fourth: I read various genres -- mysteries, SF and fantasy, comics, manga, even some of that literary stuff -- and do not make distinctions among them. Yes, comics and prose books are not the same thing -- but neither are fiction and non-fiction (and poetry, which I've mentioned now and then, is different in an orthogonal direction). A book is an experience, and I include them all here.

Idiosyncrasy the Fifth: I include runners-up, in a little paragraph about what I read each month. (This is actually moderately standard for a list like this, but I'll mention it as if it were an idiosyncrasy anyway.)

Idiosyncrasy the Last: Since I do this by month, I pick a best book from each month. This has two effects on the final list. First, I end up with twelve books instead of ten, which lets me cram more good stuff in. Second, it's theoretically possible that all dozen of my overall favorite books were read in one month, but that I'd only list one of them. In practice, I don't think my (or anyone else's) sensibilities are as finely tuned as that.

In 2013, I read 156 books -- roughly the same as 2012's 158 and 2011's 146, though well below the 343 average from my previous adult life (1991 through 2010). So my reading quantity did dip severely a few years back -- right after the end of my last Book-A-Day run, or just before the flood, or right around when I got an iPad, or when my sons became teenagers, or whatever other possible reasons I could think up.

But, if I'm making excuses, I can also say that I used to "read" a lot of mediocre manga, SF art books, and other disposable quick-read books with lots of art on the pages -- both during my SFBC service and afterward, as I worked through the backlog (and reviewed manga for ComicMix). So not having those in the total is not so much of a loss.

Anyway, here's what I did read this year that's worth remembering and celebrating:

I read several good mystery novels this month: Walter Mosley's series-beginning The Long Fall -- and two middle books from Lisa Lutz, Curse of the Spellmans and Revenge of the Spellmans. But all of those were pre-2013 books, so I'll leave them as also-rans. Also good was Nigel Auchterlounie's first graphic novel Spleenal (hard to find on my side of the Atlantic, though possibly easier for Brits), which manages to couple a raging id with unexpected depths of characterization and thought. And Nate Silver's much-lauded The Signal and the Noise had some interesting ways to analyze the world -- repeated over and over in different contexts, as required for a Big Important Bestselling non-fiction book. But the best book of the month was Catherynne M. Valente's second novel for younger readers, the quietly subversive and feminist The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

I read a lot of graphic novels this month -- worth mentioning ten months later: George O'Connor's latest retelling of Greek myth, Poseidon: Earth Shaker; Lucy Knisley's memoir-with-recipes Relish; Humayoun Ibrahim's unexpected and nuanced adaptation of Jack Vance's The Moon Moth; and Faith Erin Hicks's lovely grounded stories in The Adventures of Superhero Girl. I read two more Lisa Lutz books -- The Spellmans Strike Again and Trail of the Spellmans -- as that series continued strong, deep, and funny in unexpected ways. Paul Collins's The Murder of the Century was a solid, smart nonfiction book about a century-old murder case, showcasing lots of research and Collins's dependably engaging thinking and writing. And the best thing I read this month was a novella published as a book, Lucius Shepard's new tale of the dragon Griaule, The Taborin Scale.

I re-read Stella Gibbon's sublime Cold Comfort Farm this month, and I highly recommend doing that: if you haven't even read it for the first time yet, you should move it up the pile. I also re-read Flex Mentallo, a semi-lost oddball comic from the mid-90s brains for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, which is not as necessary but very interesting for the right audience. Lawrence Block's Hit Me collected several mostly novella-length stories of his philatelist/hit-man hero, and Block's publisher Morrow pretended they were a novel. The title battling for best of the month are two graphic novels: Ellen Forney's memoir Marbles and Mark Siegel's 19th century river epic Sailor Twain. Marbles was more personal and immediate; Twain was wider and more expansive. Marbles wins on points, mostly because Forney didn't make a single wrong step, and Siegel had some artistic choices that didn't quite work for me.

I read very little this month, but Noah Van Sciver's graphic novel The Hypo was an impressive look at the young, depressive Abraham Lincoln and Joe Mano's Office Girl was a sweet indy-movie-style romance in novel form. The best book of the month, though, could stack up against any other month: Paul Theroux's dark journey through West Africa, The Last Train to Zona Verde, which threatens to be his last travel book.

This month I read even less than in April, but it was nearly all worth mentioning -- and isn't it better to read five good books than two dozen mediocre ones? I finally caught up with Paul Collins's Banvard's Folly, his first book, in which he told the story of a bakers' dozen of dreamers, all of whom had huge ideas to change the world and none of whom succeeded in the slightest. Alan Averill's The Beautiful Land was an excellent first SF novel that hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves. I'm catching up on Kate Atkinson, so I got to her second novel including Jackson Brodie -- he's not the hero, and they're not detective novels in any conventional way -- One Good Turn this month. The best book of the month, though, is the magnificent Necessary Evil, which ends a fabulous, mesmerizing trilogy by Ian Tregillis that tells the story of a very different WWII in a world that was, or might, or could yet be our own. 

