I write nonfiction books, so I spend most of my time reading fiction. Don’t know why this is, but most books of the type I write I just can’t seem to enjoy reading; they seem so repetitive, so dull once they get their basic argument across in their first few pages.
In fiction I find more philosophy, more of that deep sense of “Aha, that was a view of the world”—a sense of completeness and specificity that one can get only by reading a whole book from beginning to end, putting it down, stopping for a moment, and smiling as you take its essence in. If it’s going to be nonfiction, it has to read a bit like fiction, with a story and an essence more than any clear argument. A few of those made the cut this year, too.
So, with that said, here’s my “best of” list for 2013:
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis. It’s been twenty years since Shacochis wrote his last novel, and his fans have been waiting for this one ever since. It’s about love, Haiti, the Balkans, the CIA, America in the world from war to secrecy to obsession and back. For the first third of the book you think the main character is one person and then, all of a sudden, the focus switches to someone else, and we’re surprised. I need to be surprised in my reading, because I spend too much time trying to second-guess the text. I need to be fooled, astonished, and moved, and this book does all three. Too bad it will be passed over in the rush for attention that the handful of overhyped novels of the year will get, but to me this is the best novel of the year.
Greg Baxter’s The Apartment is a completely different kind of book, quite brief and concise, more poetic than epic as it describes a young American’s search for an apartment in a nameless European city, some kind of amalgamation of Berlin, Prague, and Vienna perhaps, with a woman he has just met. What begins as a simple situation, and takes place only over a couple of days, emerges as a poignant critique of America in the world as his history comes out, as a man just returned from two tours in Iraq, who now must get away and find himself anew in a world as anonymous as it can be.
Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger. This is an unusual book, a memoir by the editor of The Guardian, which describes his struggle to learn to play on piano one of the hardest of Chopin’s ballades, Opus 23, in G minor. But this guy is the editor-in-chief of one of the best newspapers in the world, and the book takes place during one of the biggest scoops in The Guardian’s history—the WikiLeaks cables and phone-hacking scandal. The first threatened to bring down the whole idea of secrecy in global diplomacy, while the second was set to be the final knell bringing Rupert Murdoch and his empire to its knees. So what does Rusbridger do to get through all this tension? Play the piano. And it’s amazing how many other world movers and shakers also turn out to play, several of whom the author visits and discusses. Interesting encounters abound, with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Alfred Brendel, Alex Ross. This is one of the most interesting books ever written that connects music to the wider world, trading on the fact that the more information we are saturated with, the more we need pure sonic beauty to keep us going.
Wild Ones, by Jon Mooallem. What more can be said about nature writing, that genre that seems to includes everything? Many say nature writing has long passed its prime, and the only way to continue is to break down the barriers between wilderness and culture, following a healthy course of irony instead. Mooallem, who has covered odd animal and other stories for the New York Times Magazine for more than a decade, certainly does a bit of that, but his book on the role of the wild animals in American life contains something deeper and more perplexing—it can’t quite be summarized. You just have to read it. It will make you think.
The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison. Harrison is never boring, and he sure knows how to laugh at himself and spin yarns out of stories that you could just imagine happening to someone a bit like him. Food, fishing, swimming, whining about what’s wrong with the art market, general cantankerousness—you can’t go wrong.
Happy New Year, everyone.
David Rothenberg’s “Serenading Belugas in the White Sea” appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion. He’s happy to report that his latest book and CD—Bug Music, reviewed in the September/October 2013 issue—appeared on some “best of’ lists by people who aren’t even his friends! He’s spending the year on sabbatical in Berlin.