I caught up on two books worth mentioning this month. First was Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition, collecting Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's savage takedown of superhero tropes from the late '80s -- much of it reads less as parody than as prescience today, since the very same ideas have been used straight by a sequence of vastly lesser creators since. I also finally read John Le Carre's The Spy That Came in From the Cold -- my excuse for not reading it at publication is that I wouldn't be born for another six years, but I have fewer excuses to cover the last twenty-five years. The best thing I read in June is slightly cheating, since it came out in 2011, but it's had spotty distribution in the US, and, anyway, I make no excuses for greatness. Nelson is a great book -- not just a great graphic novel, not just a great work of commissioning and editing from creators Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, not just a great life story in modern Britain -- a great book, full stop, created by a cast of dozens and telling one ordinary life in all of its multifarious details and sides, brilliantly and wonderfully.

This is the month I dread every year: the one where there's no obvious best book, just a bunch of pleasant things I liked at the time. So do I pick Tim Keider's collection of essays and political cartoons We Learn Nothing? Or Charles Burns's middle-of-a-trilogy graphic novel The Hive? Or the entertaining but personally/theologically thorny young-adult graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, by Barry Deutsch? Or Paul Cornell's gritty mashup of urban fantasy and the tough-copper story, London Falling? I think, in the end, I'll go with Austin Grossman's second novel, You, the story of one game company and one group of friends that tries to be a history of the games we played and the stories we told each other in the '80s and '90s -- even if it doesn't quite reach what it aims for, it accomplishes a hell of a lot, and it lives on in the memory for a long time afterward.

This month, I re-read Daniel Pinkwater's only novel officially for adults, The Afterlife Diet, which is as smart as it ever was. And I went back to Tim Kreider with his book of cartoons, Twilight of the Assholes. But the best of the month has to be Joe Sacco's collection of short comics non-fiction, Journalism, showing the range of the only full-time investigative reporter/cartoonist in the world.

I finally read American Elf, the first collection of James Kochalka's great diary strip of the same name, which included all of his strips from the beginning in 1998 through late November of 2003. I also started into the reading for "Starktober," my reading project that took over October. Pretty much the only other thing -- and, luckily, good enough to mention here -- is the long, detailed comics memoir Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust, the story of one trip to Italy by a young Austrian punk girl almost thirty years ago. Lust is around my age, which didn't hurt, but her unsparing look at herself and her world were what made the book so engaging and true.

I spent most of October as "Starktober" this year, reading and re-reading the novels of Richard Stark (the hard-boiled pseudonym for the late mystery grandmaster Donald E. Westlake). And so I could skim through the few other things I read that month and pull out Roger Ebert's A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length -- a great collection of his negative reviews from the last years of his life -- but that wouldn't be true. The best thing I read in October was, and must be, the 1974 Richard Stark novel Butcher's Moon, the culmination of the first series of Parker novels and one of the greatest noir novels of all time.  

I came back to Lisa Lutz for a fifth book this year with the possibly-series-ending The Last Word, which was just as true and smart and funny as the previous books, and also -- very surprisingly for a mystery series -- continued to change and grow and alter its characters and their relationships in interesting and real ways. Alina Simone had an interesting first novel in Note to Self. And Lemony Snicket's second book in his current series, "When Did You See Her Last?", continued his unlikely but completely smooth merger of the classic Chandleresque hardboiled tale and the classic Bellairsian young-adult creepy thriller.

I spent most of this month on a mini-reading project, re-reading the classic graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and then diving into the various Before Watchmen projects, which mostly don't deserve to be mentioned here. (Maybe the ones Darwyn Cooke worked on. Maybe.) Other than that, I read A Daniel Pinkwater book new to me -- the dog-focused 2001 memoir Uncle Boris in the Yukon -- the quirky and amusing collection of Tom Gauld drawings, You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, and a couple of minor things not worth mentioning. In fact, this month was looking so dismal that I blogged about it a few days ago. But, luckily, I read one last book this month, and Gilbert Hernandez's semi-autobiographical graphic novel Marble Season is not just good enough for this month, but as good as anything I read this year.

And so here are the full Top Twelve, re-arranged into alphabetical order:

  • Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, editors, Nelson
  • Ellen Forney, Marbles
  • Austin Grossman, You
  • Gilbert Hernandez, Marble Season
  • Ulli Lust, Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
  • Joe Sacco, Journalism
  • Lucius Shepard, The Taborin Scale
  • Lemony Snicket, "When Did You See Her Last?" 
  • Richard Stark, Butcher's Moon
  • Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde 
  • Ian Tregillis, Necessary Evil
  • Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
As usual, it's a mix of comics and prose -- five of the former, seven of the latter -- with the prose dominated by genre fiction (fantasy, crime, young adult, and permutations of them). I have the sense, as I do every year, that I could have read better books somehow, or at least more books as good as these, but it's a solid list, I think, with variety and depth and surprises to it. A decent monument to a year of reading, I guess. Next up will be 2014, when I expect to read more books than this -- but that will be for another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment